“It always ends in a loss.”
– Kyle Whelliston
If you’ve read — well, anything I’ve written here over the last six seasons — you’ll know my eternal draw toward The Mid-Majority (RIP) and its founder. I’ve forgotten so many details of games I’ve covered since I started doing this, but I never forgot why I did. (No, it wasn’t because Josh offered me gigantic sums of money to come write for him. If only he had…)
In the realm of forgotten details, I’m fairly sure that this is the first time in any of those seasons that the teams I was covering won both the first game I covered and the last game I covered. That first game, an exhibition between Gardner-Webb and Wofford, didn’t really tell us a ton on the floor, but it spoke volumes off the deck. The proceeds from that game went to Samaritan’s Purse, with the intent of disaster relief after Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged so many parts of the world this past summer and fall. Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft and many of his players and staff have strong connections to Florida, and the calling was obvious in speaking to Craft after the contest.
The calling was also obvious in speaking to Liberty coach Ritchie McKay days prior at Big South Media Day. McKay’s Flames played their own exhibition against VCU in Richmond just before that Gardner-Webb/Wofford contest, and McKay spoke candidly of his mission to be more than just a coach for guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz. Georgie’s family was among many to lose power and communication after the storms, and though everything turned out as okay as possible, considering the circumstances, the conversation with Coach McKay was profound, and showed his true connection with his players.
Many things rattle me in covering college basketball. That conversation was this year’s first, but certainly not its last. More on that in a bit.
That final game is a bit fresher in my mind, having recently covered it. Liberty defeated Central Michigan, 84-71, on a snowy Saturday afternoon in my hometown. The win put the Flames into the CIT semifinals, where it ended in a loss for them — ironically enough, to another set of Flames, this one from UIC. That day was likely the final time I’ll get to cover Ryan Kemrite, a humorous and personable guy who closed the season both with Liberty’s all-time three-point record and a fiancee, as his long-time girlfriend accepted his on-court wedding proposal on Senior Day.
That Flames team overcame a number of challenges this year, from the storms to begin the year to a flu outbreak in the middle of it that coincided with a five-game losing streak that briefly knocked the club on its heels. Its largest triumphs of the year arguably came on the same court, as Liberty used a 13-0 overtime scoring run to beat eventual league champion UNC Asheville on its home floor for the first time in years and — for the moment, anyway — throw the league standings into complete chaos. McKay’s side would again storm back to defeat the Bulldogs in Kimmel Arena and eliminate the champ from the Big South tournament, sending us all up interstates 26 and 81 to Radford for the league title game. Liberty forward Scottie James played a huge role in both contests, hitting the game-tying shot as time expired in the first game and essentially taking over the game in the second.
(Oh, in case you forgot how that game ended in Radford…)
We didn’t know it at the time, but that Liberty-Asheville game was the last time Asheville coach Nick McDevitt would take the floor as the coach of his alma mater. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.
I mentioned that a number of things rattle me each year. Another of the things that really moved me happened at that same Big South tournament.
Charleston Southern guard Cortez Mitchell openly wept on the media dais following his team’s defeat by Asheville in the quarterfinal round. Star guard Christian Keeling comforted Mitchell, before Bucs coach Barclay Radebaugh shared a bit of Mitchell’s story. He also shared with us a quote that really resonated.
“It’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be enjoyable, and it’s supposed to be like this at the end.”
– Barclay Radebaugh
If this video doesn’t shake you as it did me, I’m not sure what to tell you.
A number of the coaches I regularly cover also saw their employment status change this year. Some were voluntary, and some not.
It started with Charlotte firing Mark Price in December. Price’s 49ers had just come off a drubbing by Wake Forest, and Price just seemed — how to say this — different in his post-game remarks. The dismissal took many by surprise, and ended up ensnared in a campaign by many fans and alumni to fire athletic director Judy Rose (she ultimately retired, and was replaced by Florida’s Mike Hill). Houston Fancher took over for Price, and despite an unwavering belief in his team and unceasingly kind demeanor, eventually also lost his job. Virginia associate head coach Ron Sanchez eventually took over, the first major hire by Hill.
