Exploring somewhat-sane proposals for the 346-team NCAA Tournament

Like a bolt of lightning in the dead late-summer air came this tweet across my timeline:

Content! Beautiful content. The ACC has achieved what the most daydream-prone among us have hoped for: pure, uncontrollable chaos. Nothing about a 346-team NCAA Tournament (11 of Division I’s 357 programs are ineligible for this year’s Tournament for various reasons) is normal at all, and all it can bring is something wild. Imagine the takes if 1 seed Villanova loses to 346 seed Mississippi Valley State in the shocker of a lifetime!

Of course, that exact scenario takes numerous leaps of logic to achieve. A straight 346-team tournament isn’t possible without either a laundry list of byes or play-in rounds. Everyone knows the NCAA Tournament loves money, and such a massive loss to a star team would be a monetary dent in terms of viewership and advertising dollars, both of which the NCAA needs in droves (apparently!) after the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament. That’s why I’d offer The Will Warren Somewhat Sane Solution. It is not the Everyone’s Easy Solution That Just Adds a Couple Extra Games.

(Quick aside: you can just turn the Field of 64 into the Field of 256 by having one play-in round for teams seeded 167 through 346, protecting the top 166. It’s not a bad idea, but forcing the top teams to win eight straight games instead of six both seems a little nuts and seems like it could massively overwhelm host cities. We’re assuming no/limited crowds for the purpose of this experiment, and having even 16 teams podded up in one city probably means at least a couple of hotels at full capacity. I went to school for English, not Hotel Management, so maybe this is actually fine, but who knows.)

Here is the Official guide to a plan I cooked up yesterday afternoon, along with questions I still have to answer:

1. A ladder system that protects the top 32 teams.

In order to ensure that proper respect is paid to teams that have a lot of success during the conference-only regular season (another assumption that I’m running with), I’ve instituted a system that gives the 32 best* teams a free run to the Field of 64. It’s how it would work in a normal season, so it seems fair to keep this part. What this means is that 32 teams out of the remaining 314 will have to play their way into the Field of 64 by way of our 1-to-346 seeded ladder system.

What’s a ladder system? Think of it the way they run it in the Korean Baseball League.

  • The fifth-seeded team plays the fourth-seeded team.
  • The winner plays the third-seeded team.
  • That winner plays the second seed…
  • And finally, that winner gets to play the first seed.

It’s a testament to how well you can sustain your success if you make it all the way up the ladder, and it rewards those who’ve had full-season success as opposed to those who get hot for a few games. How does our ladder system work?

2. Six play-in rounds, spread out over 10-14 days at neutral sites, that slowly whittle the field from 346 to 64 teams.

Bear with me here. This is pretty nuts, I’ll admit, but so’s the idea of a 346-team college basketball tournament in a sport ripe with variance. Anything can happen in any one game, which is why we’re introducing this ladder system as opposed to the 166-team protection. This enables full-season success to matter, while allowing a team to run their way from the bottom to the big time if they’re hot. It attempts to simulate Conference Championship Week in some form, though with more rounds than any individual conference championship.

Here’s how it works. Teams are reseeded by round; i.e., if the #334 team wins in the first round but no team below them wins, they will play the #212 seed in the second, and so on.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • Now, we could go right into a 256-team field and stop here. If we don’t, we have a third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The fifth round features the teams seeded 33-64 and the fourth-round winners for a total of 48 games being played, eliminating 48 teams to get to 80.
  • Now – finally – our final play-in round allows for teams seeded 49-80 to play each other for the right to be in the field of 64.

This is very much silly, but it also works. Teams are forced to climb their way up the ladder system to earn their spot in the NCAA Tournament in a system that somewhat simulates conference tournaments with much less structure and more chaos. You like chaos, right?

3. Alternately, the same plan, but with four play-in rounds and a 128-team field.

This allows for a shorter time period and is less complicated. Again, teams are reseeded after reach relevant round; if #340 beats #263 but no other team below them wins, they would play #212 in the next round.

