Program Reviews: Byron Smith has Prairie View A&M operating at unseen levels

Located on the northwestern edge of the Houston area is Prairie View A&M, a historically black university and the second-oldest school in Texas. Chances are that if you’re a fan of a high-major basketball team, your team has probably played Prairie View A&M or another SWAC team in November or December of any given year. For years, these were fairly routine exhibitions that saw the home team win by double digits. Prairie View spends most non-conference schedules entirely on the road, almost never playing a home game before Christmas. 2019-20 was a rare exception, and even then, their home opponent was Jarvis Christian College from the NAIA.

For most of Prairie View’s history, they were seen as an also-ran of the SWAC. Prior to 2018-19, they held a 29.3% winning percentage at the Division I level. In their 41 seasons of D-1 basketball, they’d made the NCAA Tournament just once…and held the ignominious distinction of suffering the biggest blowout loss in NCAA Tournament history, losing 110-52 to Kansas. (Fun fact: 1 seed Kansas would go on to lose to 8 seed Rhode Island two days later. March!) Prairie View had never finished SWAC play with better than a 14-4 record, and their highest-ranked team in the KenPom era was 2002-03’s 249th-placed squad.

Then came 2018-19. Almost out of nowhere – though they did go 12-6 in the SWAC the year prior – Prairie View took the SWAC by storm. Gone were the days of being everyone’s favorite opponent to beat up on. They opened the year with a road win at Santa Clara, then went 17-1 in SWAC play and defeated rival Texas Southern to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. They’d go on to lose in the First Four, but it was undeniably the most successful season in Panthers history.

2019-20 looked to present more of the same. The Panthers pulled off a win at UTSA, went 14-4 in conference play to win the regular season title, and entered the SWAC Tournament as the favorite to repeat and earn a second straight NCAA Tournament bid. They had two of the three best players in the conference in Gerard Andrus and Devonte Patterson. Unfortunately, we all know how this ends. Before Prairie View were set to play in the SWAC semifinals, college basketball as we know it came to a screeching halt. The potential of more March memories were lost, and Prairie View will have to replace four members of their starting five.

That said, Byron Smith is already the most successful coach in Prairie View history (52.8% winning percentage; second-best at Prairie View is 37.5%!) and is solidifying his place as a Houston legend. Smith was a two-time member of the All-Southwest Conference team as a player at Houston, has spent nearly his entire professional career in Texas, and has turned the previously moribund Prairie View program into a legitimate force in basketball’s most interesting conference. Also, he’s hilarious, so that’s a bonus.

This interview was lightly edited and shortened for clarification.

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

Byron Smith: “I would say we have a very intense program, especially on the court. We’re very, very, very tough in terms of how we play and how we prepare. To clarify, we want to be pitbulls on the court but collies off of it – very kind, good people away from basketball. Our goal is to be gentlemen and great students off the court. We want our kids to affect other people in a positive way. On the court, we want to be the grittiest, grimiest team. We’re going to be the underdog a lot of nights, and we want to be the hardest-playing team on the floor. It gives us an opportunity to win some games we shouldn’t.”

WW: Who are your main influences as a coach?

BS: “For me, obviously first and foremost is my mother. She’s given me the blueprint to be successful in life – being committed, being dedicated, and having strong faith in God. In terms of on the court, to be honest, it’s not anyone basketball-wise. I’ve always looked away from the game for influence. For instance, Herm Edwards (Arizona State football HC) is a huge influence. His philosophy and his process is a great influence on what I do as a coach. I’m old enough to remember him as a player, because his Eagles used to kick my Cowboys’ butt all the time.”

WW: Rarely do you play a home game before Christmas, though this past season was an exception. You typically spend the entirety of the first two months playing true road games, with occasional neutral-site fixtures. What are the positives of these long stretches without home games, if there are any?

BS: “I like to try to give our young people a chance to see the world. Believe it or not, a lot of the young kids that come through our program haven’t had a real chance to travel and see some of these places in America. They have AAU, but you get four and five guys to a room, sleeping on the bathroom sink, all that stuff. We get to go to some really neat places, especially to the West Coast. We fly a lot, but we take bus trips, too. This year, we played at Arizona State, so we got on the bus and drove there, along with then driving five more hours to Los Angeles to play Loyola Marymount. These long road trips give our players a chance to bond before conference play starts. It gives them a chance to learn who their teammates are away from the court. It allows you to know who you’re going to battle with and if you can trust them. If you’re in an alley fight, what guys do I want with me? There’s a lot of educational pieces that come from it. We have to generate revenue for our program, obviously, but it’s way more than going to pick up a check. When January rolls around, we’re probably going to play some of the best basketball we’ve played.”

WW: Thank you for answering that – I’ve long wondered about how teams handle the mental and physical effects of long travel, along with how you handle travel in the first place.

BS: “Let me add something really quick. What we’ve been able to incorporate on these trips is that sometimes, you can win and not have the most points on the board. That’s something that we look to. We set goals as a team, and we want to improve every game. How are we shooting? How have we established our defense? Sometimes, we’ve walked away from a tough road loss and have felt a certain way. Obviously, I don’t get paid to try, I get paid to win, but there are positives from some of these losses.”

WW: You’ve gone 31-5 in conference play the last two seasons, and these two teams are statistically the best in Prairie View’s D-1 history. What’s changed from the day you took the job to now to make this happen?

BS: “In the past, there’s been a bit of a mindset across the league where you’re super-focused on beating your rival. Prairie View and Texas Southern have a big rivalry, and even if Texas Southern is 0-30, if they beat Prairie View, they consider it a good season. That’s not anything I’ve ever subscribed to. I think we’ve raised the bar. We’re getting a lot more national recognition that I don’t think Prairie View really received before. We aren’t Butler or Wichita State, of course, but we’re striving to become that. The culture has changed, expectations have changed, and I do think that we’ve had a good three-year run. In the past, our program wanted to score lots of points but didn’t play defense. Now, we’re a defense-first program. Some nights, the ball’s just not going to go in the basket. How do you win games when that happens? Well, you get aggressive, you deflect passes, you force turnovers, you get rebounds. We’ve also started to attract kids that normally would’ve gone to UTEP or Texas State or Louisiana-Lafayette.”

WW: Your defense is pressure-packed and hyper-aggressive, and this marks the third-straight season Prairie View has finished in the top 10 nationally in turnovers forced. What are some of the advantages of this aggressive style of defense?

BS: “For one thing, it’s kind of like a mosquito on a hot day. We’re always in your face, and we like to piss you off. We’re like a bunch of gnats on a hot day on the lake that won’t go away. One of the things that’s caused us problems that’s documented is that we foul a lot. We are aggressive, and sometimes fouls happen, but that’s part of what we do. We like to take the fight to you. We’re that little kid coming to school that gets bullied a lot and is starting to fight back. It’s not ‘press’ for us, it’s pressure. We deny the wings, we trap the corners, and we swarm the posts. We want our defense to dictate our offense.”

WW: You’ve also been near the top nationally in three-point defense the last three seasons. How do you aim to make opposing three-point attempts difficult?

BS: “We focus a lot on our closeouts. Obviously, everyone focuses on closeouts, but for us, you can be yanked from the game if you have a poor closeout. You may have a hard time getting back in! Closeouts come at a premium, especially if you do them the right way. Even a 28% shooter, if he’s wide-open, that probably goes up to about 35% or 36%. We want to distract guys into taking contested three-point shots because we fly around non-stop.”

WW: Offensively, your teams are consistently great at getting to the line, and two of your players – Devonte Patterson and Darius Williams – drew nearly 7 fouls per 40 minutes. Why do you place this emphasis on going inside and drawing fouls?