Two coaches lost their jobs on the same Friday, as we were covering the Big South tournament. One I somewhat expected, while the other was quite the shock.
Longwood coach Jayson Gee had experienced his share of on-court struggles, to be sure, due to depth, injuries and other concerns. His Lancers won three straight Big South games to get to 3-3, only to lose 12 in a row and finish the league season 3-15. Longwood then went on the road to High Point — more on them in a second — and won a tournament play-in game, before succumbing in a close contest to eventual league champion Radford.
Gee shook my hand as he left the dais following that game, thanking me for “everything through the years”. I got the sense then that he was gone. He resigned the next day.
Allow me a brief detour.
I get it — results are largely the determining factor in college hoops. Gee’s teams had trouble winning. This is undeniable.
Also undeniable are the relationships Gee built with those he led during his time in Farmville. He cried — Gee is a bit of a crier, which he admits — when former players Shaq Johnson and Lotanna Nwogbo spoke of what they meant to him after transferring into the program. He took chances on many players that came from other programs, and they largely flourished under his tutelage.
The results that matter will be those of the men he coached becoming fathers, husbands, and productive members of society. Gee’s winning percentage there will undoubtedly be a stellar one.
He was the right man for the university at this stage of their program. As I said on the day of his departure, he was a kind man who always reminded me of my own priorities and helped me keep things in perspective. I’ll dearly miss him, as will many.
Griff Aldrich from tournament darling UMBC has been appointed to replace him. He’s one of many who will be assuming new jobs in the Big South next season.
The other came just hours after Gee’s announcement. USC Upstate, who will join the league in the fall, dismissed both athletic director Julio Freire and coach Kyle Perry. Perry coached just one year after taking over for legendary coach Eddie Payne, and though his record was certainly not what was expected, few could have imagined he would be turfed after his lone season.
Former Maryland player and long-time assistant Dave Dickerson was appointed just a few days ago as Perry’s replacement. Dickerson will be looking to fare a bit better in his second gig than his first — he went 71-85 in five seasons at Tulane a few years back — as he returns close to home. Dickerson is from Olar, South Carolina, just two-and-a-half hours from Upstate’s campus in Spartanburg. His first order of business will be to replace three productive seniors, along with two more top players, Mike Cunningham and Malik Moore. Both indicated plans to leave the school and play elsewhere as graduate transfers following the news of Perry’s dismissal.
High Point lost to Longwood in the play-in game, as I mentioned a bit ago, and just days thereafter, it lost its coach. Scott Cherry and High Point “mutually agreed to part ways” on March 7, bringing to an end a tenure in which Cherry finished 12 games over .500 (146-134). He was replaced by Tubby Smith, who returns to his alma mater and will undoubtedly be the toast of next season’s Media Day.
Cherry often appeared gruff and businesslike to many, and was certainly not the loquacious sort that many seem to require from coaches in today’s society. I’ll always remember, though, Cherry’s son always tagging along, shooting jumpers in shootaround or just hanging out with his dad. He is a good man, a loving father and a credit to the profession.
Then, there was the big one.
I had just sat down for that aforementioned final game at Liberty, when Jon and Damien told me that Nick McDevitt had, indeed, left Asheville to take the job at Middle Tennessee. While thrilled as a fan of Middle athletics (when not covering them, naturally) and payer of many, many dollars to the university, I was also left rather stunned.
You see, McDevitt had essentially become Asheville basketball. He played at the school for four years as a guard, then took an assistant role under legendary coach Eddie Biedenbach. He remained as an assistant and associate head coach until 2013, when Biedenbach left to become an assistant under Buzz Peterson at UNC Wilmington, handing McDevitt the keys to the program. Nick’s success at Asheville is inarguable; he went 98-66 in the belly of the Blue Ridge, and became known for developing solid, fundamental teams that defended for all 40 minutes and never quit fighting until the final horn.
