Program Reviews: Colgate’s journey from Patriot League also-ran to 25 wins

Prior to 2018-19, the impact Colgate basketball had on a national scale was…minimal, at best. If you’re older than me, you may remember the Adonal Foyle teams that made the NCAA Tournament in 1995 and 1996. Even then, those two teams were 15 and 16 seeds, going one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament. It would be like asking someone to remember Lafayette’s back-to-back NCAA Tournament runs in 1999 and 2000. Long story short: this was a program that wasn’t doing too much, nationally or regionally. From 1996-97 to 2013-14, Colgate finished above .500 in Patriot League play just four times.

Then, in 2011, Matt Langel took over the job. Langel had spent his entire career with Fran Dunphy: first as a player at Penn, then as a Penn assistant, then following Dunphy to Temple. (Remember the guy that made this shot? Langel recruited him and developed him.) At the time of his hiring, Langel was just 33, young even for a first-time mid-major coach. At the time, Colgate had gone 27-62 in its last three seasons and hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament since Langel was 18. Developments were slow – 11-21 in Year Two counted as a four-win improvement over his predecessor – but eventually, Colgate slowly climbed up the Patriot League ladder.

Fast forward to 2018-19, and Colgate is playing Tennessee, the team I cover in-season, in the NCAA Tournament. For most of the first half, it looks like most 2 vs. 15 games look: a 15+ point win that excites no one and nobody ends up remembering. Out of nowhere, Jordan Burns begins heating up. He can’t miss, no matter where he shoots from the floor or how many defenders Rick Barnes has piled on him. Suddenly, a game Tennessee led 36-20 in the first half is now a Colgate 52-50 lead with under 12 minutes to go. The Raiders are over two-thirds of the way to their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory and the Patriot League’s first since Lehigh in 2012.

Most mid-major fans know how stories like this one ends: the high-major eventually regains power and, in a struggle, pulls away. Tennessee would win 77-70, but Colgate gained the respect of millions that day, not just those who reside in the Volunteer State. This year’s team was even better, and before an upset loss in the Patriot League conference championship to Boston University, was slated to make their second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Even without an NCAA Tournament run, though, Matt Langel has turned a job no one wanted into a job with serious potential. The Raiders are 49-20 in their last two seasons, a far cry from the 17-42 of the two seasons prior to Langel’s arrival. The last three seasons are the three winningest seasons in Colgate men’s basketball history. Langel, and his staff, have worked something close to a miracle in Hamilton, New York. I wanted to find out how it all went down.

(A fun statistical note I found that no one will care about but I couldn’t fit anywhere else: the 274th and 275th ranked programs by KenPom, Colgate and Radford, both had their best-ever seasons in 2018-19, finishing four spots away from each other.)

The below interview is lightly edited to ensure a more readable experience.

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

Matt Langel: “I think we have a mission statement about our program that has very little to do with X’s and O’s. It’s to try to compete for championships by exceeding our potential in the classroom, on the court, and in the community. As simple as it would be, that’s how we try and go about our big picture evaluation of our program.”

WW: You spent seven seasons as an assistant under Fran Dunphy at both Penn and Temple. How influential has he been on your career?

ML: “Hugely, significantly influential on my life, which in turn impacts my career. I think the best thing about college athletics is that you get to be around young people at a very formative time of their life. That’s what happened for me. In winning games, in championships, in devastating disappointments, both on the court and in the classroom, Coach was always there to support you and help you learn to figure out who you were, who you are, and who you’re going to be. Every step of my life since I was introduced to him in the recruiting process, he’s been a resource for me.”

WW: Prior to your arrival, Colgate had only cracked 15+ wins once since 1995 and had never touched the 20-win barrier as a program. Your last three seasons are the three winningest seasons in Colgate history. What, in your opinion, has changed over the last nine years to make this happen?

ML: “I sometimes wish I had a solution or a recipe because if I did, then I could retire and consult. I think that it’s a lot of things coming together. I was lucky as a young head coach to have the support of an institution. In Years One, Two, and Three, when things weren’t going great, they believed in how we were doing things. That didn’t change drastically over time; they just recognized that it might take some time. The second piece of it is that guys I’ve worked with over those nine years. We haven’t had a lot of turnover on our staff. If you look at staffs on our [mid-major] level, they’re not often able to stay and see things through. In nine years, we’ve only had two changes in assistant coaches – one was after Year One and the other after Year Seven when a coach got a D-3 head coaching job.

