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.