BS: “Because we have to! We might be the worst shooting team in the country. (laughs) If you look at our three-point percentage on offense compared to defense, it might be the exact same. We do have good shooters, but if you’re constantly relying on 22-foot shots going in, for us, that means the potential of having a long season. The four seasons I’ve been here, the best three-point shooter on the team has been Byron Smith, the head coach. If you know anybody in the NBA looking for a 50-year-old spot-up shooter, give them my number.”

WW: This year’s team was one of the most experienced in all of college basketball, but you’re returning several key pieces for the 2020-21 squad. What are some steps forward you’re looking for the program to take in the near future?

BS: “We want to sustain our success. We don’t want to go from first to worst, or even from first to the middle of the pool. The name of the game in all facets of life is consistency. It’s difficult year-to-year to stay in the top one or two, but if they do pass the transfer rule, we’re hopeful we might be able to land a couple of high-impact guys that were previously playing in the Big 12 or Sun Belt or maybe even the SEC. Guys like that can walk into this conference and play 30 minutes a night.”

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

BS: “I had an Uber driver about seven months ago that ended up being my girlfriend. Congratulate me on that one! She introduced me to Netflix, but to be honest, if you find me at home, 90% of the time it’ll be with Sanford and Son on.”

Here’s a short video containing some of my favorite plays from the Prairie View A&M games I sampled.

Some scattered thoughts on The Last Dance

Like basically every other basketball fan in America, I’ve spent the last five Sundays watching ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary on Michael Jordan’s career and, specifically, the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. I think it’s a fairly good piece of work, and I’m certainly glad I watched it. In the sports wilderness created by COVID-19, it’s been nice to see so many people band together to watch a sports documentary about one of the greatest athletes in human history. Regardless of how you feel about Jordan’s status as the Greatest of All Time, it’s a useful artifact to show those younger than, say, 23 just how great MJ was.

That said, the documentary is far from perfect. As Spencer Hall noted on Twitter, MJ getting to sign off on basically every part of this documentary was inevitably going to create positives and negatives. Getting unfettered access to MJ as a source is inarguably a great thing, as Jordan is essentially given the role of a director’s commentary. You get his insight on everything – games in the mid-1980s, the Detroit Pistons, Dennis Rodman, etc. – and it provides great value. That said, giving Jordan such power to sign off on the documentary means we hit dead ends on certain subjects very quickly – the Jordan Rules book, controversy surrounding his retirement, his family today, etc. The director fails to inform you MJ even has a wife until the sixth episode, and you hear from his kids for about two minutes in the final episode. Along with that, the promised behind-the-scenes coverage, aside from a very important scene after winning the title, really falls flat. Very little that’s new is revealed, and to be honest, a lot of the most interesting reveals don’t even involve Michael Jordan.

In short, it’s a good documentary, not a great one. The best thing ESPN has done, and will likely ever do, is still O.J.: Made in America. Whether The Last Dance would have been better without Michael’s involvement is not really worth discussing, as it likely just wouldn’t have existed. (Plus, you don’t get the memes of Michael laughing at others’ interviews.) However, there’s some thoughts I had about the show that I felt like expanding on the day after.

  • The Jordan vs. LeBron debate will inevitably splinter into the documentary world. I fear it isn’t enough to take a look at the two best to ever do it and simply say “they were equally great in different eras.” We’ll have to drive this debate to its absolute extremes, and I am near-certain Skip Bayless will make a regrettable appearance in the LeBron documentary in 2025.
  • Will the LeBron doc have the same level of positive coverage towards him? The clear goal of The Last Dance, beyond giving you a bit of the promised access to the greatest dynasty in the last 40+ years of basketball, is to cement Michael Jordan as the Greatest to Ever Do It in the viewer’s eyes. No corners are cut in this process. Even in the episode where teammates are finally allowed to speak negatively about how he treated them, they immediately pivot to “it was worth it for team success.” Obviously, it worked out pretty well, but I found it odd that not even one guy still felt negatively towards Michael. (It’s probably worth reading about how thoroughly Jordan’s Wizards teammates from 2001-2003 hated him, as reported by Michael Leahy’s book When Nothing Else Matters.) Most hilariously, the 1993 series against the Knicks, in which the Bulls initially trailed 2-0, is presented as this major turnaround from Jordan after two “poor” outings in New York (63 points across two games!). In Game 3, Jordan is shown to have returned to his normal status and have carried the Bulls back into the series. In the actual Game 3, Jordan shot 3-for-18 (though he got 16 points at the free throw line alone) and it was Pippen’s 29 points on 12 shots that helped the Bulls demolish New York by 20 points.
  • To follow that up: this is indeed hagiography, but it’s entertaining hagiographyBy showing Michael Jordan to have nearly zero faults, the documentary crafts him as a Basketball God figure that only adds to his legend and makes it more shocking for younger viewers when he doesn’t hit every game-winning shot. As Jordan himself says, he missed 26 game-winning shots in his career. Obviously, you didn’t come to watch the misses; you came to watch the highlights we all know and a few you may not have.
  • The dichotomy of the 1992-93 Bulls and the 1993-94 Bulls was maybe the most interesting part of the series as a basketball nerd. When I interviewed several college coaches last year for the Building a Better Basketball Offense series, I got to talk to a few coaches whose teams had one dominant scorer and secondary/role players surrounding them. A question I’ve always wondered about teams like this was if it became easier or harder to design the offense around one player. Nearly every coach said “both,” and a couple outlined how it’s typically a little easier for players to buy in to an offense where they know they’ll be able to shoot a decent amount of shots. The 1992-93 Bulls were the second-best offense in the league, and Jordan was spectacular as usual, scoring nearly 33 per game in his first last dance. Once Jordan left, the 1993-94 Bulls fell to the 14th-best offense, though their assist rate did jump a bit. (While this is real basketball nerd stuff that no one cares about, the doc spent zero time exploring how the Bulls were an all-time elite Shot Volume offense, turning it over on just 12% of possessions in 1992-93 and rebounding 38% of their own misses. It’s one of the greatest feats in offensive basketball history.) In the documentary, these two teams are presented as nearly equal, even though the post-Jordan Bulls were clearly worse and got to 55 wins on the back of some lucky bounces in close games. That said: it seems like most coaches would probably deem the 1993-94 Bulls easier to coach, no?
  • I wish we’d gotten at least some coverage of the post-Jordan Bulls, and, heck, the Jordan Wizards. Maybe that would’ve been episodes 11 and 12 of this already-very-long miniseries, but if you’re spending an entire episode covering Dennis Rodman, I would imagine you could talk more about what happened after the Last Dance. The coda of this series gives you brief, one-line updates on the stars: Jordan retired. Scottie Pippen was traded. Steve Kerr was traded. Dennis Rodman was released. You’re telling me that with all of the time afforded to you, you couldn’t go more in-depth on Life After the Bulls for any of those final three players? Even MJ gets shorted in this regard. There’s nothing about how he became an NBA owner, an international ambassador for basketball, a constant national figure, etc. It’s simply that he rode off into the sunset and then came back for a couple years down the road. Maybe that’ll be in After the Last Dance in 2022: multiple episodes on just how entertainingly bad the Bulls were from 1999 to 2004. I get that they dunked on Jerry Krause enough already, but someone has gotta explore Tim Floyd going 49-190 as the Bulls’ head coach.
  • As anyone could and should admit, this had several great parts that made the entire experience worth it. I’d love to hear everyone else’s. For me, it’s getting to see Tex Winter drawing up the triangle offense, Jordan’s wails post-title in 1996, Jordan watching others’ interviews, his mom playing a large part in the first episode, and a bit of the baseball discussion.

