By Nick Cammuso
Times West Virginian
In a year filled with sky-high expectations, the 2012-13 campaign has been at times a bumpy flight for Fairmont State’s men’s basketball team.
The Falcons began their first season under head coach Jerrod Calhoun in expected fashion, rolling past Ohio-Eastern before a big Joe Retton Arena crowd in the opener and following that up with a huge road win at Virginia State.
But instead of keeping the train moving, FSU slid off the rails in back-to-back home losses against WVU Tech and Shepherd late last month. In both instances, the Falcons let close (and winnable) games slip away from them late in the second half.
But after that shaky stretch, FSU has rebounded and won two straight and now is 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the WVIAC.
Since Calhoun’s hiring from West Virginia University in the spring, the Falcons have brought in loads of new talent and a buzz to the men’s hoops program, but it has led to some learning moments on the court.
“The good thing is it’s not football where you only have 10 games, but the reality is we're putting ourselves in a bigger hole every time we lose,” Calhoun said after the Shepherd loss. “I think four teams from our conference went to the NCAA Tournament last year and all four of those teams had 20-plus wins. Each game you lose it’s a step away from you.
“I told the guys afterwards when I was at Walsh and we won the (2005 NAIA) national championship, we were 7-5 at one point in the season believe it or not and we ended up winning 20 some games in a row to win the championship, so we're certainly not giving up, but we’re certainly disappointed that we continue to give up 80 or 90 points at home. It seems like the whole conference everybody lets everybody score, and I thought we would be different, but evidently we're not. We’ve got to get back to the drawing board and hopefully we can get better defensively.”
The Falcons have made some strides in that department, especially facing a Bluefield team that’s lost 30 games in a row. They forced 17 turnovers and held the Blues to a 33.9 percent shooting night, including a 29.4 percent mark from the field after the break.
In the previous three games, FSU had given up 87, 93 and 81 points, respectively.
“We’ve got a group of guys this year who are all basically new and learning to play with one another,” FSU senior Isaiah Hill, one of the Falcons’ many new additions, said after Saturday’s win over Bluefield State. “We’re coming along and we’re starting to get this defense thing down, which is what the coaches are really stressing to us.”
Scoring, though, hasn’t been a problem for the Falcons.
They’re putting up nearly 90 points per contest, have five players in double figures and are shooting well as a team (47.9 percent on field goals, 71.7 percent on free throws).
Despite missing two games, junior college transfer Brendan Cooper leads the way with 21.3 points. The junior forward has added 9.0 rebounds per game and ranks third on FSU in assists.
Hill, a 6-9 senior center and another newcomer, is second on the squad in both scoring (14.5) and rebounding (8.3). Of his team-leading 50 boards, 21 have come on the offensive end. He’s also picked up his scoring of late, with 44 points over the past two games.
Stith, a transfer from Division I St. John’s, averages 14.3 points and leads FSU in assists (22) and steals (10). He’s also shooting 56.6 percent from the field, just percentage points from Cooper for the team lead.
Another senior, all-conference selection Isaac Thornton, is averaging 13.6 points per game, 4.2 rebounds and has added 18 assists. True freshman Stevie Browning had a hot start to his Falcon career and now sits at 10.7 points per game, while Bluefield State transfer Chase Morgan has provided an offensive spark whether in the starting lineup or on the bench and averages 9.5 points.
Three others — Tommy Scales, Andrew Gunnoe and former Fairmont Senior star Ty Garrison — have seen action in every game this season.
The Falcons don't return to action until next Saturday when they visit Charleston. UC (3-1, 0-1 in league) was picked to finish second in the league’s preseason men’s poll, just ahead of FSU.
Email Nick Cammuso at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@NickCammusoTWV.