  • Teams seeded 257-346 (90 teams total) will play each other from top to bottom – 257 vs. 346, 258 vs. 345, 259 vs. 344, etc. – in order to eliminate 45 teams. This leaves us with 301 teams after one round.
  • Teams seeded 212-256 (45 teams) will play the first round winners to eliminate another 45 teams, giving us 256 teams after two rounds.
  • A third play-in round that gets the field to 192 teams by way of teams seeded 129-211 playing the second-round winners.
  • For the fourth round, teams seeded 65-128 will play the third-round winners, pushing the field to 128 teams.
  • The Tournament is then seeded where 1 plays 128, 2 plays 127, and so on, with aims at ensuring region vs. region play.

Question: What about automatic qualifiers from non-Big Six conferences? We’ll have to work that out. Ostensibly, we could turn the Top 32 into the 32 conference champions/standings leaders at season’s end and it would work out just as well. Then, the final 32 spots are made up of the 32 teams that survive our ladder/play-in system. However…doesn’t it feel kind of weird to have a field where, say, 272nd-ranked-in-KenPom North Carolina Central is guaranteed a spot but 3rd-ranked Baylor isn’t? To be determined, folks. Though if you’re the third-best team in college basketball, you should be able to win against whoever you draw no matter what.

Question: How do we ensure smaller, lower-seeded schools can actually play each other? There’s a clear issue here, and I’m not totally sure how to resolve it under this format. For instance, what if Albany (in New York) draws Florida A&M (very much not in New York) in the first round? That’s a lot of travel costs we’d have to work out, and it likely isn’t worth it for Florida A&M. The best thing we can do is have one city be the host to as many games as possible, similar to the actual Field of 64. Perhaps for this specific example, the two teams could play in Washington D.C. at a neutral site. Someone smarter than me probably has an idea on how to do pods for this, and obviously, the 256-team field is much easier to work out. But it’s also not nearly as protective of those who’ve earned the right to be there.

Question: How long would both plans take? For the six play-in round structure, I think it could be accomplished over the course of 10-14 days – AKA, how long conference championship “week” usually takes – at multiple neutral court sites. We’d have to stuff 314 teams in no more than four cities, but I’d say it’s at least somewhat doable. For the four-round structure, we could realistically accomplish this in anywhere from 6-10 days. Again, this stuffs a lot of teams in no more than four bubble cities, but it also cuts the number of play-in teams from 314 to 218. However, it creates much more variance.

Question: Maybe a 96-team field? Sure! The in-between plan, which the NCAA almost implemented ten years ago. Just take the four-round plan listed above and add a fifth-round between teams seeded 65-128.

Let’s talk about “tiers” in college basketball

Recently, this graphic came to my attention:

I don’t really know the source of the image, but I assume it originated from a message board. Most of these things do. Anyway, I have some thoughts about it:

  1. Graphic design is clearly not this person’s passion. This thing looks like garbage – “All-Time” and “College Basketball Tiers” are not centered appropriately, black-on-gray almost always looks sad, and the team logos remind me of going to SportsLogos.com in 2005 to look at old logos.
  2. While some tiers are pretty good, others are…questionable. If you know much about college basketball history, it’s hard to question Tier 1 at all. Those five programs are the winningest in college basketball history, and no one else really comes all that close. As crazy as it sounds, the weakest selection is UCLA, a team that’s won more national titles than everyone else but has a lower WP% than anyone else in this group of five. But Tier 2, which features a Georgetown program with one appearance past the Sweet Sixteen since 1996, and UConn, a team with four titles but almost no pre-1990 success…that’s problematic.
  3. I think it’s probably accurate on the whole but could be tweaked to be better. Also, I’m bored and still in the house.

So, with that in mind and with little else to do after my day job ends at home, I set off to form a more perfect list, with tiers still in the mix. There’s a few different ways to fix this image, but on the whole, it’s a good start; this is more about tweaks than wholesale change. Here’s my theoretical fixes to this theoretical image.