Again: good, not great. I wouldn’t have it any other way, because we desperately needed something to attach ourselves to in the midst of the sports wilderness.

The best defenses in men’s college basketball, 2019-20

I promised this post nearly two months ago and got lost in some other projects, namely my beloved Program Reviews project that’s going to take a break for a little bit after this week. However, I couldn’t ignore the other, arguably more important half of basketball. Having an excellent defense is just about a requirement for any team to win a championship, and it especially goes that way in basketball. While offense has been more important by a hair, no defense ranked outside of the top 40 nationally has won the Division I national championship in the KenPom era. Similar numbers are likely true for D-2, D-3, and NAIA.

The below 25 defenses were ranked as the top 25 in America by Synergy Sports. If you go to their site, it won’t appear that way, as Canada has North America in a stranglehold in terms of high-quality defense. (The US wins out with ease on the offensive side, obviously.) Teams without enough games on the database were also eliminated, though those were rarer cases. In the end, these 25 defenses are all worthy of strong respect, and coaches would do well to study the teams of their choice. I wrote about Randolph-Macon’s defense earlier this season, but will likely write about other teams later this offseason.

Anyway, here’s the best men’s college basketball defenses of the 2019-20 season.

25. Liberty Flames (Lynchburg, VA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.792
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Post Up (97th), Spot-Up (95th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 35.1% Rim (4 feet or closer to the rim), 25.6% Non-Rim Twos (5-20ish feet), 39.2% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 55% Rim, 30.8% Non-Rim Twos, 29.3% 3PT
  • eFG%: 45.6%
  • OREB% allowed: 21.3%
  • TO%: 19.4%
  • Shot Volume: 101.9

24. Winston-Salem State Rams (Winston-Salem, NC)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.792
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (97th-percentile), Post-Up (97th), Spot-Up (96th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 38.9% Rim, 26.5% Non-Rim Twos, 34.6% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 49.4% Rim, 32.7% Non-Rim Twos, 30.3% 3PT
  • eFG%: 45.4%
  • OREB% allowed: 28.5%
  • TO%: 18.9%
  • Shot Volume: 109.6

23. Roanoke Maroons (Roanoke, VA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.791
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (98th), P&R Ball Handler (98th), Post-Up (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 34.6% Rim, 25.7% Non-Rim Twos, 39.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 49.7% Rim, 32.6% Non-Rim Twos, 30.5% 3PT
  • eFG%: 44.5%
  • OREB% allowed: 27.3%
  • TO%: 20%
  • Shot Volume: 107.3

22. Stanford Cardinal (Palo Alto, CA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.791
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Post-Up (99th), Spot-Up (96th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.6% Rim, 26% Non-Rim Twos, 37.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 52.6% Rim, 37.4% Non-Rim Twos, 29.5% 3PT
  • eFG%: 45.6%
  • OREB% allowed: 27.8%
  • TO%: 22.4%
  • Shot Volume: 105.4

21. Virginia Wesleyan Marlins (Norfolk, VA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.791
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 48.2% Rim, 22.9% Non-Rim Twos, 28.9% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 49.3% Rim, 32.3% Non-Rim Twos, 29.6% 3PT
  • eFG%: 44.7%
  • OREB% allowed: 26.7%
  • TO%: 21.1%
  • Shot Volume: 105.6

20. West Virginia Mountaineers (Morgantown, WV)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.791
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.3% Rim, 26.2% Non-Rim Twos, 37.5% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 54% Rim, 33% Non-Rim Twos, 28.8% 3PT
  • eFG%: 44.5%
  • OREB% allowed: 27.7%
  • TO%: 22.4%
  • Shot Volume: 105.3

19. Brockport Golden Eagles (Brockport, NY)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.789
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), P&R Ball Handler (96th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 43.3% Rim, 22.4% Non-Rim Twos, 34.3% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 51.9% Rim, 36.5% Non-Rim Twos, 29.4% 3PT
  • eFG%: 46.4%
  • OREB% allowed: 29.1%
  • TO%: 23.9%
  • Shot Volume: 105.2

18. Hobart College Statesmen (Geneva, NY)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.789
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), Cuts (98th), Spot-Up (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 34.7% Rim, 24.3% Non-Rim Twos, 41% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 49.7% Rim, 32.6% Non-Rim Twos, 27.4% 3PT
  • eFG%: 42.3%
  • OREB% allowed: 22.4%
  • TO%: 16%
  • Shot Volume: 106.4

17. San Diego State Aztecs (San Diego, CA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.789
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (97th), Spot-Up (95th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 25.6% Rim, 32.3% Non-Rim Twos, 42.1% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 61.1% Rim, 32.5% Non-Rim Twos, 29.7% 3PT
  • eFG%: 45.3%
  • OREB% allowed: 25.4%
  • TO%: 21.2%
  • Shot Volume: 104.2

16. Maine Farmington Beavers (Farmington, ME)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.786
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (100th), Cuts (100th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 31.1% Rim, 25.5% Non-Rim Twos, 43.4% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 54% Rim, 32.8% Non-Rim Twos, 33.8% 3PT
  • eFG%: 48.5%
  • OREB% allowed: 23.5%
  • TO%: 23.5%
  • Shot Volume: 100.0

15. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers (Troy, NY)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.785
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (96th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 35.8% Rim, 23.4% Non-Rim Twos, 40.8% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 59.5% Rim, 34.3% Non-Rim Twos, 29.3% Threes
  • eFG%: 47.6%
  • OREB% allowed: 23%
  • TO%: 23.7%
  • Shot Volume: 99.3

14. Stevens Ducks (Hoboken, NJ)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.784
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (97th), Off Screen (96th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.3% Rim, 23.6% Non-Rim Twos, 40.1% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 51.8% Rim, 33.8% Non-Rim Twos, 29.8% 3PT
  • eFG%: 45%
  • OREB% allowed: 25.4%
  • TO%: 22%
  • Shot Volume: 103.4

13. Christopher Newport Captains (Newport News, VA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.783
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (99th), Post Up (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.9% Rim, 31.5% Non-Rim Twos, 31.6% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 49.6% Rim, 36% Non-Rim Twos, 28.1% 3PT
  • eFG%: 43.1%
  • OREB% allowed: 26.4%
  • TO%: 18.3%
  • Shot Volume: 108.1

12. Park University Pirates (Parkville, MO)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.783
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (97th), Transition (95th), Cuts (93rd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 42.4% Rim, 19.1% Non-Rim Twos, 38.5% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 53% Rim, 33.7% Non-Rim Twos, 28.6% 3PT
  • eFG%: 47.5%
  • OREB% allowed: 24.8%
  • TO%: 21.1%
  • Shot Volume: 103.7

11. UMass Boston Beacons (Boston, MA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.783
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (98th), Cuts (96th), Transition (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 41% Rim, 28.1% Non-Rim Twos, 30.9% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 49.1% Rim, 35.2% Non-Rim Twos, 30.1% 3PT
  • eFG%: 43.8%
  • OREB% allowed: 30.1%
  • TO%: 18.9%
  • Shot Volume: 111.2

10. Lincoln Memorial Railsplitters (Harrogate, TN)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.781
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Transition (99th), P&R Ball Handler (95th), Post-Up (94th), Spot-Up (93rd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 30.5% Rim, 29.4% Non-Rim Twos, 40.1% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 49.8% Rim, 37.6% Non-Rim Twos, 30.2% 3PT
  • eFG%: 42.7%
  • OREB% allowed: 23.3%
  • TO%: 18.7%
  • Shot Volume: 104.6

