Program Reviews: Lincoln Memorial’s building a dynasty on the TN/KY border

Something that’s actually underrated about living in East Tennessee is the diversity and the depth of the basketball culture here. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by how many people show support and interest in University of Tennessee basketball, regardless of how good or not-good the team is. However, that’s simply one small part of the story, even in Division I: East Tennessee State’s basketball culture is perhaps the most fervent in the state east of Nashville.

That all ignores what’s going on below Division I, though. Because Division II doesn’t have the same level of television money or rights, you may be surprised to find out that Lincoln Memorial in Harrogate is 318-65 over its last 12 seasons of basketball. That’s right: there’s a program in east Tennessee that loses barely five games a year and had five consecutive 30+ win seasons from 2014 to 2018. If all you know about is Division I basketball, you’re missing out on some of the highest-quality action happening in the Southeast.

Florida Atlantic graduate Josh Schertz took over the Lincoln Memorial job in 2008. As he told me, LMU felt like “the worst job in the conference” at this time – a tiny budget, dated facilities, no real interest from players in turning the program into anything better. What it is today is an entirely different school, as LMU now has one of the largest basketball budgets in D-2 and one of the best arenas. It’s almost amazing to remember that the Railsplitters won 39 games in the five seasons prior to Schertz’s arrival when they won 32 this season alone.

All that said, this figured to be a massive, long rebuild. Then Schertz went 27-3 in his third year, was a National Coach of the Year finalist, and everything changed. When you leave out his first rebuilding year at Lincoln Memorial – one where he still went 14-14 – Schertz’s career record at LMU is an astounding 304-51 (.856). Again, all of this is happening at a school that hadn’t touched 20+ wins since 1988-89.

I got to talk to Schultz after what could’ve been his best season yet – a 32-1 run where the only loss was an opening night overtime loss to top-five team West Texas A&M. By the end of the season, LMU was ranked #2 overall by Massey Ratings and was seen as perhaps the very best possible foe to Northwest Missouri. For the season to end early was heartbreaking, obviously. However, Schertz still had plenty of good memories to share and plenty of answers for how LMU became perhaps the best college basketball program in Tennessee.

The below interview is lightly edited for time and clarification.

Will Warren: Describe your program philosophy in a few sentences.

Josh Schertz: “We talk about our program as ‘kaizen’, which is a Japanese word that means ‘commitment to cultural improvement.’ We have that emblazoned on our shirts, we’ve got it in the arena. That requires a lot of humility, a lot of self-awareness to continue to come in and work and understand you need to get better. That’s the overarching mantra of the program.”

WW: What’s the biggest difference in today’s Lincoln Memorial program versus the one you inherited in 2008?

JS: “Oh man, there’s so many. When I took the job, it was probably the worst job in our conference in terms of budget. We’re in a small town to begin with. We had a great facility, but we weren’t fully-funded scholarship-wise. Our housing wasn’t up to snuff. I had to fundraise just to get us to where we could travel. Our operating budget was $34,000 – that included buses, referees, team gear, travel, everything. It’s been a complete 180. It’s gone from probably the worst job in the South Atlantic Conference to arguably the best job in the country. From a budgetary standpoint, we now have three full-time assistants and two GAs. We’re now fully-funded on scholarships. We already had a good arena, but it’s modernized now. There’s a players lounge, a tradition room, a film room, a nutrition budget. Finishing touches are coming on a multi-million dollar practice facility with three full courts on it. It’s pretty incredible – the job has gone from one end of the spectrum to the complete opposite end.”

WW: Offensively, you’ve been special at a lot of things, but the stat I took the most notice of is that in 2019-20, 90% of all LMU shots were layups, dunks, or threes. Why is high-quality shot selection so important to your offense?

JS: “The last few years, offense has evolved that way. We certainly look at analytics, whether it’s in the NBA or college or whatever. We know those are the highest-value shots – layups, free throws, and threes. We break down our shot profiles, paint touches versus non-paint touches. Our highest-value three-point shot is a spot-up three off of a kickout. One of our GA spots is an analytics spot. Every media timeout, that GA gives me stats on possessions, open vs. contested shots, paint touch ratio, all for us and the opponent. We talk about ‘hunting great,’ which means looking for a great shot and not just settling for what the defense wants you to do.”

WW: You were equally dominant this year, per Synergy: 99th-percentile O, 99th-percentile D. Why is it important to you to have this level of team balance?

JS: “Basketball’s the one sport where it really ties together, right? Usually, good defense begets good offense, and good offense helps our defense. We have a sign in the back of the locker room with our five absolutes. Number one is take care of the ball. That’s number one because if you’re turning the ball over above the break, it’s a guaranteed two points for the opponent. No one is gonna be super-efficient offensively if you’re taking it to the net every time. If we can be great defensively and committed to making things difficult, we’re going to be great overall.”

WW: Something you’re great at is running opponents out of catch-and-shoot situations and forcing them to pull up off the dribble. Per Synergy, no one in D-2 even came close to LMU this year in forcing jumpers off the dribble. Why place this level of importance on forcing shooters to pull up instead of being stationary?

JS: (laughs) “I actually didn’t know that stat. That’s crazy. It’s a point of emphasis – what you want offensively you don’t want defensively. Our highest three-point percentage, regardless of area of the floor, is on those paint-touch kick-out spot-up threes. We’ll live with mid-range jumpers. We’re not gonna lose games because of it. A lot of stuff we do is predicated on inviting the opponent to take a mid-range jumper with a rear-view contest. We talk about being two places in once – being able to shrink the gap and being able to think about getting out. We guard the ball collectively, but we contest individually. We don’t want spot-up threes at all. If you beat us off the dribble, that’s okay, but we’re doing everything we can to contest it.”

WW: What part of your program, off-court, are you proudest of?

JS: “I’m proudest of the fact that in the summertime, we have almost all of our pros back here to train. I think that speaks volumes to the institution being able to care for those guys. You want every one of your players to have a terrific experience; the fact they come back clearly means they enjoyed that experience. They want to work out with the staff and the strength coach that got them there. What it also does is it helps the current players. They play with the pros and see how they work. That the graduates have a connection that lasts, to me, that’s the best part of it. Those long-term relationships evolve from player-coach to being friends.”

WW: Obviously, it hurts that this year’s NCAA Tournament was cancelled before it even started, especially because LMU had a great shot at winning the title. That said, you bring back three starters next season and several depth pieces, along with newcomers. What needs to be tweaked or changed for Lincoln Memorial to bring a championship home to Harrogate, if anything?

JS: “Obviously, we thought we had a team that was capable of doing it this year. If you look at all the metrics, the 32 wins in a row, we felt like we had a chance. With so many guys back, you can run into trouble by assuming you can pick up where you left off. I think you get to a certain point of the mountain, and when the season ends, you gotta walk back down and start from zero. Yes, we have three All-Region guys back, five of our top seven, we’ve got the talent to compete.

The question every team must answer is: do you have the intangibles? At a certain point, you can win on talent, but talent eventually equals out, and it becomes those intangibles. Are guys going to be as committed? Will they have as much chemistry? Will they support each other? Will they be as hungry and as humble? Can they still be attentive to detail? We talk every day about how we do the same stuff as everyone else. We practice, they practice; we lift, they lift; we scout, they scout; we have players, they have players. It’s about doing those common things in an uncommon way.”

WW: What’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

JS: “I’m a huge Curb Your Enthusiasm guy. We watched Superbad last night with my family. My wife’s trying to get me into this Joe Exotic, Tiger King deal, but so far I’m not feeling it.”

Here’s a small highlight package of some of the best offensive and defensive plays from the games I sampled. 

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