  1. More thoroughly define the “tiers” of teams. We won’t change the “blue bloods” tier, because it’s basically flawless. However, “great” needs a better definition. Do “great” programs get there on the strength of continuous success? Do they get there because of title runs that mask periods of inadequacy? The same goes for “good” and “solid”, which are very close to being the same thing. Here’s my proposal: Tier 2 turns into Mostly Great, Tier 3 is Occasionally Great, Mostly Good, Tier 4 Solid and Reliable, and so on.
  2. Make separate lists for high-major and mid-major programs. The original image starts to hit a bit of a mess when it ranks these two separate classes with vastly different resources beside each other. For instance, Iowa and Penn rank alongside each other as Tier 4 programs all-time. At a very specific brand of face value, it makes sense; Iowa’s been to 26 NCAA Tournaments in its history, Penn 24. Here’s the issue: one of these teams plays a much harder schedule. Iowa ranks 13th all-time in Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System; Penn ranks 134th. We can’t realistically mash these two teams against each other unless it actually makes sense to do so. An important qualifier: Gonzaga will rank as a high-major in the last five and last ten years lists, as will every AAC team. While the AAC isn’t quite on the level of the Big Six typically, it’s close enough that they’re above being a mid-major conference. Gonzaga, meanwhile, is a new-era blue-blood.
  3. Make an additional list for the last five years. That way, we have an all-time list, Ken Pomeroy’s 23-year list, and a reading of how programs look to recruits in 2020-21. While UConn may rate out as the 19th-best program on Pomeroy’s list, it’s much harder to make that argument when narrowed to the last five years, when recruits have actually paid attention to college basketball. The average recruit for the 2021-22 season would’ve been about 13 years old in 2015, and it’s hard to expect a then-seventh grader to be following college basketball all that closely beyond a loose understanding of who’s been good in March.

Without further ado, here’s our All-Time, Last Five Years, and Last Ten Years lists.

All-Time College Basketball Tiers (Big Six + select MMs)