9. Indiana (PA) Crimson Hawks (Indiana, PA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.78
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Cuts (98th), P&R Ball Handler (97th), Spot-Up (95th), Transition (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 39.4% Rim, 24.9% Non-Rim Twos, 35.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 52.3% Rim, 30% Non-Rim Twos, 30% 3PT
  • eFG%: 44.5%
  • OREB% allowed: 31.1%
  • TO%: 22.6%
  • Shot Volume: 108.5

8. Baylor Bears (Waco, TX)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.777
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Isolation (95th), Transition (93rd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 26.8% Rim, 38.2% Non-Rim Twos, 35% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 60% Rim, 33.5% Non-Rim Twos, 31.1% 3PT
  • eFG%: 45.2%
  • OREB% allowed: 29.8%
  • TO%: 22.7%
  • Shot Volume: 107.1

7. Kansas Jayhawks (Lawrence, KS)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.775
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): P&R Ball Handler (96th), Post-Up (95th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 29.1% Rim, 29.5% Non-Rim Twos, 41.3% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 52% Rim, 33.6% Non-Rim Twos, 30.5% 3PT
  • eFG%: 43.7%
  • OREB% allowed: 26.4%
  • TO%: 18.6%
  • Shot Volume: 107.8

6. Baruch Bearcats (New York, NY)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.773
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (99th), Post Up (94th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 35.3% Rim, 25.1% Non-Rim Twos, 39.6% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 52.9% Rim, 27.4% Non-Rim Twos, 30.9% 3PT
  • eFG%: 43.6%
  • OREB% allowed: 27.7%
  • TO%: 22.1%
  • Shot Volume: 105.6

5. Virginia Cavaliers (Charlottesville, VA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.763
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (98th), Post Up (95th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 30.5% Rim, 26.8% Non-Rim Twos, 42.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 48.7% Rim, 35.6% Non-Rim Twos, 29.2% 3PT
  • eFG%: 43.1%
  • OREB% allowed: 23.3%
  • TO%: 19.3%
  • Shot Volume: 104.0

4. Miles Golden Bears (Fairfield, AL)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.754
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (100th), Transition (100th), Post-Up (93rd), P&R Ball Handler (90th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 32.2% Rim, 35.5% Non-Rim Twos, 32.3% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 52.6% Rim, 32.7% Non-Rim Twos, 26.6% 3PT
  • eFG%: 42.3%
  • OREB% allowed: 26.8%
  • TO%: 18.9%
  • Shot Volume: 107.9

3. Memphis Tigers (Memphis, TN)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.752
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Cuts (100th), Spot-Up (97th), Transition (97th)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 36.3% Rim, 27.2% Non-Rim Twos, 36.5% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 45.3% Rim, 34.6% Non-Rim Twos, 28% 3PT
  • eFG%: 41.2%
  • OREB% allowed: 29.4%
  • TO%: 20.2%
  • Shot Volume: 109.2

2. Shawnee State Bears (Portsmouth, OH)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.749
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): They were 85th-percentile or higher in all but one category (Hand-Off); 90th-percentile or higher in everything but Spot-Ups and Hand-Offs.
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 32.9% Rim, 30.4% Non-Rim Twos, 36.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 40.4% Rim, 30.7% Non-Rim Twos, 33.5% 3PT
  • eFG%: 40.9%
  • OREB% allowed: 25.2%
  • TO%: 19.5%
  • Shot Volume: 105.7

1. Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets (Ashland, VA)

  • Points Per Possession: 0.74
  • Best Play Types (90th-percentile or higher): Spot-Up (99th), Transition (96th), P&R Ball Handler (95th), Cuts (92nd)
  • Percentage of Shots Attempted: 33.3% Rim, 27% Non-Rim Twos, 39.7% Threes
  • Shots Made by Category: 50.6% Rim, 31% Non-Rim Twos, 29.6% 3PT
  • eFG%: 43.7%
  • OREB% allowed: 26.3%
  • TO%: 23.7%
  • Shot Volume: 102.6

Program Reviews: Eric Henderson’s terrific, fun first year at South Dakota State

Summit League basketball, circa 1995-2008, was almost completely controlled by the states of Indiana and Oklahoma. From 1995 to 2002, Valparaiso won seven of the then-Mid-Continent Conference conference championships, followed by a 2003 IUPUI win and another 2004 Valpo title. From 2006-2008, after allowing Michigan’s Oakland to take home a title, Oral Roberts of Tulsa, OK won three straight titles. For a long, long period of time, the Dakotas had little-to-no influence on the national stage.

Of course, things change, and now the Dakotas have a total stranglehold on the Summit League. The last nine Summit League conference championships reside at the schools of North Dakota State (4) and South Dakota State (5), with budding basketball and football dynasties taking place at both schools. You likely know a lot about NDSU simply because of their football team, but they won a game in the 2014 NCAA Tournament and have been a March mainstay for a while now. The same goes for South Dakota State, who brought you Mike Daum and several March close calls. However, this year’s team may have been their most fun one yet.

Under first-year head coach Eric Henderson, a guy who was coaching high school basketball in Wisconsin six years ago, South Dakota State won 22 games and a share of the Summit League regular season title despite having the 11th-youngest lineup in America. Their rotation contained zero seniors and just one junior, and even said junior was injured late in the season. It would’ve been a pretty notable coaching job had Henderson kept South Dakota State afloat after a coaching change and personnel overhaul; it was a near-miracle that he took the team to 13-3 in conference play.

There’s no better person to talk to about the Dakotas Dominance than Henderson, who coached as an assistant at both schools and has spent a lot of time in the Upper Midwest. When I talked to him a couple of weeks back, I anticipated getting to talk a lot about the super-fun Jackrabbit offense and the fascinating rivalry between these two schools. However, we talked just as much about Henderson’s rapid rise from being a principal, athletic director, and high school basketball coach at the same time, and how it influences what he does today.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

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

Eric Henderson: “As far as the program philosophy, I’d say it’s to develop young men that show a great deal of respect, honesty, selflessness, a high level of communication, and a high level of compete. We want them to develop in those areas in all aspects of their life, not just basketball.”

WW: I want to talk about your background a bit. Just six years ago, you were a high school basketball coach in Wisconsin. What’s the transition from high school basketball to college basketball as a coach like?

EH: “I think it’s the amount of time that you can spend on the basketball side of it as a college coach, especially at our level. It’s special and unique, and that’s what makes what I do fun. As a teacher, principal, and high school coach, I had so many responsibilities. I wasn’t able to spend as much time with the game as I would’ve liked, so that’s why I got back into college coaching. As far as my approach to it, it’s not much different. I’m an education major and I still look at myself as an educator, but now I get to do it through hoops.”

WW: Just to clarify, you taught, were a principal, and you were the athletic director?

EH: “I had to teach like two P.E. classes, it was easy. (laughs) The kids came in with a plan to me and I monitored their plan of action. You can say I taught, but I didn’t do much teaching. I was at Burlington Central five years, and my first three years, I was athletic director, assistant principal, and boys’ basketball coach. After the third year, our principal retired, and the board asked if I had any interest in taking over as the principal. I asked ‘can I still coach basketball?’ If I couldn’t coach basketball, I had no interest. So yeah, I was principal, boys’ basketball coach, and athletic director my last two years. It was a lot!”

WW: You’ve coached at both North Dakota State and South Dakota State as an assistant. Why is this such a fertile rivalry?

EH: “Both schools have a very similar philosophy. They’re very student-athlete centered, and from the administration down, they want to make the student-athlete experience as good as possible. They both have intense, active fanbases that makes it enjoyable! When people care about something, it gives it more value and meaning. I can say the same for both schools, to be honest. Both badly want to be successful, and they put a big priority on it. Going to Division I at the same time and competing for similar goals makes it a big-time rivalry. Finally, the most important thing is that there’s a tradition of winning at both schools across multiple sports.”

