1-24, 7-18, 2-21, 2-21 and 6-17. Over the last five seasons those were the records for the Knox College Men’s Basketball Team. The team last year featured 14 first-year players and three transfers. This year, however, the Prairie Fire are trying to right the course and change the culture of men’s basketball.
Even with the number of young, talented players last year, there wasn’t much experience. This showed during the games, especially between the first and second half. There were eight games last year in which Knox was down by 10 points at halftime. Each game, they ended up losing by double digits.
The team showed the talent to compete in the Midwest Conference. Bruce Gaitor Jr., senior, felt that the lack of experience played a role in the second-half failures.
“Our youth played a big part in a lot of things. Not knowing how to handle adversity when it struck. Maybe we’d miss a couple of shots in a row, and they’d make a couple of shots. We’d get down on ourselves, and we’d try to play hero ball, and that played into the spiral, and we’d lose control of the game,” Gaitor said.
Malcolm Bray, sophomore, shared the same sentiments. “The motif in our season really was we’d get blasted in the second-half in the first five minutes,” Bray said.
With the lack of size on the roster compared to other teams, the offense struggled as a result of the lack of size and the system not fitting the roster.
Knox averaged 62.4 points per game, which ranked last in the Midwest Conference, 7.2 points behind Beloit College. Knox College ran a lot of motion offense. The guards ran off of screens while the big men set screens and set up shop in the post. That type of offense is slow placed and didn’t play to the strengths of this roster.
“The lack of spacing messed us up in the long run. We played a kind of two out three in type of offense, and I don’t think we had the post players to do that. It slowed everything down, and guys didn’t have the spacing they needed to create,” Gaitor said.
Bray agreed that the system didn’t help the team’s offense. “He wanted us to put the ball in the post every play, work out of the post because that’s how he played here at Knox, and that’s how he found success even though we were a guard-oriented team we played like a big team,” Bray said.
The tallest rotation player on the team last year was 6’5 graduated senior Justin Windt. Windt, who is more of a forward, was often asked to play center because of the lack of size on the team. Blake Godbold — who recently transferred also played out of position. More of a three, Godbold was often asked to slide up to the four and play minutes guarding opposing big men.
“A lot of guys had to play out of position last year due to our height disadvantage,” Gaitor said.
While nothing is set in stone, the offense is most likely going to change to tailor to the guard-heavy roster that Coach Davis now has at his disposal.
Assistant Coach Garret Williams talked about the revamped offense and the changes to the scheme from last year.
“Dribble-drive is the term, the new style we’re going to start with. It’s a pretty simple four out one in. I think we can use our athleticism better than we maybe did previously. I think we have a pretty strong, guard-oriented team. Unfortunately, we’re not as big as other teams, so we can’t play the same way,” Williams said.
Dribble-drive helps with spacing, which is necessary for the offense to work correctly. By having one traditional big on the court, it gives the guards room to attack the paint.
“We have a lot of 4 men that can stretch the floor out. We got a lot of guys that can create, and we have those couple of back to the basket guys that can get the ball in the post and go to work so that’ll be better for us spacing wise,” Gaitor said.
Knox has one of the most athletic teams in the conference. Runnin’ and gunnin’ like the “:07 Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns could help turn around an offense that played stagnant at times. The offense wasn’t the only way the size disadvantage hindered the Prairie Fire; rebounding was often a problem for Knox.
Knox was often outrebounded, and badly. The men’s basketball team had a rebounding margin of -8.4, which was the worst in the conference, according to the Midwest Conference website.
In most rebounding categories, Knox was either last or close to last. Most great defensive possessions get ended with a rebound. It’s the punctuation of the effort you put into stopping the other team. When you allow offensive rebounds it’s like a gut punch.
“The main thing we gave up on defense were offensive rebounds, and that’s what killed us after playing a great defensive possession. We played defense for 30 seconds, and then they get an offensive rebound, or they get a putback or they bring it back out, so that’s another minute of playing defense,” Bray said.
“For an undersized team, It’s important that everyone is boxing out and putting a body on somebody. Having the size disadvantage means we have to rebound by committee. That means everyone from one to five has to step up, put a body on a man, and crash the boards. We have to do it together if we don’t have the tallest guys, but we have to be the most physical, and we got to win the 50/50 balls, rebound together and do it as a team,” said Gaitor.
The hiring of Davis is one of the many steps into changing the culture of basketball at Knox. What stood out about Davis compared to the other candidates was his emphasis on defense.
At Green Mountain, Davis’ teams led the North Athletic Conference in points allowed per game (62.0) defensive field goal percentage (37.8%).
With the new pack-line defense that Davis is bringing with him from Green Mountain, the Prairie Fire may find their identity. Last year they didn’t have an identity besides their youth. The pack-line defense — ran famously by the 2019 National Champion Virginia Cavaliers — is a gap defense.
Knox had good on-ball defenders with quick hands — they were fifth in the conference in steals per game — but as far as help defense and off-ball defense were concerned, they struggled. The pack-line system is intended to help mask the off-ball deficiencies.
The pack-line defense emphasizes rim protection and pressure. There’s always pressuring the ball while the other four defenders are in help defense. It helps to contain dribble penetration as well as prevent a lot of cuts to the basket.
Communication is something that will need to happen often because the defense only works if all five on the court are working in unison.
Knox has a new player with significant ties to Coach Davis. Transfer Zach Lowe, senior, played for Green Mountain. He’s familiar with the scheme better than anyone on the team.
“I was skeptical at first when I first learned the system, but it does work. It looks kind of funky, but it works,” Lowe said.
Green Mountain closed down last year due to a lack of students. The closing of the school meant that Lowe would have to find another school as well. “Not a lot of teams were looking for a senior-year transfer, so Ben gave me the opportunity to come with him,” Lowe said.
The team is young and learning each other and trying to improve. Bray tries to look at the experience that he and other sophomores got last year as a big reason why they can improve this year.
Last year was Bray’s second-year playing point guard after primarily playing the four throughout high school. Manning the point is the equivalent to being the Quarterback. They’re supposed to be extensions of the coach and be the leaders on the court. That’s a lot of responsibility for a freshman. Bray credits former PG, Alik Airapetyan, for helping him with the transition to guard.
“Coming into college, I didn’t know a lot, and I give thanks to [Airapetyan], who graduated last year. He helped me out, and I learned a lot under [him] about being a PG and making good decisions,” Bray said.
Bray also spoke praise about his new teammate, Lowe.
“Zach is really, really vocal, and he’s a good addition to our team because, along with being vocal, he knows the right spots to be in. He knows how to move out of the pack line,” Bray said.
The two know how to play off of each other, which is vital with the start of practice (Oct. 15) right around the corner. With the beginning of the season, comes expectations. For many, they want this to be the start of the turnaround of basketball for the men’s program.
“It all started since conditioning,” said Bray.
“We didn’t even condition last year like that, and now we’re conditioning and working out. People are all-in on the idea of us being better than what we were last year. It’s a change of culture; we’re trying to create a winning culture here. I think we have some comradery, we were brothers last [year], but we’re closer this year. We’re gonna have experience under our belts, and we know how to make better decisions when It’s crunch time.”
Hopefully, this is the beginning of a new era of Knox basketball: one of competitiveness and winning.