In early December, SVSU’s men’s basketball team was on top of Division II as the nation’s top-ranked team.
But less than two months later and following a six-game losing streak, the Cardinals must rally to make the postseason.
SVSU began the season on a program-best nine-game winning streak, but conference play has proven tougher than expected. After splitting a set of weekend games following the losing streak, the Cardinals find themselves at 11th place in the GLIAC with a 5-8 record.
“We have to learn how to finish games,” head coach Randy Baruth said. “[In] most, if not all, of those six games, we had the lead or a good shot to take it within the last few minutes. But also, we are playing some tough competition. [The GLIAC] is stacked, top to bottom, with teams that can make a serious run nationally.”
SVSU made a surprising run to Elite 8 last season and had high expectations entering this season. Now, at 12-8 overall, the Cardinals are outside of the top 25.
“The outside expectations really didn’t change our mindset before the season started,” Baruth said. “Last year, we were picked to win the league, and this year was the same. Our standards and our own expectations have always been the same. Whether we win zero games or bring home a championship, we always have a team expectation to work hard and be successful.”
The Cardinals started the season on a very high note, winning against then-No. 3 Bellarmine and St. Joseph’s in the final minutes.
Baruth noted that a positive aspect to the year so far has been the senior leadership the team has seen from players like Caleb Davis, Garrett Hall, and CJ Turnage.
After being ranked No. 1 in Division II basketball in the first full week of December, the Cardinals had a massive target on their back. Soon after being given the number one spot, SVSU won against Ashland at a safe 75-68 margin and having controlled most of the game. In their next game at Tiffin, however, the Cards showed their first sign of weakness in their potential historic season, taking their first loss 82-76.
SVSU proceeded to win their next two games, moving to 11-1 on the season, but found themselves in a stretch of high quality GLIAC opponents that led to a shocking six straight losses.
The ability to finish games requires defensive stops. In GLIAC play, the Cardinals are averaging 77.9 points per game but are giving up 78 on the defensive side – a stat that doesn’t sit well with Baruth.
“Even with the adversity that we have had the past month, I believe that we can be a great team,” Baruth said. “At least regionally, we can be the very best. I have no doubt they we will get back into playoff contention this season – and I’m not alone in thinking that. Every person on this team thinks that we can be successful, but it’s going to come one game at a time.”
The Cardinals continued to struggle late in games Saturday night at 5-17 Northwood. SVSU lost 64-63 after having the lead for much of the second half.
“We are soft,” Baruth said following Saturday’s game. “We can’t replace softness – you either have it or you don’t. Right now, we don’t.”
SVSU went the first five minutes of the game without having a shot fall. That opened up an 8-2 Timberwolves lead.
Three minutes later, Northwood extended its lead to 10 after a Brad Schaub three-point shot.
The Cards wouldn’t back down, however, taking a 27-26 lead with just under four minutes to play in the first half. They would extend their lead to five before the break.
SVSU and Northwood fought for the lead during the second half, but the Cardinals continued their momentum from the first half to take a 40-34 lead.
They held that lead steadily until eight minutes remained on the clock and the Timberwolves cut the lead down to just one.
The game was tightly contested the rest of the way, and the Cardinals looked to seal it after a Garrett Hall jump shot gave them a 63-60 lead with just 42 seconds left on the clock.
But two SVSU fouls sent Matt Crowl to the line for Northwood, where he would sink all four shots. The last opportunity came with four seconds left in the game: enough for one last Cardinal opportunity.
Malik Garner took the shot at the buzzer, but it rimmed out and gave the Timberwolves the win.
“We need to get stops late in the game,” Baruth said. “We are soft. We can’t replace softness – you either have it or you don’t. Right now, we don’t.”
Thursday night, Saginaw Valley topped the Lakers of Lake Superior State 69-65.
Both teams battled back and forth the whole game, with the Lakers earning the slight 36-35 advantage at the break.
SVSU went on a 7-3 run to begin the second half, but the success was short lived when the Lakers responded with seven straight points.
After securing the lead again with just over three minutes remaining, the Cardinals controlled the game defensively to bring home the win.
Senior guard Garrett Hall led all scores with 26 points. No other starter for Saginaw Valley scored more than six.
“We came out with a lot of grit (Thursday) and found a way to get a win,” Hall said. “It’s always a fun time to give our fans at win a home and compete against a strong [LSSU] team. We played a great defensive game in the last few minutes, and that was a huge key for us late.”
The Cardinal return to action next week against Wayne State (tonight at 8 p.m.), Ferris State, and Grand Valley.