WW: Counting 2020, the last nine Summit League conference championships were won by NDSU or SDSU. Why do these two schools have a stranglehold on the Summit?

EH: “A lot of it has to do with stability. North Dakota State has had a bunch of success, and their last two hires have been within. That helps, and it makes their foundation solid. For the most part, other than bringing TJ [Otzelberger, now UNLV coach] in, it’s been the same at South Dakota State. Coach [Scott] Nagy, now at Wright State, was here for 20+ years. The support for both programs and passion for both is really something that helps them be successful.”

WW: Your offense this year was one of the most enjoyable to watch in all of college basketball, and you posted a record for 2PT%. Why were you this successful in getting consistent scoring inside the perimeter?

EH: “It starts with keeping things really, really simple. We had some turnover with personnel and we graduated over 6,000 points and 3,000 rebounds. I was a brand new coach coming in, and it was really important for me to keep things simple for our guys. We wanted to work on skill development and then let our guys play free and confident. As far as our 2PT% and why I feel it was really high, our group was really selfless. We passed the ball extremely well, and it started our post players. Doug [Wilson] was our conference MVP, and Matt Dentlinger was great too. Not many teams have the capability to throw it in to two different guys on the block. The only way you can continuously get post touches is if everyone plays selfless. If someone gets double-teamed, find the open guy.”

WW: You got to 22 wins this year with one of the youngest rosters in all of college basketball. How were you able to find success this quickly in what easily could’ve been a rebuilding year for the Jackrabbits?

EH: “A little bit goes back to the selflessness. We had some returners that played, but their roles were minimal. Of our top seven guys at the end of the year, we were playing four freshmen, two sophomores, and a junior. After Doug Wilson got hurt, we didn’t play a junior or a senior! Doug’s ability to impact the game in so many different ways early was really unique and special for our team. I always knew he’d be a great defender and could guard multiple guys, but offensively, he was way more effective than I thought he would be. We were able to play really efficiently when he was on the court. When your best player and the conference MVP is one of your hardest workers, your team can have great chemistry.”

WW: I want to ask about a specific game from this past season: the double-overtime win at Cal State Bakersfield back in November. KenPom rated this as the single-most tense game of the entire season. What was most memorable about this game?

EH: “The most memorable was that we were down and out a couple of times in end-of-game situations and we didn’t panic. We were able to make a couple of huge plays. The thing that stands out is that we had four freshmen in the game in the overtimes due to players fouling out. They stepped up and made big plays. It was a big moment for our season. That was our third game of the year, one of our first road games, and it gave us huge confidence for the rest of the year. Baylor Scheierman, a freshman, made some absolutely massive plays in that game. I know it’s got to be high on KenPom’s numbers in the sense of tension because it was within a couple possessions the entire game.”

WW: I pulled up the boxscore to double-check, and yeah, neither team had a lead of more than six points.

EH: “That’s incredible! Like you said, it was very intense. I genuinely didn’t realize those stats when you told me, to be honest. It’s pretty cool!”

WW: Your first season as a Division I head coach was pretty ideal: 22 wins, a share of the Summit League regular season title, and every player but one returns for your 2020-21 team. What’s the next big step for the Jackrabbits as a program?

EH: “This is how we approach things. At the beginning of the year, as our team comes together and we talk about what we want to accomplish, we have never one time put a goal in front of us of making the NCAA Tournament. That’s never been something we talk about. We talk more in the sense of how we can get better today. Let’s not dwell on what we’ve already accomplished. We can be proud of it and celebrate it, but we can’t count on those moments to make us successful going forward. Let’s approach every single day as an opportunity to improve ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to win our conference tournament, our goal becomes how high of a seed we can get. Truthfully, there’s maybe six leagues in the country that will be safe multiple-bid leagues. Everyone else is in the same boat. We’ve gotta be able to go play teams like Buffalo, and a game like that can be the difference between a 13 seed and a 12, or a 14 seed and a 13. If we have a really special year like Steve Forbes and ETSU, we could get a 10 or 11. But we don’t really talk about it with our guys.”

WW: Final question: what’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

EH: “Uno for life, baby! When the two littles go to bed, my wife and I have some epic Uno games.”

Earlier in the year, I made this video of some of South Dakota State’s best offensive plays. It’s a bit shorter than what I usually do, but it sums up a lot of what they do well.

Program Reviews: Slowly and steadily, St. Francis (PA) is becoming an NEC force

Tucked away in tiny Loretto, PA, a town of 1,302, sits one of the most unsung stories in college basketball. It hosts a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991, has won the regular season conference title once from 1992 to 2020, and sits in KenPom’s Program Ratings at 316th out of 353 schools. By all accounts, you would be forgiven for not thinking twice about this program. However, I think the college basketball world at-large should be taking a much closer look at what Rob Krimmel is accomplishing with the St. Francis (PA) Red Flash.

Krimmel’s story is remarkable in its own right: born in 1977, he played all four seasons of college basketball with St. Francis. After graduation, he did the only thing he could imagine doing: becoming an assistant on staff with St. Francis in 2000. Fast forward to spring 2012, and St. Francis is now in need of a new head coach after Don Friday’s retirement. Many options arise, but only one looks to make perfect sense for the university: a then-34-year-old alumnus sitting on the staff, waiting for his opportunity.

When Krimmel took the job, it could charitably be described as one of the least-memorable college basketball programs in America. The program cracked double-digit wins in a full season just once from 2005-06 to 2011-12, and they hadn’t won more than 10 games against Northeast Conference opponents since 1996. When you think of the NEC, you probably think of three schools: Robert Morris, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Long Island University. At that time, Saint Francis may have been the second or third-lowest school on the list.

Over the course of the last eight seasons, though, things slowly changed. A 16-16 run in 2014-15 represented St. Francis’ most wins since 1997-98. An 11-7 conference run in 2016-17 became the most successful season in conference play since 1995-96. They continued to slowly build upwards until this season, when they became something special: 22-10, 13-5 in NEC play, and a program-high #176 ranking in KenPom. The offense ranked 81st nationally, the highest-rated offense the NEC has produced in seven years. While they fell short of their ultimate goal of an NCAA Tournament bid, seasons like this make it obvious what many around the program would’ve said for years: Rob Krimmel is doing incredible work at a job that receives zero national coverage.

I talked to Coach Krimmel recently to discuss his program’s rise, what it’s like to spend your entire college and professional career at the same place, and how he plans to build on this special season going forward.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

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

Rob Krimmel: “The heart of what we believe is in development in a couple different layers. Developing basketball players, obviously, is a huge part. Of course, we also want our athletes to get their diploma. Another huge part is developing relationships. Getting guys to believe in themselves and each other is part of the development process. Two key words for us as a program are “development” and “believe.” When we first started this thing eight years ago, the biggest thing was how we could develop relationships with our guys. We’ve had very few transfers in the last eight years, and I think that goes to players believing in each other and developing as part of the program.”

WW: You’ve spent your entire professional and college career at St. Francis, from 1996 to now. You’re a true university lifer unlike just about anything we see in Division I athletics. What makes St. Francis such a special place to you?

RK: “The people. It’s one of the hardest things right now with recruiting – we can show recruits numbers, highlights, and various awards, but they can’t connect with the people on our campus. We have great people not just in athletics, but in our dining hall, our faculty and staff on campus, the campus police, the maintenance people, etc. Our campus is situated on top of a mountain in rural Pennsylvania. When you leave there after four years or four days, you get that sense of family. When you’re away from here, you realize how special that place is.”