  • Tier 1: Blue Bloods. Same as the original – Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and UCLA.
  • Tier 2: Mostly Great. These are teams that, for most of their history, have been yearly NCAA Tournament fixtures, finish in the AP Poll Top 25, and occasionally win a title. This tier contains ten teams: Indiana, Louisville, Michigan State, Villanova, Illinois, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Michigan, Syracuse, and Arizona. For the most part, these teams have routinely been March fixtures, making deep runs and winning a good amount of conference titles. Historically, Indiana has been closer to Tier 1 than Michigan State, but five years from now, that probably won’t be the case anymore. Cincinnati, of course, looks like a questionable pick. But think about it: in 24 of the last 29 years, they’ve made the NCAA Tournament. They’ve finished ranked in the AP Poll 15 times. They do own a pair of national titles in the early 1960s, and other than the 1980s, they’ve consistently won their conference or contended for it every year post-World War II. They’ve yet to go beyond the Elite Eight since 1992, but I’m not sure it really matters; they are basically always a threat.
  • Tier 3: Occasionally Great, Mostly Good. Teams that make the NCAA Tournament a good amount of the time and every now and then make deep runs, sometimes winning a title. However, their success is not as sustained as Tier 2, and there may be lengthy periods in their history where they were mediocre-to-bad. Along with this, their identity lies in consistently being good, not great. This is the largest tier, with 29 teams included: Purdue, Iowa, NC State, Notre Dame, Maryland, Oklahoma, Marquette, Wisconsin, Memphis, St. John’s, Tennessee, Kansas State, UNLV, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Utah, Florida, BYU, Arkansas, Providence, Alabama, West Virginia, Dayton, Gonzaga, Virginia, Georgetown, Temple, Connecticut, and Texas. (A reminder that these aren’t really in any specific order.) Collectively, these 28 teams own 12 of the national titles in the 35-year period of the 64/68-team field, which is a good chunk of the pie. However: those top five teams own the other 15. (Tier 2 has eight titles among its ten teams, or just under one per program.) The most controversial inclusion here will obviously be Connecticut, a team with four national championships since 1999. However: the program had two NCAA Tournament appearances between 1967 and 1990, didn’t make a Final Four until 1999, and has had lengthy periods in its history – one of which they’re currently in – where the program was irrelevant on a national scale.
  • Tier 4: Solid and Reliable. Rare is it that these programs are outright bad, but even rarer is it that they’re truly attention-grabbing. These programs largely have lived for being an 8 or 9 seed with the occasional Sweet Sixteen run. Seventeen teams are in this tier: Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Florida State, USC, Washington, California, Iowa State, UAB, DePaul, Houston, Xavier, LSU, VCU, Pittsburgh, Western Kentucky, Saint Joseph’s, and Texas Tech. Remember that these are all-time, not recent; from 1976 to 1992, DePaul made 14 of 17 NCAA Tournaments and finished in the AP top 10 seven different times. If you’re 55 or older, you likely remember a time when DePaul was legitimately one of the six or so best college basketball programs. The flipside goes for VCU: they have a higher WP% than most of the teams in Tier 3 and some in Tier 2…but they’ve finished ranked in the AP Poll three times ever and the 2011 Final Four run is the only time they’ve advanced past the Round of 32. Likewise, Texas Tech had never advanced past the Sweet Sixteen until they hired Chris Beard. At one point in time, Western Kentucky was a yearly top 15 program or so…but the last time they were ranked period was 2001-02. They’re never bad, but they haven’t gotten anything above a 16 seed since 2009. We’re still giving them the honorary nod.
  • Tier 5: The Murky Middle. Odds are that these teams suffer from one of the following: a mediocre all-time record; not a ton of NCAA Tournament appearances; few deep March runs; few conference titles. They exist in a weird middle range where they’re not openly bad and not very good. Chances are that these teams have some good stretches in their past, and they’ve had flashes of greatness, but they aren’t often a consistent March fixture. Fourteen teams are in this tier: Oregon State, Oregon, Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Clemson, Colorado, Tulsa, Arizona State, South Carolina, Mississippi State, New Mexico, Seton Hall, Georgia, and Virginia Tech. Some of these teams have made a Final Four recently, and Oregon and South Carolina even made it in the same year. That’s nice! It also doesn’t excuse the fact that South Carolina has just two NCAA Tournament appearances since 1998 or that Oregon went from 1961 to 1995 without a single March appearance. (Phil Knight cures all, it seems.) Oregon State has made just one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1990, but for serious stretches of time (1975-1990, mostly), they hung around the top of the Pac-8 (and then Pac-10) yearly. In true Oregon State fashion, their 1980-81 and 1981-82 teams went a combined 51-7 but failed to make the Final Four both times. They haven’t won a Tournament game since, and odds are their brief 2016 Tournament appearance is the first time anyone under 30 has ever thought about Oregon State basketball. Seton Hall barely got in here, because despite being thoroughly mediocre from roughly 1957 to 1987, they do own a national title game appearance and have made several March appearances over the last three decades. The last truly great team they had was in 1992-93, though.
  • Tier 6: Baylor. They don’t really fit anywhere else, to be honest. It’s really hard to neatly find a spot for a team with seven 20+ loss seasons, multiple 20+ year NCAA Tournament droughts, and also two Elite Eight runs and a team that likely would’ve gotten a third this year. Historically, their lows have been lower than just about anyone in Tier 5…but so have the highs. We’ll punt.
  • Tier 7: Don’t Buy or Sell, It’s Crap. For the most part, these programs have a mediocre history and have won little of serious substance. Sometimes, one of these teams will pop up out of nowhere en route to a 3 seed and a self-immolation in the Sweet Sixteen. Seven teams go here: Miami, Boston College, Washington State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Penn State, and TCU.
  • Tier 8: Despair. This is the lowest of the low. These teams, for the most part, have never experienced serious success, and just making the Tournament feels like a heroic feat. Never mind actually winning a game! I get sad thinking about these programs. Five teams stand out here: Rutgers, Northwestern, South Florida, Southern Mississippi, and Tulane. Northwestern did make the NCAA Tournament in 2017, and Rutgers was well on track to do it in 2020. That being said…both schools would’ve been rapturously excited to be an 8 or 9 seed, because it would’ve been Rutgers’ first visit in nearly 30 years and it was Northwestern’s first visit ever. South Florida, Southern Miss, and Tulane are three mid-major programs with three post-1984 NCAA Tournament runs each, and it really feels like all three programs should be better…but they just aren’t. South Florida has lost fewer than 10 games in a season once in 47 seasons, Southern Miss’ only sustained success in my lifetime was immediately undone by Donnie Tyndall’s NCAA troubles, and Tulane hasn’t touched double-digit conference wins since 1997.

Okay! That was fun. Let’s now move on to the Last Five Years lists. Below are the same tiers, but simplified to the last five years only. The first list is high-majors + AAC + Gonzaga; the second list is mid-majors only.

The Last Five Years of College Basketball Tiers (Big Six, AAC, and Gonzaga)

  • Tier 1: The New-Age Blue Bloods. Hey, remember when the first list had an easy, widely-agreed-upon definition of Blue Bloods? That doesn’t exist right now. New powerhouses have risen up to become the best programs in college basketball. There’s a new top five program list in college basketball: Virginia, Kansas, Duke, Villanova, and Gonzaga. Four of the last five national titles belong to this group, and the teams without a recent title (Kansas and Gonzaga) have made at least three Elite Eights from 2015 onward. The most controversial exclusion(s?) from this list are covered in Tier Two.
  • Tier 2: Mostly Great. Same criteria: for the most part, these squads have been yearly NCAA Tournament fixtures, with half of them making a Final Four run and seven of the ten owning at least one Elite Eight visit. These ten programs are Michigan State, Kentucky, Purdue, North Carolina, Michigan, Louisville, West Virginia, Baylor, Cincinnati, and Texas Tech. A quick rebuttal to those who would like MSU and Kentucky in Tier 1: while the argument could exist, it’s hard to back it up statistically. Michigan State did make the Final Four in 2015 and 2019, but their 2016-2018 performances – Round of 64, Round of 32, Round of 32 – don’t measure up with those of the top five. Kentucky, meanwhile, hasn’t been to a Final Four since the 38-1 team and has slowly started to lose the edge they’d built in recruiting for years. They’re the class of the SEC, but the SEC hasn’t been one of the three best Big Six conferences since 2006-07, per KenPom. The Big East, a non-football conference with a significantly smaller budget than the SEC, is a clearly superior conference. Then again, those schools generally don’t make coaching hires as bad as the SEC’s.
  • Tier 3: Occasionally Great, Mostly Good. Teams that make the NCAA Tournament a good amount of the time and every now and then make deep runs, sometimes winning a title. Along with this, their identity lies in consistently being good, not great – the average team in this group has had one, maybe two top-4 seeds, but on the whole, they’ve not typically been one of the 16 best teams in the field. In a couple of cases, a team has made a deep run in the Tournament but has had a few down years otherwise. Tough selections were made in this one. Included in this group: Florida State, Oregon, Florida, Maryland, Xavier, Wisconsin, Houston, Wichita State, Creighton, Butler, Arizona, Seton Hall, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas State, Ohio State, and Auburn. The toughest selections were on both ends here: Florida State would have made it four straight NCAA Tournament bids this year, with three of those being top-4 seeds. They had a solid case for the Mostly Great tier. However: they haven’t topped 14th in KenPom in any of these seasons, and they started this parameter of time by missing the Tournament. They’re more good than great. Auburn, meanwhile, went 12-24 in SEC play over the first two years of our search. Objectively, they were bad, and it would’ve taken something heroic to even get them to touch this tier. The Final Four run in 2019 is just enough to push them into Tier 3; their 25-6 record this season belied them being the seventh-luckiest team in all of CBB. (Their “real” record would’ve translated to something like 22-9 and about 10-8…meaning with a less-unusual run of wins in coin-flip games, they could’ve been the sixth-best team in their own conference.)
  • Tier 4: Solid and Reliable. Rare is it that these programs are outright bad, but even rarer is it that they’re truly attention-grabbing. These programs largely have lived for being an 8 or 9 seed with the occasional Sweet Sixteen run. This tied for the largest group at 20 teams deep: Kansas State, Marquette, Miami (FL), Virginia Tech, Indiana, Clemson, Texas, Notre Dame, Iowa, Syracuse, Providence, TCU, Arkansas, SMU, UCLA, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, USC, and LSU. None of the top-end teams were serious threats to enter Tier 3, but LSU was a real threat to fall to Tier 5. They would’ve made the NCAA Tournament this year as an 8 or 9 seed, which would be fine…but their first three years of this run resulted in zero NCAAT runs and