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.

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.

Program Reviews: UC San Diego’s best-ever season comes at the perfect time

One of the most unfortunate things about the loss of the 2019-20 college basketball postseason, obviously, was the NCAA Tournament. No, not the Division I men’s tournament – the Division II one. While the upper-tier tournament obviously would’ve been a fun, wild ride, this year’s Division II men’s basketball Tournament promised to be maybe its most competitive in history. The top four teams – Northwest Missouri, Lincoln Memorial, UC San Diego, and West Texas A&M – all entered the Tournament with one loss on the season. The fifth-best team, Florida Southern, was merely 29-2.

In the Division II Tournament, they treat the Elite Eight as Division I treats its Final Four: a neutral-site tournament that, if you make it to, you have as good a chance as anyone else to win. Plus, the teams are reseeded, creating even more chaos. In last year’s Elite Eight, 1 seed Northwest Missouri played 6 seed Point Loma for the national championship, and Point Loma may have not even been one of the six best teams in the Tournament to begin with.

This is where a great, unique school nestled in San Diego comes in. The UC San Diego Tritons actually ranked first overall in Massey Ratings’ survey of Division II and were in the top three of basically every metric I found. Considering most metrics sites had UCSD, Northwest Missouri, and Lincoln Memorial as near-equals (with West Texas A&M and Florida Southern very close by), it stands to reason that a game between any of the three would’ve been full of the excitement and tension we associate with the month of March.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, but UC San Diego’s special season – their best in program history – is coming at an ideal time. In under seven months, the Tritons will begin play as a member of Division I’s Big West Conference, and considering Massey had the Tritons as favorites over more than half of D-1 teams this year, they’re in a great position to succeed. Bart Torvik’s initial 2020-21 ratings have UCSD as a competitive figure in the conference already, and it’s reasonable to suggest that they’ll overachieve their initial rating. We watched Merrimack turn itself from a Division II squad into the best team in the NEC in their first year. Who’s to say UCSD couldn’t do something similar, albeit in a tougher conference?

I talked to UCSD head coach Eric Olen about the challenges of this move upwards, along with why this particular season was so successful and what it’s like to take over a program that was previously a D-2 also-ran. From 1995 to 2015, UCSD made just one NCAA Tournament postseason appearance, and it wasn’t until the last five years that Olen had turned this program into one ready for D-1 play. This year’s team could’ve ran into Division I on the backs of a national championship, but standing here after a one-loss season is a solid consolation prize.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

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

Eric Olen: “We want to have a program that’s committed to excellence in athletics and academics. We want to have competitiveness and resiliency, and we want to have guys that are well-rounded, high-achieving individuals. I think that UCSD lends itself to that type of person, because we have a high level of education.”

WW: You’ve spent your entire professional career at UC San Diego, first as an assistant and now as a head coach. What makes UCSD a special place to be?

EO: “I tell people all the time that San Diego is an unbelievable location – great weather and the beach! Our facilities are great, we have world-class education, but the best thing about our program are the people and kids in it. They make it fun to come to work everyday, and they’re a big part of why our whole staff has been together for a long time.”

WW: Behind Northwest Missouri, your Tritons were the second-most efficient offense in all of college basketball, per Synergy. What set this offense apart from previous teams?

EO: “Well, that starts with having really good players. The things that made this team special were talent and how mature and experienced our group was. They understood what we were trying to accomplish, in terms of our system, our shot selection, and buying into their own roles. All of those things help with your efficiency. It’s about both individual growth and collective growth.”

WW: You take over half of your shots from the field from three, which would be remarkable on its own…and yet, you hit 40% of said threes, which makes it even crazier. Why do you value the three-pointer this much?

EO: “Honestly, because we have good shooters. It’s not that we go into any season thinking we want a million threes. It’s more about taking what we can get and playing to our strengths. If you’re a good shooter, shoot it; if you’re not, don’t. I think that if you’re not a great shooter, shoot the wide-open ones and pass up contested looks. I think the higher-volume guys are typically shooting them the best. If you’re not going to hit them, we’ll limit how many you take. We got more than our share of catch-and-shoot looks, but we have players that can shoot well off-the-dribble, too. It wasn’t the plan to shoot a thousand threes, but sometimes we get more good threes than other shots.”

WW: I’ve talked about your offense, but your defense was excellent this season and deserves its own question. Your players did a great job of running shooters out of catch-and-shoot situations and forcing them to pull up off the dribble instead. Do you place extra emphasis on that?

EO: “Yeah. Some of that is scouting and personnel-dependent, in terms of how we want to dictate shots. We certainly try to protect the three-point line on our end. Sometimes, you look at your percentage you’re giving up and it may not be great, but I don’t know how much you can control the makes and misses as much as you control the attempts. Open catch-and-shoots are something we don’t want to allow. If you look at the efficiency numbers on what our opponents shot on catch-and-shoots, they weren’t good percentages for us, but we didn’t give up many in the first place.”