WW: How did you land at St. Francis in the first place?

RK: “You want to hear a crazy story? My first trip up, I did not like Loretto. I went on an unofficial visit going into my senior year. I grew up in State College, where Penn State is. I was going to go to a school where there was lots of students and there were a hundred thousand people at a football game. This campus was the exact opposite – a small campus with not much around it, relative to State College. I’m driving down the mountain after the visit and I tell my dad, ‘I’m not going there.’ Couple months later, I went on my official visit and stayed with Tom Fox, my host. I committed that weekend and I never left. My son Thomas is named after Tom Fox, actually.”

WW: It’s been a long, slow build, but you’ve taken St. Francis from the NEC cellar to four consecutive top three NEC finishes, an NIT bid, and the second-most wins in school history this season. What’s been the most challenging, and rewarding, part of this job?

RK: “The most challenging part is building each year. Under the current state of college basketball, kids at our level are leaving. However, I think that’s also the most rewarding part – when those kids stay for four years, get their diploma, and see it out. You get to see kids progress. They grow as people and as players. Kids like Keith Braxton and Isaiah Blackmon, there’s a challenge of keeping those kids motivated. Keith becomes Freshman of the Year, then first-team All-NEC as a sophomore, then Player of the Year as a junior. How do you motivate that player for his senior year? Same thing with Isaiah, who was this year’s Player of the Year. To see those kids progress here instead of leaving for somewhere else, that’s special. Something else worth noting is our staff continuity. Our associate head coach was an assistant when I played here. Eric [Taylor] has been an assistant with me for eight years and we played together. Umar [Shannon] was a senior my first year. Luke [McConnell]’s dad was my college coach. It’s been rewarding to have that group together to see this steady rise.”

WW: This particular St. Francis team was fun to watch offensively – a team with several quality offensive players that hammered the boards and limited their own mistakes. Why do you think this particular offense was so successful?

RK: “A couple of things. Number one, we had an experienced group – we had five seniors. At our level, you need experience, and that’s why we have the challenge of recruiting four-year guys. The other thing is having good players. Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton are the last two NEC Players of the Year, which makes my job a lot easier. We were also a little bit better defensively this year, which helps us on the offensive end. If we can control the glass and keep teams to one shot on us, that’s a great thing. We don’t want to play fast, we want to play efficient. We also really understood how to play in transition off of those stops. One last thing: we spent a lot more time on underneath OOB plays this year and we were much more efficient on them.”

WW: Both Isaiah Blackmon and Keith Braxton were clearly excellent players, with Blackmon winning the NEC POY award and Braxton being KenPom’s pick for the best player in the NEC. What sets these players apart from others you’ve coached?

RK: “They’re both extremely talented kids, and both have a chip on their shoulder. Isaiah went through two ACL surgeries and was always kind of an afterthought to most. Sometimes, he’d play well for stretches and then disappear. He wanted to prove to the league that he was the best player. Keith had that chip on his shoulder from the time he came in. No one in D-1 was interested in him other than us. He wanted to prove everyone wrong. They both work extremely hard, too. At the bottom of it all, they’re great kids from great families. The way they were able to connect and co-exist is a credit to who they are as young men. We’re gonna miss ‘em.”

WW: What’s your favorite win you’ve had as a coach?

RK: “Oh boy. Singular? After 25 years? I think I can narrow it down to a couple. Obviously, the buzzer-beaters are memorable, and the buzzer-beater Keith hit to beat Wagner in 2016-17 to send us to the NEC championship game was big. When you think of monumental wins, you think of ones that kind of turned the tide. One was my second year when we beat Bryant in the conference tournament. We were the first lower seed to win on a home court when we beat them. The next year, we had a winning record for the first time in ages and beat Rutgers. We got to be a part of a couple buzzer-beaters this year. The St. Joseph’s game this year was neat, because we have a huge alumni following in Philadelphia. The Jacksonville game in the CIT [in 2017] was awesome. Andre Wolford was the MVP, and when we got back home, we offered him a scholarship. He would’ve gotten it either way, but for him to do it in that fashion was pretty cool.”

WW: This was the best team to play at St. Francis in nearly 30 years, and you do return several players for next year’s squad. What’s the next big step for the Red Flash as a program?

RK: “The next big step, obviously, is to win the big one! We’ve checked every other box – regular season title, NIT appearance, various awards, 20+ wins. It’ll be neat for our next crop of kids to hopefully experience that. Any one of them could be the next Isaiah Blackmon or Keith Braxton. It’ll be a fun and different group to coach – we’ll be a lot bigger than we’ve been in the past. Next year, we have to raise the bar and show people we’re one of those top mid-major teams come March.”

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

RK: “My kids! I’m daddy-teacher right now, so from 8:30 to noon, it’s school. It’s neat, because I’m usually not home much during this time of year. Every day is a different challenge, and that’s my entertainment.”

Below is a video with some of my favorite plays from the games I sampled.

Program Reviews: Chris Jans and New Mexico State can’t stop winning

If you follow college basketball at all, especially in the month of March, you’re very familiar with the New Mexico State Aggies. Seemingly every year, they enter the NCAA Tournament as a 12 or 13 seed, give a 4 or 5 seed a 40-minute scare, and remind you that no one wants to draw this team in March. In this way, they make a lot of sense to me as Western Belmont: they may not have a signature March moment in recent history, but every coach dreads seeing their name come up in a Round of 64 matchup. Ask Bruce Pearl, Tom Izzo, and Steve Fisher: all coaching legends that have been pushed to the absolute brink by a program that resides near the Organ Mountains and a whole lot of government workers.

There’s more to this program than March, obviously, but for a long time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that was it. An astounding and true fact about the Aggies: they actually only won their regular season conference title once between 1999 and 2015. In theory, they shouldn’t have been a March mainstay at all. And yet: they won their conference tournament five different times in that span. In fact, they’ve won the WAC conference tournament eight times in the last ten years. (NMSU would’ve been a massive favorite to do it again this year prior to the cancellation of March basketball.) That’s unbelievably consistent for any program, but it’s more surprising for a program that, for a long time, struggled to stay at the top of the conference from November to February.

That’s where Chris Jans comes in. Since Jans’ arrival, NMSU is three-for-three in winning the WAC regular season title and two-for-two in the conference tournament. He’s making things look pretty easy, as the Aggies are 43-3 against WAC opponents in the regular season since his arrival. This year, they went a perfect 16-0, with nine wins by double digits. From December 18 onward, the team went 19-0 against all opponents, including a massive road win at Mississippi State on December 22. (We’ll talk more about that one in the interview.) All of that is obviously great. It’s made even more impressive by the fact New Mexico State suffered three injuries before the season even started and had eight different starting lineups in its first 17 games.

This year could’ve been New Mexico State’s best shot yet at their signature March moment. Under head coach Neil McCarthy in the early 1990s, the program was also a March mainstay, and they took advantage: a Sweet Sixteen run in 1992, a second-round run in 1993. Since that 1993 win, the Aggies are a painful, unfortunate 0-for-11 in finding a March win. They’ve had several close calls, and statistically, at least one of those games should’ve gone in their favor. Good news for Aggies fans: as long as Jans is your coach and the level of program support remains this high, the signature moment for New Mexico State basketball will come soon enough.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

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

Chris Jans: “We’re not really a slogan program. When you walk into our facilities, be it our locker room or our practice facility, you’re not gonna see a bunch of slogans slapped onto the wall. It’s just not our approach. We talk about within our program of a “why” and such, but we mostly have an attitude of trying to get better every day. In terms of on-court philosophy, our staples that we talk about on a daily basis are rebounding, defense, and toughness. We think that travels a lot better than your offensive repertoire will outside of your home court. We also want to have the right mindset off the court – be a good guy and treat others like you’d like to be treated. At a place like New Mexico State, people know who you are and a lot of eyes are on you.”