a 21-33 SEC record. Will Wade is a fantastic coach that will almost certainly get fired for something other than coaching, so I think they’ve done enough to rise into Tier 4. The team that statistically should be here but isn’t is South Carolina. The Gamecocks are a strange case: in the five years of this search, they never went worse than 7-11 in conference and did make the famous Final Four run in 2017. However: that’s their only NCAA Tournament run under Frank Martin, and it’s the only time they’ve ranked higher than 58th in KenPom under him. LSU has two seasons that are better, and even though their lows were much lower than South Carolina’s, they got the nod. South Carolina is solid and reliable, but not in terms of actually being a good Big Six program. One last note: SMU is the only mid-major in this tier, and it sounds ridiculous when you see their last three KenPom finishes: 84th, 107th, 88th. The first two years are what got them here: 16th in their tournament-banned 2015-16 (likely would’ve been a 5 or 6 seed) and 11th in 2016-17.
  • Tier 5: The Murky Middle. Odds are that these teams suffer from one of the following: a mediocre record; few NCAA Tournament appearances; fewer deep March runs; no conference titles. They exist in a weird middle range where they’re not openly bad and not very good. Like Tier 4, this group is 20 teams strong: South Carolina, NC State, Penn State, Alabama, Utah, Mississippi State, Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona State, Georgia, Northwestern, Ole Miss, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Temple, Memphis, UConn, UCF, and Tulsa. A lot of AAC teams slid in at the end. They haven’t ranked as well on KenPom/Torvik, but their overall records were enough to get them in here as opposed to Tier 6. In particular, Tulsa and UConn were problematic cases: both have only been to one NCAA Tournament in the last six years, and neither would’ve made this year’s field. That said, Tulsa did post three 12+ win seasons in the AAC in our search and UConn had four Top 100 finishes. Outside of Tulsa’s 2016-17 and UConn’s 2017-18, neither has really had a truly forgettable season. I’ll allow it.
  • Tier 6: Don’t Buy or Sell, It’s Crap. Generally, this group has few wins of substance and has made no real noise in March. A few of these programs could reasonably be in Tier 5 but didn’t make it for various reasons: a season that tanked their overall stock, a lack of NCAA Tournament runs, or never doing particularly well in conference play. Eleven programs stand in Tier 6: Washington, Nebraska, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, St. John’s (NY), Missouri, Oregon State, Rutgers, and California. Quick: do you remember that Cal actually started this five-year search by being a 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament? Also, do you remember that it ended with a double-digit loss to a 13 seed? That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking at. Washington, in particular, had a good case for Tier 5: they’re objectively better at basketball than probably five of the teams up there. However, their awful 2016-17 season tanked their stock, and the fact they haven’t topped 48th in KenPom since 2010-11 really puts a limiting ceiling on how high they can go. They should break into Tier 5 with another top 60ish season in 2020-21; Torvik projects them 42nd. Among this tier, only Stanford (23rd!) and Rutgers (31st) project higher.
  • Tier 7: Despair. Making the Tournament would be a heroic feat for these programs. “Success” is not sustained at all, and is best represented by the occasional .500 record in conference play. Only six teams fell to Tier 7: DePaul, Boston College, Washington State, South Florida, Tulane, and East Carolina. None were serious contenders for Tier 6, and you could easily make the argument that the bottom three teams here are closer to a Tier 8 than a Tier 6. For now, they’re together. South Florida’s 2012 NCAA Tournament bid is the only NCAAT bid this decade among these six programs.

Lots of words! Now, the mid-majors.

The Last Five Years of College Basketball Tiers (Mid-Majors Only)

A quick reminder: Gonzaga cannot really be considered a mid-major anymore; they routinely post top 10 recruiting classes and have poured a ton of money into basketball. In fact, Gonzaga puts more money into their basketball program than half of the Big Six programs. They’re a high-major now. As such: this list includes everyone other than Gonzaga and the AAC.