The third and most important thing is the student-athletes. Over these last three years, we’ve had a really special group of talented guys that are committed to one another. Everyone talks about the buzzword of “culture.” There’s been a growth of expectations when it comes to accountability and commitment. All of those things coming together have allowed for our program to reach this level.”

WW: Offensively, your teams have consistently been excellent at taking and making a lot of threes. What do you look for in terms of finding guys that fit what you run?

ML: “We try and find players that fit our institution. From there, we try and develop a basketball style that fit our players. With where we’re located and the demographic of those interested in our institution, we haven’t recruited a team that’s best-suited to press for 40 minutes and be aggressive defensively. Offensively, we have found that we’re best-suited to play a style of basketball that values ball movement, body movement, sharing of the basketball, and executing ball screens/dribble handoffs that put pressure on the defense to make decisions. It so happens that the last couple years in particular, we’ve had four and five guys on the court at times who are capable three-point shooters. If you have a lot of guys that can make that shot, it’s hard for the defense to cover them all.”

WW: As a Tennessee fan, the name Jordan Burns will pretty much always bring me nightmares. What sets him apart from other lead guards you’ve had on your previous teams?

ML: “He’s very talented, especially for our level. He’s got great body control. He came to us as a very good two-point jump shooter that could get to the basket. More so than anything else, he’s got a very strong belief in himself and a confidence level. He’s worked really hard and he feels like he’s done all this work and he doesn’t care who he’s playing against. That’s probably the biggest thing that sets him apart.”

WW: Something I’ve noticed throughout your time at Colgate is that your teams hold their own on the defensive boards against just about any opponent they draw. How much of a value do you place on winning the rebounding battle each game?

ML: ““It goes back to personnel. Clearly, to be an effective team in college, the possession battle is one that’s very important. We talk to our guys a lot about different ways to win the possession battle. It’s kinda obvious for basketball fans, but the total rebounding margin doesn’t necessarily matter. If you can get offensive rebounds, that helps you win the possession battle. If you can keep the opposition from getting offensive rebounds, that helps you win it, too. For example, last year’s team that played Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament was as big of a team as we’ve had. We went 6’9”, 6’9”, 6’8” in the frontcourt with a 6’5” guard in the backcourt. That presents at our level a good advantage, when it comes to rebounding.”

WW: I want to ask about a specific game from this past season. You played a Cincinnati team that won its conference on the road, hung around the whole way, and ended up winning on a finish unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Two questions: how big of a win was that for your program, and is that the strangest finish you’ve been involved in?

ML on the win: “It’s a huge win. I think that all young people grow up wanting to play on the biggest of stages against the best of teams. When you do end up getting to a place like Colgate, you end up circling those games. We play Syracuse every year, last year we played at Auburn and Clemson, and then Cincinnati this year. To go in there and hold your own is great, but to get over the hump, that’s something the guys wanted to do. The players wanted to prove that not only can they be in those games, like Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament, but find a way to win.”

ML on the finish: “The older I get, the less I seem to remember about games I’ve been involved in. Up until the last three seconds of that game, I’ve been involved in plenty crazier games. There’s been some KenPom games where we were 99% likely to win the game and didn’t. But the last three seconds, for a guy like Cumberland on Cincinnati to shoot when he did…I don’t know what really happened. It was certainly one of, if not the strangest endings I’ve seen.”

WW: With getting 49 wins in the last two seasons – four more than Colgate had combined in the four seasons before you arrived – you’ve obviously elevated Colgate basketball to a level it hasn’t touched maybe ever. What’s the next big step for the Raiders as a program, if there is one?

ML: “We don’t think of it like that. If we are working towards our values every single day, that’s what we want. We aren’t necessarily thinking ‘we’ve got to win in the NCAA Tournament’ or ‘we’ve got to get 26 wins,’ we’re just working to continue to improve what we do every single day. As cliche as it sounds, I think that’s where we are. We can never get comfortable and feel like we’ve arrived.”

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

ML: “I have a sixth-grade daughter, a fourth-grade son, and a kindergarten son. Once we get them to bed at night, I have to spend some time grading my son’s fourth-grade mathematics papers and getting the lesson plan together for the next day. I don’t know if I’d call it entertainment, but it does take a good deal of time. One thing we’ve been able to do is card games and board games as a family. On occasion, we’ve thrown in some family movie nights. My wife is the Netflix guru, so she’s got the run of Ozark. Last night, I watched two finales – Schitt’s Creek and Modern Family. I just follow her lead on the television front. I feel very fortunate that our family gets along as well as we do, because if we didn’t, this time would be disastrous.”

Here’s a basic highlight package of some of the more enjoyable Colgate plays I saw from games I sampled: