You’d never know by the University of North Florida basketball team’s lively Monday practice that it was occupying the basement of the ASUN Conference East division. Or that the players had a scheduled session the next day with a school psychologist, talking to them about overcoming mental hurdles potentially weighing them down.
It’s not like the Ospreys are in some kind of dark, unbearable place. The problem is they just can’t seem to knock down shots when games hang in the balance.
The team with the long-time moniker “Birds of Trey” have become “Birds of Stray.” The three-point shooting touch that has defined the Ospreys’ program for almost a decade is now abandoning them at crucial times.
Going into Thursday night's home matchup with Central Arkansas, the Ospreys lost 16 of their first 20 games and were 0-6 in ASUN play, by far the worst start in the program’s 13 seasons under head coach Matthew Driscoll. UNF played its customary brutal non-conference schedule – losses to Power 5 opponents Kentucky, Texas Tech, UCLA, Texas A&M, Florida, Arizona State and Florida State – but going through that difficult grind hasn’t produced the usual benefits of winning against league opposition.
Due to COVID-19 and concussion protocol issues, the Ospreys have used four different starting lineups in ASUN games and only had their full roster available against Jacksonville University, resulting in a 54-51 loss that has become a microcosm of a frustrating season.
A Carter Hendricksen three-pointer rims out with 40 seconds left against Florida Gulf Coast, preventing UNF from tying the game. Trailing JU by one point, a turnover in the final 10 seconds keeps the Ospreys from having a shot at taking the lead. Stetson’s Chase Johnston knocks down a buzzer-beating, 3-pointer in overtime for a 68-66 Hatters’ win.
The culprit in a 62-60 loss to Kennesaw State was three missed free throws in the final minute by Jonathan Aybar. A little bit of everything going wrong for UNF in tight games, especially on the offensive end, has proved costly.
While the Ospreys continue to play credible defense inside the arc, UNF is also dead last in conference play in three-point defense (39.3 percent). But of much greater concern is their offensive liabilities, traditionally a program strength.
Driscoll and his players remain confounded over their resume in conference games. UNF is at the bottom among 12 ASUN teams in field goal percentage (36.0 percent), points per game (59.7) and three-point shooting (22.9 percent). It’s only a six-game sample size, but the distressing part is the Ospreys are last by significant margins.
“We’re disappointed that what we had done in the non-conference hasn’t translated over,” Driscoll said. “We’ve had four different lineups, lost three one-possession games and one two-possession game [in the ASUN].
“And the thing that you’ve always been really been good at [scoring, three-point shooting]. . . . that’s the [frustrating] part. You look at spacing, shot selection. You either got bad shooters or you’re taking bad shots. Then it becomes a mental thing.’’
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UNF takes a shot at solutions
For a program that won three ASUN regular-season championships (2014-15, ‘15-16 and ‘19-20) riding its ability to make three-point attempts, and have never finished worse than fourth overall the past eight years, this season is a nightmare anomaly.
Here are UNF’s paltry long-distance numbers against its first six league opponents: 9 of 36 (.250) vs. Florida Gulf Coast; 5 of 28 (.179) vs. Stetson; 5 of 25 (.200) vs. Liberty; 10 of 37 (.270) vs. Kennesaw State; 9 of 28 (.321) vs. Eastern Kentucky; and a season-worst 3 of 25 (.120) against JU.
“It’s odd, it’s awkward,” Driscoll said. “Analytically, it doesn’t make sense.”
No wonder Driscoll summoned school psychologist and former Southern Illinois basketball player, Dr. Jessica Stapleton, to talk to his players Tuesday in two separate groups of 40-minute sessions. She routinely talks to several Ospreys’ teams upon request, and Driscoll felt the timing was right for his players to hear a different voice to help awaken them from a rare offensive hibernation.
“We’re playing better defense than in the past, that’s a positive,” said Dorian James, a 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore. “The negative is we’re not making shots in conference play. We’re in these games and not finishing it off. We may not be having the results we want, but we’re not losing and getting down on ourselves.
“We believe open shots are going to go in. Like coach says, ‘Water always finds its level.’ Sooner or later, we’re going to start making those shots.”
"There's no excuse"
A good place to start for UNF would be home games against Central Arkansas and Saturday against Lipscomb, the two highest-scoring teams in conference play at 81.0 points per game and 79.2 points, respectively. The Ospreys can’t keep coming up empty on big possessions and expect their defense to bail them out.
UNF’s two most prolific shooters, junior forward Carter Hendricksen and guard Jose Placer, have especially struggled with their shooting. Hendricksen is averaging only 11.0 points on .333 shooting overall and .313 from three-point range over the entire season. Placer leads the Ospreys with 13.2 points per game, but missed two league games with COVID and went 0-for-19 from three-point land in his first three ASUN contests, which UNF lost by a combined 12 points.
“We’ve got to step up with more confidence and knock them down,” Hendricksen said. “If we can keep playing defense the way we’ve been, we will flip the script.
“There’s no excuse for being where we are right now. We understand what it takes to win.”
As for the Ospreys’ shot selection and mindset for improving, he added: “Good, better and best, never let it rest. Maybe one more pass, or maybe we’re passing up the better and best shots. I know what we do around here works. That’s why we won three [ASUN regular-season] championships.”
Driscoll knows from experience the Ospreys, who have no seniors and could return their entire team next season (barring transfer portal defections), are capable of excavating themselves from this massive hole. During the 2018-19 season, UNF lost six consecutive league games, then bounced back to win its next seven. The following year, the Ospreys won a championship.
At this point, UNF’s best-case, long-range scenario is trying to move up to at least fourth-place in the East division to guarantee at least one home game for the ASUN tournament (third and fourth-place teams host in the first round, while top two teams in each division get byes).
But the first objective for Driscoll has to be finding a way to recreate the winning formula that made UNF one of the league’s most consistent programs.
“It ain’t like we’re getting whupped or demolished,” said Driscoll. “Our defense is getting better as the season has gone along, but our offense, it’s gone the opposite way, a different place than you’ve ever been before.”
Except for a recent 86-73 loss to FSU, where they hit 14 of 24 three-pointers without Hendricksen or Placer available, the Ospreys are baffled over what’s happened to their shooting touch.
Until that gets corrected, the Birds of Trey won’t be soaring over anybody.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Gene Frenette: UNF's "Birds of Trey" not flying high this hoops season