  • Tier 1: The Mid-Major Blue Bloods. Every year, you can trust these teams to be right at the top of their conference. They’re a yearly NCAA Tournament fixture, and it’s expected for them to make some March noise. These are teams that have routinely graduated from the 13-16 seed treadmill. This group is five teams deep: Saint Mary’s, Dayton, San Diego State, Nevada, New Mexico State, and VCU. Every year, you expect to see these teams in March. While Dayton and San Diego State’s stars are inflated a bit by unusually great 2019-20 seasons, they’re still March regulars and have histories of legitimate success. New Mexico State is the toughest case. They have fewer losses than any other mid-major not named Gonzaga, and a 2019-20 bid would’ve represented their eight NCAA Tournament run in nine years. Despite them not winning a single game in any of those runs, they still get in by virtue of pure dominance of their conference. They’re 80-8 in the WAC since 2014-15. VCU got a real ‘benefit of the doubt’ nod here; they went 8-10 in the A-10 this year and ranked 144th in 2017-18, but all of their six NCAA Tournament bids from 2012-13 onward have been as a 10 seed or higher.
  • Tier 2: The 12-14 Seeds. Tough one to work on here. Some of these teams are more like 11 seeds when they make the Tournament, but they’re not consistent-enough fixtures to be in Tier 1. Generally, these teams are either consistently great in lower-tier conferences or consistently good in the upper echelon (A-10, MWC, WCC) of mid-major land. Not all of these teams make the Tournament every year, but out of this batch of names, you can expect to see several in your bracket yearly. Tough cuts were made here, but we still ended up with 23 teams: BYU, Rhode Island, Belmont, Vermont, Davidson, East Tennessee State, Buffalo, Yale, St. Bonaventure, Boise State, South Dakota State, Utah State, UNC Greensboro, Furman, UC Irvine, Loyola-Chicago, College of Charleston, Stephen F. Austin, Hofstra, Princeton, Akron, Murray State, and Old Dominion. This group was always going to be huge, simply because there’s a much bigger pool of teams to pick from. Belmont and Vermont had the best Tier 1 cases, as both are yearly March fixtures and routinely win their conference…but neither have the March wins to be a blue blood. It is what it is.
  • Tier 3: Good-Not-Greats. Wide swath here: maybe these are teams that are always the fourth-best team in the A-10. Maybe they’re pretty good in a weak conference. Maybe they’re just good in an average conference. Either way, there’s a lot of ’em. I think there’s 41 teams here: Fresno State, San Francisco, Winthrop, Northern Iowa, Harvard, Grand Canyon, Wright State, Montana, Louisiana Tech, Georgia State, UT-Arlington, Northern Kentucky, Wofford, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky, Valparaiso, UAB, Illinois State, Penn, Richmond, Southern Illinois, Toledo, Kent State, William & Mary, Liberty, Louisiana-Lafayette, Stony Brook, Northeastern, Marshall, Bucknell, North Dakota State, Hawaii, UC Santa Barbara, Monmouth, Eastern Washington, Lipscomb, Ball State, Oakland, Iona, Texas Southern, Texas State, and Merrimack. Exhaustingly long! Texas State barely slid in at the end – they’re 87-69, but have a pair of sub-.500 finishes in the Sun Belt. Still: three 20+ win seasons speak for themselves, and they should be pretty good again in 2020-21. Merrimack has all of one season of D-1 play to their name, but it was so good that I almost felt required to get them in at Tier 3.
  • Tier 4: “Fine.” Occasionally, one of these teams will have a great season and pop up in your bracket as a 13 seed, but for the most part, they operate outside of the NCAA Tournament. Nothing wrong with that! Generally, you can expect these teams to be consistently solid, and their range of outcomes are pretty easy to nail down. Lots of teams in this one, again: New Mexico, Saint Louis, UNLV, Georgia Southern, South Dakota, Radford, Ohio, Colorado State, George Mason, Cal State Bakersfield, North Florida, Chattanooga, Saint Joseph’s, Chattanooga, Duquesne, Sam Houston State, Weber State, Austin Peay, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Florida Gulf Coast, Green Bay, Rider, Northern Colorado, Colgate, Towson, Lehigh, Albany, St. Francis (PA), Jacksonville State, Boston University, North Carolina Central, Siena.