WW: For 15 years now, New Mexico State has consistently been one of the best mid-major programs in college basketball, a school that no one looks forward to drawing in March. What makes NMSU such a special place to play?

CJ: “First and foremost, I think it’s name recognition. People in the industry recognize New Mexico State men’s basketball across the country. When you call coaches in high school or AAU, along with prospective student-athletes, you don’t have to explain to them who you are. It’s a nice feature. The fan base is very real. The people here in the community truly care about this program. They want to win, obviously, but it’s deeper than that. There’s a relationship between the team and the community that goes far behind our three years here. It’s been developed for decades; we merely inherited it and are trying to enhance it. This program just means a lot to so many people. The fans want to root for the kids, both as people and as players.”

WW: This year’s NMSU team struggled through injuries and cycled through eight different starting lineups in the first 17 games. Once your lineup was settled somewhat, though, you went undefeated in conference play. What was the most challenging part of this season? The most rewarding?

CJ: “It certainly was a roller-coaster year on the court. I’ve been coaching for 28 years on different levels in different capacities and I’ve never been a part of a program that had anywhere close to the number of injuries we sustained. We were so excited in the offseason heading into this year. We’re coming off a 30-win season, got beat by Auburn by a point in the first round, but we had four starters and seven seniors returning. On paper, we were elated about this particular team being our best one yet. Our summer workouts were unbelievable, and the competitive level among our players was the best I’ve seen. I had to do interviews like everyone else in the offseason, and I told people we’d be really good. I can’t go on them and say the ‘I don’t know how good we’re gonna be’ stuff.

The second week of October, we had three guys go down within a 24-hour period. It was literally the day of our season kickoff event, one of the biggest fundraising events we have. A.J. Harris, Clayton Henry, and Wilfried Likayi all had varying injuries and it changed everything. As the head coach, the team can go off of your mood and actions. For a 24-hour period, it was borderline depression. At the banquet, I wasn’t in the best mood, and our fans knew about the injuries. We took a day to feel sorry for ourselves and then we got back to work to attack it as best we could. We struggled hard in the non-conference schedule, but the Mississippi State win was what empowered us and gave us confidence the rest of the way.”

WW: You’ve carried over the rebounding dominance of your predecessors in Menzies and Weir and have become one of the very best defensive rebounding teams in basketball. Why do you value team-wide rebounding to this extent?

CJ: “One, having worked with Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. It’s something he emphasizes as head coach and it’s something he’s worked at since his days at Winthrop. Two, I read a simple stat along the way. Teams that win 80% of the ‘game-within-the-game’ rebounds end up winning the actual game. Seems to me like that’s something you’d want to emphasize! (laughs) The other way I look at it is that I’ve been a sports fan my whole life. In football, you used to track time of possession really close. We sell to our guys that we probably aren’t going to have the ball for most of the game. Any chance you have to get that ball, you’ve got to take advantage of it. Rebounding is something you can rely on to pull you through when you aren’t shooting the ball well.”

WW: Your level of three-point shooting is a complete 180 from the Menzies NMSU era: where Menzies’ teams took fewer threes than almost anyone, your teams have ranked in the top 20 in three-point attempt rate the last two seasons. Why make this shift towards taking more threes?

CJ: “I think the shift has been made by basketball in general. I’m somewhat old-school but not afraid of new-school, and feel like I’m fairly well-versed in analytics. We’re not a program that’s disgusted with our players if they shoot a mid-range shot, but we certainly talk about when we should take them. When we get enough data for each player, both in game and in practice, we show it to them and want them to understand the math behind their shots. At the end of the day, I ask so much of our guys on defense that I want them to feel good and be confident on offense. I was raised with the mentality of ‘turn down a good one to get a great one,’ but at the same time, I want them to feel empowered to take those kind of shots. We don’t really talk about threes that much with our guys, but I’m a fan of it. Obviously, it makes a lot of sense analytically, and it helps us with offensive rebounding.”

WW: Defensively, I think your teams are really good at forcing opponents to score one-on-one off the dribble as opposed to a catch-and-shoot situation. Do you place an added emphasis on this within your defensive system?

CJ: “It’s interesting you say that. Each year, I get more and more familiar with KenPom and the analytics world. That stat (NMSU regularly ranks among the nation’s best in opponent assist rate.) is crazy to us. We’re not a team that’s really focused on it, but wow, what a random stat to be good at. (laughs) It comes from a couple things. We want to take away catch-and-shoot opportunities from the best shooters on the court, but I also think that comes from taking away a team’s set plays. We want teams to score in unnatural ways. Something we’ve started talking about as a team is motivating our guys to get better at defending one-on-one.”

WW: I want to ask about a specific game from this past season: the December win at Mississippi State. It was a defensive battle, but I know that no win of this caliber is too ugly. How big of a win was this for your program?

CJ: “I like winning ugly! I love when I get the text messages from friends, family, and fans after a game with something to the effect of ‘we’ll take them any way we can get them.’ I laugh when I get them. It’s so hard to win in Division I! Winning ugly is a good thing, because it means you played hard and showed some grit and grind to your team. Any time we get a chance to play a Power 5 team, our kids get excited. Some of them may have even played at that level, while others feel they should’ve been at that level. It provides more exposure for your program nationally. In terms of that game in particular, we came into it really struggling because of the injuries. They were scary when scouting them because of their size, but we knew if we could rebound with them, we had a chance. It just gave us such a huge confidence boost, and our players came back from it more focused and energized.”

WW: What’s the next big step for NMSU as a program?

CJ: “The obvious answer is to win games in the NCAA Tournament. This program has a rich tradition of winning, and it’s amazing how many times they’ve won the conference tournament. Something I didn’t realize before I took the job because of their success in the conference tournament is the lower number of regular season conference championships. Prior to our arrival in 18 years before us, they’d won a total of four regular season conference championships, but no one knew about that because they always won the postseason conference championship. One way our staff and team can put our stamp on this program is to win the regular season conference championship as much as we can.”

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

CJ: “A lot more TV! Obviously, I’d imagine everyone out there that’s going through a stay-at-home order is watching a lot more TV than they normally do. We’ve watched a lot of Netflix. My wife and I have somewhat different tastes, so Narcos or Peaky Blinders or Ozark may not work for her – the gore turns her off. She’ll go find another TV to watch something she enjoys. Recently, we started watching Schitt’s Creek and we’ve found common ground on it.”

Below is a short video featuring some of my favorite plays from the games I sampled.

Program Reviews: UNC Greensboro’s defense will hurt you

Nestled in Greensboro, North Carolina is one of the most remarkable stories in the last several years. It represents everything we like to celebrate about humans: our willingness to keep going in the face of despair, how we strive even when we operate in obscurity. The story itself takes place over multiple decades, likely baffles many, and ends up as a story just about anyone could celebrate. I am talking about the Reply All episode that takes place in Greensboro, but I am also talking about the UNC Greensboro Spartans, a turnaround the likes of which college basketball rarely sees.

The first basketball game I attended as a student at the University of Tennessee was an early November 2011 fixture between the Vols and the Spartans. UNC Greensboro was coming off a brutal run of play: a 20-72 run over a three-year span, never ranking higher than #253 at the end of a season in KenPom. Mike Dement brought the Spartans to town, and it was a very predictable outcome: Tennessee held a 19-point halftime lead and cruised away comfortably, winning by 29. It would’ve been hard for anyone to think much of UNCG at this time, and barely a month after this, head coach Mike Dement would resign after a six-season run and a 69-125 record. Taking over the head coaching role would be Wes Miller, a 28-year-old that was barely four years removed from playing college basketball at North Carolina.

