McNeese State's Dru Kuxhausen drives to the lane while guarded by Central Arkansas' Rylan Bergersen at McNeese H&HP Complex in Lake Charles, Louisiana on Saturday, February 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Lake Charles American Press, Kirk Meche)

My oh my how things can change in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Two weeks ago the McNeese State men's basketball team came off what was arguably its biggest win of the season, beating a tough Nicholls State team in front of a raucous Health and Human Performance Complex crowd, 80-74 in overtime.

At that point, the Cowboys had an outside shot at competing for the Southland Conference regular-season title, and a good shot at one of the top four spots in the SLC Tournament, which would mean a first-round bye.

Two weeks and three frustrating losses later, the Cowboys are still in a good position to make the conference tournament. They're in a three-way tie for fifth-place, two games behind second-place Nicholls.

Conversely, McNeese is a game ahead of Lamar and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, two teams that have beaten the Cowboys, and who occupy the eighth and ninth spots, respectively, in the conference standings.

These numbers were all before Wednesday night's SLC slate, so things can and will change. The point is, just like a winning streak could propel McNeese into the upper half of the SLC Tournament, a continuation of the losing streak could see the Cowboys fighting just to get to Katy, Texas.

So what has gone wrong with the Cowboys lately? They look like a totally different team than the one that won seven consecutive games. The most striking difference has been on the defensive end of the court. Oddly enough, it was a team the Cowboys beat that may have given other teams the blueprint about how to score against them.

On Jan. 25, McNeese beat Houston Baptist 102-89. That score was little surprise to anyone because that's normally the style in which HBU loses games — score a lot, but give up even more.

But the Huskies' offensive style, which is to get the ball out of the basket after an opponent basket and get it up court as quickly as possible, gave the Cowboys defense fits. McNeese would hit a 3-pointer, then HBU would almost immediately get the ball up the court and find an open teammate for a 3 or uncontested layup. HBU's problem is it can't play defense, or else it would have been an even closer game.

But other teams noticed this on film and have emulated HBU's style. The problem for McNeese is those other teams have better defenses. In the Cowboys' losses to Lamar and Central Arkansas, they had a hard time getting stops, particularly after they made baskets. Multiple times, McNeese made a basket to cut an opponent's lead to five or six, only for the other team to quickly get the ball up court for an open 3 — then swish, the Cowboys trail by eight or nine again.

There have also been a crazy number of times that the Cowboys have left an open shooter on the perimeter. McNeese's defense can be risky as it will sometimes double the guard at the top of the key with the center. If that center doesn't recover in time, his original man will either get an easy basket at the rim or the defensive rotations wind up with another player getting an open look from 3.

Teams are face guarding 3-point marksman Dru Kuxhausen, essentially taking the chance of playing 4-on-4 basketball. Some teams, like UCA, will take the chance of doubling senior forward Sha'markus Kennedy to get the ball out of his hands. That normally leaves the ball in the hands of guard A.J. Lawson, wing Roydell Brown, or one of the point guards, usually Myles Hutchinson or Trey Johnson.

The point guard duo has been reliable, shooting 38.5 percent from 3-point range, but that may not happen every game. Brown is not a pure shooter, usually relying on his athleticism to get to the rim for buckets. Lawson is about the same, but he can shoot and make 3s if left too open.

The problem is too many players aren't producing at the same time. Kuxhausen had good looks against UCA and multiple shots looked like they were in only to rattle out. Brown went scoreless and fouled out against the Bears, and while he may not be counted on to put up 20-25 points per game, he does need to get to his 9.2 points per game average to help the offense.

I think the Cowboys would have beaten UCA — in regulation or overtime — if Lawson doesn't hurt his ankle. But that's sports, injuries are a part of the game. And some of the same issues would still plague them.

None of these issues can't be fixed, but effort and execution will have to take a bit of a step up if it is to happen.

Probably the best thing to happen to McNeese was having Wednesday night off. Rest up, watch the film, recharge and get ready for the seven game stretch run. The Cowboys have everything they want to accomplish in front of them, but it starts with a win Saturday against Northwestern State.

David Berry covers McNeese State athletics. Email him at dberry@americanpress.com

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