WW: What’s been the biggest change from the day you took this job to the end of this season?

EO: “Wow. There’s been a lot of changes. Our talent got a lot better – we’ve really upgraded our depth. Part of that is the transition to Division I and the resources we have now. That’s certainly a big part of it. Then you can start looking at facilities, all the things that are being renovated, support staff, etc.”

WW: As a program, you’re making the transition to the Big West this coming season. What is the thing you’re most excited about, and what is your biggest question you have to answer?

EO: “I mean, there’s some overlap in that question, honestly. The challenge of moving up a level and competing against better, bigger, faster, and stronger teams is both exciting and also a worry. It’s going to be a big change, going from being the favorite every single night in Division II to starting that climb all over again in Division I. Part of that is exciting, and part of that will be a huge mental adjustment for everybody. How will we handle that adversity? If we have some results that we’re not excited about, how will we handle them?”

WW: Obviously, this year’s UCSD team was a truly special one, and you had as good a shot as anybody at winning the national title in your final year of D-2 play. What will you remember most about this year’s team?

EO: “Just how special of a group they were. The belief in the locker room was a different feel, in terms of how they always knew they’d find a way to win. It’s hard to quantify, but you could feel it. We had some nights where we didn’t play good basketball, but they always found a way. Guys who’d play great second halves, get big stops when we needed them, playing through adversity and injuries, etc. Every basketball team has that, but when you have the resume we put together, you can take it for granted a little bit. It was a special, mature group that knew how to compete and how to win right from the start. It was really fun to be part of their team.”

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

EO: “I’ve got a two-year-old and a four-year-old, so it’s mostly Frozen and the YouTube cartoons we watch. When everyone falls asleep, though, we’ve started Ozark recently. That’s been something we’re getting into when I can get my wife to turn the reality shows off.”

Here’s a short highlight video containing some of my favorite plays from the games I sampled.

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.

Program Reviews: Stephen F. Austin is all pressure, all the time

Thanks to their work over the last several years, it’s easy to feel like Stephen F. Austin has been a March mainstay for our entire lives. However, it wasn’t always like that. Stephen F. Austin, a D-I program since 1984-85, didn’t make the NCAA Tournament until 2009. Even then, they were quickly dispatched from the field of 64 by Syracuse in the first round. It took Danny Kaspar nine long, hard years of work to get the Lumberjacks to the NCAA Tournament, and when he left SFA after the 2012-13 season – a 27-win season where they dominated the Southland, but lost in the conference tournament final – he wasn’t able to make it back.

However, Kaspar established a standard that’s been carried on by Brad Underwood and furthered even deeper by current coach Kyle Keller: a pressure cooker of a defense that forced tons of turnovers and makes life very, very hard on their opposition. Kaspar and Underwood’s teams were more deliberate offensively, though. Keller, now in his fourth season at SFA, has pushed the limit on both ends of the floor with the Lumberjacks. SFA ranked 65th in offensive pace this past season, their highest ranking yet in the KenPom era, and ranked #1 overall in defensive turnover percentage for the third time in five years.

The national identity for Stephen F. Austin is largely built upon two NCAA Tournament runs: 2014 and 2016. The 2013-14 Stephen F. Austin team entered the Tournament at an astounding 31-2 and played hyper-speed basketball on defense, forcing turnovers left and right. You remember this team because they forced overtime (and then beat) VCU on a truly ridiculous four-point play. You definitely remember the 2015-16 team that demolished West Virginia’s press by beating them at their own game, forcing 22 turnovers on 70 possessions. They very nearly became the first 14 seed since 1996-97 Chattanooga to make the Sweet Sixteen, falling a point short against Notre Dame.

While Keller has yet to have his own signature March moment, he came very close against future Elite Eight team Texas Tech two years ago when Stephen F. Austin led the Red Raiders 58-57 with under five minutes to play. (Unsurprisingly, no other team Texas Tech played in that Tournament forced more TTU turnovers than the Lumberjacks.) This year’s Tournament certainly could’ve provided this fun, exciting program another signature game. They’ll have to wait until next year, but there’s great things in waiting, too. This program knows a little about waiting, and my guess is they’re comfortable taking another year to reap the rewards.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

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

Kyle Keller: “On the court, everything we do is pressure. I think we have great synergy in what we do, both offensively and defensively. It’s about pressure and being aggressive. We want to be disruptive defensively and try to get the best shot we can offensively. Off the court, our philosophy from a staff standpoint is about trust. Can we build relationships and have trust with our players? The growth within from the time they get here to the time they leave is really important. Another word we use in our program a lot is love. I cry a lot and show a lot of raw emotion.”

