Five games into the basketball season, Washburn was beginning to grow comfortable within a new system.
The Ichabods took reigning Division II champion Northwest Missouri to the wire before falling 86-78 in a nonconference game at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium.
WU’s preseason All-American, 6-foot-7 senior forward Brady Skeens, contributed a double-double. Yet the play of Skeens confounded Brett Ballard. The Ichabods’ first-year coach approached Skeens and leveled with the two-time MIAA defensive player of the year .
“Right after the game in the locker room,’’ said Ballard, “I said this to Brady, ‘I’m still trying to figure out the psychology in motivating you and coaching you.’ I didn’t mean that in a bad way.
“Just the dynamics of how do I motivate him, what makes him tick, what’s the best way to coach him, and also from just an X’s and O’s standpoint, how do we use him?’’
Getting inside the head of Skeens even includes a threat to toy with what’s on his scalp.
“We give him a hard time about it, because his hair is all over the place,’’ Ballard said. “Sometimes he gets it kind of in one direction on game nights, but he’s got a lot going on on the top of his head. I’m OK with that, as long as he’s blocking shots and rebounding, but I told him if he doesn’t, ‘You’ve got to get a haircut.’ “
To that, Skeens shakes his head and manages an uneasy smile.
“Oh man, I hope he’s kidding,’’ Skeens said, though he admitted his hair “is a mess. It looks like it’s all matted and frizzy. It’s not good.’’
Really, it doesn’t matter. Not as long as Skeens continues to expertly tower over opponents for rebounds and blocks.
Before Ballard ever interviewed for the Washburn opening created by the retirement of Bob Chipman, Skeens had obliterated the school record of 100 career blocks.
As part of the Ichabods’ 11-3 start, which includes an 83-69 victory Saturday over Emporia State for their ninth straight win, Skeens has 28 blocks on the season and 198 for his career. Skeens also ranks fourth all-time among WU rebounders and leads the Ichabods this season in rebounds (9.8) and steals (1.4), while averaging 13.6 points on 73.8 percent shooting.
“I’d still like for him to be a little more aggressive in scoring the ball. He’s still a little too passive,’’ Ballard said. “He shoots at an incredibly high percentage, so I’d like for him to be more aggressive around the basket. Sometimes he defers and passes it almost too much.’’
Attribute the unselfishness to Skeens’ upbringing, maturity and desire to play the game right.
He credits his parents as his biggest basketball influence.
“What I like to say is I got a lot of my basketball knowledge from my dad,’’ said Skeens, “but I got all my skill and athleticism from my mom.’’
Anyone familiar with Washburn hoops understands that dynamic. Joy (Benton) Skeens left WU as its all-time leading scorer and rebounder after playing from 1981-85. She still ranks seventh and fourth, respectively, in those categories.
“Going back to campus now, it has physically changed, but going to games and seeing those people, it’s like I never left,’’ Joy said.
Enough that Joy makes the rounds at WU home games to interact with old friends.
“She always makes me carry this little seat for her to sit in,’’ said Brady’s father, Allen, “and I don’t know why. She always stops and talks to someone. She might make it over in the second half sometime.’’
Still, Joy never insisted her son attend Washburn after Brady starred at Shawnee Mission Northwest, averaging 19.8 points as a senior to lead the Cougars to the Class 6A state tournament.
“She was Switzerland in his recruiting process,’’ said Allen, “because she didn’t want to pressure him. She didn’t make him feel like he needed to follow in her footsteps, and it turned out that way and Washburn came out on top for a lot of reasons.
“She literally got hired at Hallmark right off the basketball court by a Washburn booster, Les Krull. That particular job took care of Brady and our family for 30 years, and that was all part of the relationships she made in Topeka.’’
While Joy bounces around Lee Arena at games, Allen stays put. And watches. Intently.
Allen Skeens coaches players from the fifth through eighth grades on youth-level teams. The program has identified some of the Kansas City area’s best talent at early ages.
The first players to come through the system just joined college teams this year, and included Missouri signee Michael Porter Jr. Another product, Tyler Geiman, is a freshman point guard from Blue Valley who signed with Washburn after Ballard was hired.
In addition to some long hours at the gym, Allen Skeens possesses the same versatility as Brady, working as an attorney, teacher and appraiser.
“You’ll hear his dad in the stands and he is on Brady to rebound,’’ Ballard said. “He wants Brady to go after every ball, which I like as a coach. Usually a parent is yelling at their kid to shoot, so I’m fine with that.’’
Allen recognizes his son has evolved into something of a “perfectionist,’’ in no small part because of his father’s involvement.
“I coach a certain way and I raise my boys to play that way,’’ Allen said. “It’s kind of an old Larry Brown thing, because I’m a KU guy and I was there (in college) at that time. You just want them to play the right way.
“People may interpret that different ways, but with my little kids we’re always talking to them about being unselfish, sharing the ball, making plays for other people, competing, playing hard, playing tough and showing effort.’’
That much the Ichabods get from Skeens in so many ways. Even in the classroom.
Skeens is pursuing a dual degree in management and finance, with minors in computer science, economics and leadership studies. Following graduation, he will seek an MBA.
Although Skeens’ early progress with the Bods was derailed by an injury, which kept him out the last nine games of his freshman season, a senior on that WU squad saw the upside.
“Something he’s been able to do is learn how to use his length,’’ said former teammate Alex North. “Even as a freshman, defensively he was tough. His arms were so damn long it was tough to shoot over him.’’
Tougher than anyone in Washburn history ever made it on an opponent.
At times, Skeens demands that his coach find ways to get his senior to capitalize more offensively on what Ballard calls his “quick twitch.’’ Yet the emphasis Ballard placed on defending aggressively, which also happens to suit WU’s deep bench, was ideal for Skeens.
“One of the things that I noticed a big difference on is our presence on the defensive end,’’ Skeens said. “That’s one of our big principles that (Ballard) wants to get on to us on. He knows that with our offense, we have a lot of people who can score. But on the defensive end, a lot of it is effort, so he knows if we’re consistent with our effort and we play hard, hopefully we can win championships.’’
A title in Ballard’s first season would be huge, especially since the Ichabods last claimed an MIAA crown as co-champions in 2011-12, when they also captured the conference tourney and made their last NCAA Tournament appearance.
With Washburn leading the MIAA after a 5-0 start, a potential postseason run is building.
However, that team WU faced at Municipal, the night Ballard approached Skeens asking what buttons to push with his talented senior, still lurks.
Northwest Missouri (13-1, 5-1), however, had its 24-game win streak snapped Thursday by Missouri Southern. The Bearcats visit Lee Arena on Feb. 10. They are one of five MIAA teams sitting in the second through sixth spots in the standings, all of which Washburn has yet to face in league play.
One indicator as to how the Ichabods stack up could be the only messy thing about Skeens.
Hopefully for his sake, his hair grows even more disheveled.
Contact Kevin Haskin at firstname.lastname@example.org or @KevinHaskin on Twitter.