The first few games went as anyone would’ve expected. Miller started his career as a head coach losing his first six games, and by January 12, 2012, the Spartans were 2-14, a moribund team well on their way to another forgotten season. Then something strange happened: the Spartans defeated a solid College of Charleston team to improve to 3-14. Then they won again. Then they won again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Out of nowhere, a 2-14 team went on a seven-game winning streak. UNCG would finish the season with a shocking 10-8 record in conference play, and Miller was named the full-time head coach at season’s end, with a Southern Conference Coach of the Year Award in his back pocket.

For several years after that initial success, UNCG slowly, steadily improved as a program. As recently as 2015-16, a 15-19 record represented UNCG’s most wins in a season in eight years. Then, they took off: 25 wins in 2016-17, 27 the next season, 29 the next, and then a 23-9 record this year. The four winningest seasons in school history are owned by Miller, and the program has finished in the KenPom Top 100 for three straight seasons, an accomplishment unthinkable even five years ago. He’s done it on the back of a defense that takes no plays off and has had the help of a hyper-intense point guard that loves the game and loves frustrating opponents. It’s all combined into a tantalizing mix of talent, potential, excitement, and overall success in Greensboro.

I got to talk to Miller about the road from 20-72 to 29 wins, why he made the switch from a traditional half-court defense to a 3/4-court 1-2-2 press, and how his background in playing under Roy Williams at North Carolina informs what he does today.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

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

Wes Miller: “I think the philosophy of our program is that we’re built on two key foundations: we’re going to try to be about growth every single day, both on and off the court, and this other aspect of always working towards our players getting a holistic education. If you understand that our mission every day is to grow and that the idea is to provide every member of our organization a holistic education, then you can understand our values.”

WW: Before you took over the head coaching job, UNC Greensboro was a completely different program. You won more games this past season (23) than UNCG won in the three years prior to your takeover (20). What’s been the biggest change from 2012 to now?

WM: “It’s hard to put simply because it hasn’t been a simple road. The path from the time I got hired here to where the program is today can’t be explained in a couple sentences. It’s not been a consistent, gradual process. We’ve had a number of moments where we’ve taken humongous leaps forward, but we’ve also had moments where we’ve taken steps backwards. It’s been a tumultuous, yet rewarding process. To try to sum it all up, I think it’s obvious we’re at a different place as a program now. The success in terms of winning and losing and postseason play is better, but the overall day-to-day culture and the buy-in in our program is significantly different. That’s from the university level all the way down to our players and our managers.

As the interim coach in 2011-12 – it’s funny, I don’t reflect on this often – I was really fortunate that the kids were willing to listen to me as a young, unproven guy. I think what happened when we got the job full-time is it wasn’t so simple anymore. We couldn’t find simple solutions in practice or in structuring the team. We had to figure out how to build a sustainable culture and mindset that could lead to some sort of sustainable success, which was a long, gradual process for our staff and I. Looking back now, I value that time more than any other time as a coach, because it helped us get to where we are.”

WW: Not as many people talk about what you do offensively, but your level of shot volume is really impressive, both from a turnover prevention and an offensive rebounding standpoint. Why is winning the possession battle so valuable to your team?

WM: “That’s 100% right. It goes right back to my background and foundation in basketball at North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams preached that to us as players over and over – the value of a possession. He emphasized the ways he expects his teams to get extra possessions. Way before analytics was much of a thing, Coach Williams was coming in at halftime with his teams, talking about offensive rebounding percentage, turnover percentage, and points per possession. This was before there were websites devoted to it. We’ve kinda built our system here on those foundations of how to win the possession battle. We go about it in a different way, strategically, but the idea is the same.”

WW: One of my favorite players in college basketball the last few seasons is Isaiah Miller, a guy who seems to have boundless energy and is relentless on defense. What separates him from others you’ve coached?

WM: “He’s one of my favorite players, too. His will to compete is at the highest level of any athlete I’ve ever been around. His joy that he plays the game with sounds trivial, but it is so infectious and rare. Those two things separate him from others I’ve coached. Some people will say ‘why won’t you talk about his deflections or how he gets to the paint,’ but those two things make him way more unique to me. There’s no switch that turns on or off – his switch is always on when it comes to competing. His joy has a true effect on how people want to play the game with him. Certainly, I think he’s been one of the elite defensive players at his position in college basketball the last two years. I hope he gets more national attention, because he deserves it.”

WW: For most of the first half of your tenure, UNCG wasn’t much for forcing turnovers, but starting in 2016-17, that changed. Now, you force more turnovers per game than all but a handful of programs. What caused this shift in your defensive system?

WM: “Five years ago, we were really trying to figure out a way to play that was consistent with our personalities as coaches and was also something we were comfortable teaching. We spent a lot of time talking about ¾-court pressure, and we felt like the 1-2-2 was kind of the thing that checked all the boxes for us. Mike Roberts and I spent an incredible amount of time researching and studying it, and we put it in 4 ½ years ago and haven’t looked back. It hasn’t been successful because we’re the best coaches or teachers, but it fits the things we value and believe in and it’s consistent with our personality. We can recruit to it and we’ve learned how to coach it.”

WW: The fun thing about your defense is this: if opponents can get past Isaiah Miller somehow, they have to face James Dickey and Kyrin Galloway, both of whom ranked in the top 50 nationally in block percentage. Why is their level of rim protection valuable to your defense?

WM: “We’re aggressive at the top of our defense, whether it’s our press or our half-court man-to-man. We do try to play with great discipline and be sound, but when you play aggressively, there’s plays that will occur on the back line of your defense at the rim. You have to have rim protection, in my opinion, to play the way we try to play. Not just in terms of blocking shots, but altering shots and deterring drives makes it way tougher. We’ve been really fortunate that we’ve had a number of guys that can do that for us here.”

WW: I want to ask about a specific game from this season: the road win at Vermont in mid-December. To say the least, it was a defensive battle between two of the very best mid-major programs out there. How big of a win was this for your program, and how did you manage to hold Vermont to seven points in the final nine minutes of the game?

WM: “We felt it was one of the greatest wins we’ve had in our tenure at UNCG. We say that for two reasons: 1. We were facing an elite opponent that doesn’t get the national recognition it deserves. They’re as gifted and well-coached as we’ve played against. 2. We were playing in what I believe to be a big-time home court environment and advantage. Look at their record at home; it speaks to itself. I was really proud of that win and always will be. It was one of our better defensive efforts of the year. I think any time you limit an opponent to those kind of numbers at the end of a game, you can’t take all the credit as a coach and as a team. Our guys were focused and connected, and we did some really nice things, but we were fortunate that Vermont missed some opportunities and shots they should’ve made.”

WW: The season didn’t end the way you would’ve hoped, I’m sure, but UNCG is clearly in a far better place today than it was nine years ago. What’s the next big step for the Spartans as a program?

WM: “It’s just about growth here. We have big-time goals and dreams of being one of the elite programs in all of college basketball, but the next step is to get better today. That’s how we approach it here, and how we’ll continue to approach. We want to operate in a small manner by thinking about the day in front of us. It sounds trivial and boring, but we really do try to think and operate that way.”

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

WM: “I’ve been trying to teach myself how to cook. I’m trying to feed and entertain myself at the same time with that hobby. It’s like a competition with some of my friends – we share pictures of what we cook on social media and compare them to each other.”

Below is a selection of some of my favorite plays from the games I sampled.