WW: You spent the better part of 26 years as an assistant at five different Division I colleges, with 17 of those spent in the Big 12 and, later, the SEC. What attracted you to Stephen F. Austin when the job opened in 2016?

KK: “I’m a man of faith. God kind of led me here. I told my wife the last year at Texas A&M (2015-16) that this was the last year we’d spend at A&M. She asked ‘why?’ I said God’s speaking to me: enjoy this year, make memories with the kids. We won the SEC, made the Sweet Sixteen, all great things. I was involved in four or five jobs, and when Brad Underwood left Stephen F. Austin, the AD called me and said they’d consider me and it worked out. Following what Danny Kaspar and especially Underwood had done, it’s impossible to replicate that. As a coach, I really had my doubts I could ever get the program back to the point [Brad Underwood had it]. However, I just kept feeling drawn and led here. They really love basketball here at SFA, which is a rarity in Texas. I’m so blessed that we have this opportunity.”

WW: Your defense gets lots of attention, and rightfully so. However, few teams are quite as terrifying as yours offensively, in terms of hammering the offensive boards and consistently getting to the free throw line 25+ times a game. Why do you think this formula of crashing the boards and drawing fouls is so successful?

KK: “First off, thank you for asking about the offense. Everyone wants to talk about the defense. I don’t think we overcomplicate offense for our kids. They play with a free mind and can attack. Sometimes, you overcomplicate things – I’ve been guilty of it, because everyone wants to show they can coach. The Duke game actually really helped, because Coach K is so good in his simplicity. [This year], we focused on being great at a few things to allow our guys to play faster. Our guys didn’t have to think, and they were the most aggressive and toughest team most of the time.”

WW: What are some of the challenges of carrying on and attempting to further what Danny Kaspar and Brad Underwood helped build?

KK: “When you’re the winningest program in the state of Texas over the last decade-plus, there’s great expectations. I don’t take those lightly. I appreciate being here. I’ll never be the best coach at Stephen F. Austin, and I don’t have ambitions of being the best coach. For me, my goal is simple: I just want to coach the best team. For us, that means we need to win games in March, because that’s how we’re evaluated. We try to build our teams for March success.”

WW: Kevon Harris has been with you for all four years of your SFA tenure and surely ranks alongside Thomas Walkup as one of the greatest players in school history. What sets him apart from other players you’ve coached?

KK: “His work ethic is unmatched. He’s a loyal kid that had dreams of being in the NBA when he got here. He wasn’t a great shooter his freshman year and he asked me ‘why didn’t I get to play against Kentucky?’ I told him I didn’t trust him to make a shot. I really don’t think he’s left the gym since I said that. They moved the line back this year and he shot 42%. He allowed me to coach him, and great players want to be coached.”

WW: For what seems like my entire life at this point, SFA has always ranked among the nation’s best in forcing turnovers, and you’ve carried this tradition on as head coach. Why do you feel like having an intense turnover machine of a defense is so integral to SFA’s identity?

KK: “I go back to my lineage, the guys that I’ve played and worked for. All of them were aggressive guys – Leonard Hamilton, Bill Self, etc. For me personally, I think that for us to win NCAA Tournament games or beat Power 5 teams, we have to be different and unique to give us a chance. We don’t have McDonalds All-Americans. We have to do something different, and being aggressive and forcing steals gives us a chance to win these games. Kids like playing that way, and I think that’s why Brad [Underwood] was able to win those NCAA Tournament games.”

WW: The Duke win is probably the greatest win in SFA history, and I’m taking a wild guess that you might say it’s the biggest win in your career. Other than the Duke game, what’s your favorite win from your time at SFA thus far?

KK: “Beating Southeastern Louisiana to get into the NCAA Tournament two years ago was the most important win to me. For this year, the win I enjoyed as much as any was the game after Duke. We went to Arkansas State, and at that time, they were 5-1 and had won at Colorado State. Our team went up there and we were physically and emotionally drained. Our kids still played terrific – it was a close game at half in a hostile environment and we still won by 19. I knew it was going to be a special season after that.”

WW: This year’s SFA team was one of the best in school history, and you’re on track to return most of the roster for 2020-21. What’s the next big step for SFA as a program?

KK: “I think trying to play in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I think that’s why I was led here. I’ve coached in seven Sweet Sixteens, three or four Elite Eights, and a Final Four. I thought this team, depending on who we played, could’ve done it. We’ve got to get next year’s team to believe the same things we believed this year.”

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

KK: “I’ve tried to read more, but the thing I’ve been doing the most is playing board games with my family. We play a lot of Scattergories. I have a 10-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter, and every day, I’m thankful she came first, because my son can be a real piece of work.”

Here’s a few of my favorite plays from the SFA games I sampled.

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.