Program Reviews: Florida Southern is unpredictable, unique fun

There’s a lot of good entertainment options out there during the quarantine: Tiger King, Ozark, various movies, the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen figuring out how tripods work. Obviously, there’s good basketball entertainment out there, too. You can go back and watch this year’s NBA games; you can watch the new Michael Jordan documentary on ESPN. If you operate mostly in the college basketball world like myself, you can go through some of the best games of the year.

There were several excellent games that anyone would agree on in college basketball this year, but no one’s going to do the work of moving past Division I games. I have a pitch for Division II basketball, and it goes like this. There were two very, very fun teams in D-2 this season, and they happened to be two of the ten best. These two teams are in the same conference, and they played each other three times this year. Here’s the scores of those three games: 111-103 (in overtime), 102-96, and 118-109.

If you like basketball of any kind, you will love these games. These two teams are Nova Southeastern, who I wrote about last year, and Florida Southern, who I am writing about as I type. When these two programs meet each other on the court, the result is often explosive, exhilarating, and almost unmatched across all levels of college basketball. All three games played between the two this year would’ve been top 10 Division I games; the fact that they came against each other three different times is a near-miracle.

However, Florida Southern is a lot more than these three games. They won the Division II national championship in 2015 under coach Linc Darner (now at Green Bay), but had to undergo a massive rebuilding effort immediately after the title. Mike Donnelly has taken this program from its 2015-17 lows back to national prominence, going 29-2 with a conference championship this year. Massey Ratings had the Mocs as the fifth-best team in D-2, and once you make the Elite Eight, anything is possible.

While Donnelly won’t get to find out just how far this year’s team could’ve gone, the program is set up well for future success. Plenty of contributors from this year’s team return, and Donnelly has built Florida Southern back into one of the most fun, successful programs in the nation. In the meantime, you’ve gotta see these games between Florida Southern and Nova Southeastern. It is non-negotiable.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

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

Mike Donnelly: “We try to recruit the best people we possibly can. That’s where it all starts – trying to recruit high-character, Division I-level guys. We want the best of both worlds, if you will.”

WW: What have been some of the challenges of taking over a program that won the national championship the season before you arrived?

MD: “It was extremely difficult. In my past experiences as a head coach, I was able to take over and rebuild losing programs. This situation was unique, because we were taking over a program that won the national championship in 2015, but they were in a rebuilding phase. They lost six seniors, including the entire starting five. We had to rebuild a winning program, and that’s a lot harder than trying to rebuild a losing one. It took us a couple years, because we had to get past the bumps along the way of finding the right guys for our program. Our third year, we made it back to the NCAA Tournament. Right now, we do have it elevated back to a national level, and the great thing about being here is that’s what the expectation is: to be one of the best Division II teams in the country every year.”

WW: You’ve built Florida Southern back into a serious national contender after going 21-37 your first two seasons. What do you feel has changed from Year One to Year Five?

MD: “Definitely the buy-in. The culture has changed here. That first year, we did return three key players from the national championship team, and all three were really good, but we also had new recruits. In that first year, we were trying to play both sides – instilling my culture while also paying respect and building off of what Linc Darner had done. It’s almost next to impossible to achieve success that way. The biggest difference is that the culture has shifted completely, and that comes with bringing in your own players.”

WW: Florida Southern is a very fun watch offensively: you play fast, attack quickly off of missed shots, and get a lot of points in transition. What are some of the advantages of playing fast-paced basketball?

MD: “Oh man, I could talk about this topic forever. That’s how I’ve always coached – I just think there’s so many benefits and advantages to it. I tell our players that it is so much harder to guard unpredictable than predictable. In transition, in the open floor, it’s an unpredictable game. We preach a five-option offense that starts with our transition game. The defense knows we play fast, but they have to cover all five of our options because we space the floor so well. Every single player is a threat, and there’s no rhyme or reason or set coming off of the transition game. It’s hard to scout against and to prepare for. When we play teams similar to us, it’s actually very challenging for us to have a proper scout. You can’t pinpoint things to the players very easily. It’s really hard to simulate. Let’s say we’re playing a team that averages 75 a game where we average 94. It’s the easiest way I can break it down for our guys: to beat us, they have to score 20 more points than they average as long as we hit our number.”

WW: There are few players in college basketball more fun to watch than Brett Hanson, a guy ending his career with over 2,200 points. What sets him apart from other players you’ve coached?

MD: “He’s so unique and unpredictable. He’s a 6’2” guard who isn’t a three-point shooter. How in the world is this kid scoring at the clip and efficiency he scores at without being a three-point shooter? You usually don’t see guards shoot 55, 56% inside the arc at his size. What separates him is how he plays at a different pace. He’s athletic, but he doesn’t have blow-by speed; he just changes speeds and direction so well. The change of pace he brings catches opponents off-guard. Guys in our program that are really athletic and talented can’t guard him.”

WW: If college basketball fans are in need of entertainment during the quarantine, they should probably find a way to watch your three games this season against Nova Southeastern. How important to your program was it to go 2-1 against the Sharks, and what is it about the two teams involved that seems to always create exciting, tense basketball?

MD: “Our styles are very similar. Defensively, we don’t press and trap 94 feet like they do, although Nova is willing to adjust. I admire Coach Crutchfield tremendously because of his willingness to adjust to the opponent. It’s really hard to beat him. We play full-court man defense, but we’re not into trapping. Offensively, we are very similar. We rely a little bit more on the pass in transition and we play a little bit faster off of defensive rebounds and made baskets. They do so much of their work off of turnovers. In the half-court, they run actions, we run actions. We both run five-option offense. When we play them, it’s just great basketball.”

WW: Obviously, people will see that you score 93.9 points per game and ask about your offense. However, in terms of defensive efficiency, you’ve developed a pretty good defense, too. What do you feel is the best aspect of your defense?

MD: “We stress it more than offense. I agree that our ability to score is kind of the thing that pops out. We are an offensive program, but for the first 7-8 practices of the year, we don’t do anything offensively. Everything is at the defensive end. We don’t usually put anything in on the offensive end until the ninth or tenth practice. Our first scrimmage comes before we’ve practiced much of anything on offense. Sometimes that scrimmage is a Division I exhibition! I tell our guys that I don’t care how many points we give up, we care about efficiency. For a long stretch of the year this season, we held teams to about 40-41% from the field. We’re pretty happy with those numbers. I never, ever look at how many points we allow – it’s all about defensive efficiency. Our philosophy is to create space offensively and take away space defensively. We want to dictate tempo and speed on offense and action on defense. We emphasize rebounding because we believe you can’t have a transition game without rebounding the ball.”

WW: This Florida Southern team would’ve been an odds-on favorite to make the D2 Elite Eight, and from there, anything can happen. While you do have to replace three starters next season, you’re still bringing back plenty of talent. What does the next big step look like for Florida Southern as a program?

MD: “We need another strong recruiting class. That’s how we have to look at it. It’s not about finding the best player, but rather the best fit. I’m a big believer in not recruiting the same type of player – they’re all unique. Our returners all have to make the jump like they did this past year. I think that’s so critical in program development and sustained success.”

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

MD: “It’s two things. I’m reading the newest John Feinstein book on my Kindle because I love to read. I’m not a big television guy because I can hardly watch it during the season, but I’ve been able to get into Ozark on Netflix.”

Below is a sampling of some of my favorite plays from the Florida Southern games I checked out.

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