  • Tier 5: The Somewhat Murky Middle. These are more on the side of lower-tier A-10/WCC/MWC teams, mid-pack SoCon teams, and higher-end Southland squads. The list: Eastern Michigan, Nebraska-Omaha, Utah Valley, George Washington, Santa Clara, Loyola Marymount, Indiana State, Missouri State, Tennessee State, UNC Wilmington, Gardner-Webb, Abilene Christian, Northern Illinois, IPFW, UNC Asheville, Long Beach State, Seattle, Brown, Drake, Mercer, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Coastal Carolina, UC Davis, Nicholls State, North Dakota, North Texas, Wagner, UMBC, Portland State, Wyoming, Norfolk State, Navy, Hampton, Saint Peter’s, and Canisius.
  • Tier 6: Below-Average-ish. Sometimes, these teams make the NCAA Tournament, but generally, they aren’t very good. A couple of the teams in this grouping actually have conference titles to their name, but play in a bottom-three conference. Teams like: San Diego, Pacific, Evansville, Little Rock, La Salle, UMass, Pepperdine, Cal State Fullerton, South Alabama, Louisiana Monroe, Lamar, NJIT, Arkansas State, Oral Roberts, New Orleans, High Point, Western Michigan, Morehead State, Prairie View A&M, Elon, UTEP, Delaware, Eastern Illinois, Fairfield, Tennessee-Martin, Campbell, Montana State, FIU, LIU Brooklyn, Fairleigh Dickinson, Army, Idaho, Robert Morris, Southern, Hartford, Illinois-Chicago, Mount St. Mary’s, and Sacred Heart.
  • Tier 7: Forgettable Squads. To be honest, I spend months, even years without remembering the existence of these squads. They’re not truly the lowest of the low, but seasons with serious success are very rare. UMKC, Columbia, Western Carolina, Air Force, Cornell, Miami (OH), UTSA, Eastern Kentucky, New Hampshire, Southern Miss, Rice, Troy, Tennessee Tech, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, Fordham, UT Rio Grande Valley, Samford, Southeastern Louisiana, Denver, Charleston Southern, Jacksonville, Appalachian State, IUPUI, Alcorn State, Milwaukee, Grambling State, Sacramento State, Dartmouth, Jackson State, Bethune-Cookman, James Madison, UMass Lowell, North Carolina A&T, Quinnipiac, American, Manhattan, Morgan State, and Loyola (MD). 
  • Tier 8: Basement. I feel bad, because no one should be given this designation; any of these teams can make the NCAA Tournament with a bit of March luck. That said, luck doesn’t seem very realistic for many of them. Dartmouth, Houston Baptist, Northwestern State, North Alabama, Western Illinois, Central Arkansas, Youngstown State, Cal State Northridge, McNeese State, Detroit, Portland, Idaho State, Incarnate Word, Drexel, UC Riverside, Holy Cross, South Carolina State, Southern Utah, Lafayette, Niagara, Citadel, St. Francis (NY), San Jose State, Cleveland State, Stetson, Cal Poly, Southeast Missouri State, Presbyterian, VMI, Kennesaw State, Binghamton, Alabama State, Florida A&M, USC Upstate, Northern Arizona, Bryant, SIU Edwardsville, Longwood, Arkansas Pine Bluff, Coppin State, Maryland Eastern Shore, Howard, Marist, Central Connecticut, Maine, Chicago State, Alabama A&M, Mississippi Valley State, and Delaware State. Apologies to all programs involved.

Hopefully, this gives us a better picture of both a long-term and short-term view of college basketball. If you were to extend the range to ten years for your search, I think it could produce somewhat different results, but you’re also theorizing that a current 18-year-old recruit was intently watching college basketball at 8-12 years old. (As someone who has loved basketball for most of my life, I didn’t start watching college basketball beyond occasional March games until age 10, and even that felt advanced.) This should provide a better, more reasonable view of how things look to the current recruiting class.

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.