I’ll always remember McDevitt’s kindness, his razor-sharp wit and his brutal honesty when it came to evaluating his team’s performance. One of his top assistants, Sean Dixon, traveled with him to Murfreesboro, leaving the possibility of current assistant Wes Long, former assistant (and current Indiana State assistant) Brett Carey, or another taking over the program.
Next year will be the first time since 1997 without McDevitt wearing the blue and white — Asheville’s blue and white, anyway — a year in which he was 18.
The Bulldogs will be the same tough out they’ve always been, and will continue the same top-notch program McDevitt helped build. It will be incredibly unusual, though, to see the Bulldogs take the floor without the man who essentially shaped the program.
I could literally take this entire space to write more about this season (for instance, farewell to Xavier Cooks, Ahmad Thomas, Kevin Vannatta, Liam O’Reilly, Reggie Dillard, Kemrite, and many others), but it’s probably best to thank people.
First, I want to thank someone who’s been a gigantic influence on me in these six years. Alan Ford, the sports editor of the Shelby Star and purveyor of Gardner-Webb hoops history, has filed his final dispatch from Paul Porter Arena, and I’ll terribly miss him. Alan was one of the first people I met in taking over this beat, and between him, Greer Smith from the High Point Enterprise and Mike Hogewood — who, by the way, unwittingly led me toward the business, but that’s another story — of ESPN3 and the Big South Network, Media Days and some of the games I covered felt much like journalism class. I’ll miss talking to Alan about the business, North Carolina legends and whatever else happened to come up. Thanks for the kindness, the lessons, and the laughs, Alan. I hope you enjoy the beach and the Heels.
Being a media guy, I should thank the rest of the media types with whom I regularly pound the pavement. Bret McCormick is my boss for some of the year and a colleague for the rest of it, which always makes Winthrop games interesting. He and I are often found sitting in a media room after a game working on stories or telling jokes, which is always fun. Damien Sordelett of the Lynchburg News & Advance is a great guy, a talented writer, and my link to my hometown university and its news. Jon Manson (from A Sea of Red) and I didn’t get to catch up as much as usual this year, but it was great to say hello at that last game. I read his site, and so should you. I was fortunate enough to see Jeremy from Blogging the WU at the league tournament, which is always a pleasure. I also regularly read the work of the hooligans over at Lancers Blog, and so should you, even if they hate me.
There are also the regulars on the national circuit, including the awesome work of Jaden and Daly Dose of Hoops. I also got to meet a number of cool people on the national level this year, including Torrance Jones of Mid-Major Madness, Kevin Sweeney of CBB Central, Tony Patelis of College Hoop News, Jordan Majewski, and so, so many more than I could name here.
And then, there are the great staff members who allow me the privilege of being a guest in their homes to cover games. Whether it’s — in no particular order, promise — Mark Simpson and Brandon McGinnis in the Big South office; Brett Redden, Rick Rogers, Mike Pacheco, Alyssa Sconzo and others at Winthrop; Marc Rabb and Ryan Bridges at Gardner-Webb; Brent Stastny at Charlotte; Brian Hand at Asheville; the illustrious crew of Steven Gonzalez, Paul Nazigian, and Matt Warner at Liberty; Wes Herring at USC Upstate, or so many more that I inadvertently didn’t name. You’re all much more kind to me than I deserve, and I so greatly appreciate you all.
Finally, there are those of you who read, whether begrudgingly or willingly. To the coaches, parents, families, fans and others who have been so supportive of what I (and we) do, and who hung around through the site’s coverage of over 100 games this season — and my roughly one-third of those — thank you. I enjoy so greatly being able to talk hoops with you. Let’s do it again soon.
In the spirit of citing other people, we’ll close by citing my buddy Andy Masur from WGN radio in Chicago, who referenced a Billy Joel song on his way out of San Diego to head back to the Windy City.
So many faces in and out of my life
Some will last, some will just be now and then
Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes
I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again
– Billy Joel, Say Goodbye to Hollywood
Until we meet again, I share with you the last sight I saw this basketball season.
See you in the fall for lucky number seven, friends.