As I write this, the college basketball season ended two weeks ago today.
For those of you who have read my epilogues through the years, you know how these start, and how they end. It’s the stuff in the middle that changes.
We’ll get there in just a minute.
First, though, I wanted to take a minute to ask a favor.
It hasn’t been a great year — hell, few years — for journalism, in any form. It’s been especially challenging for those of us who do what we do.
This is not meant to be a guilt trip or a woe-is-me story. It’s meant to tell you who we are. We do what we do because we love it. We drive hours through the night, write stories on trains, and sit at nearly desolate courtsides, joined only by operations staff while pecking away bleary-eyed at a laptop screen, and it’s not for money, awards, or any other accolades. Hell, if we’re being honest, we’re probably spending more of our own money and time than is advisable.
This part is important, though: We’re doing something we believe in.
You’re here because you share the same passion. For that, we thank you. More on that later, though.
“It always ends in a loss.” – Kyle Whelliston
I’ve talked about The Mid-Majority in this space many, many times in years past. I am a devotee of TMM, as, likely, are you. As such, you’ll always know how this piece begins, and how it ends.
This is the time of year I simultaneously await and dread. It’s so easy to lose sight of just what happens in a season where you cover 40-plus games. Everything becomes a bit of a blur — an awesome blur, but a blur nonetheless — over the span of half a year. However, just my writing these words means that we’ve lost another wonderful half-a-year moment in time.
There’s a bit of synergy between the way the season started and ended, though I couldn’t have anticipated it when I posted this:
That game, an 80-69 victory for the Mocs, marked the first game for Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez after a number of years as the trusted right-hand man of Virginia coach Tony Bennett. Bennett would, as you know, close the season by guiding his Cavaliers to a national title, with Sanchez in the stands to root on the ‘Hoos for much of the tournament.
Sanchez and the Niners suffered their share of losses — Charlotte finished 8-21 on the season, had multiple players transfer out of the program, and saw star guard Jon Davis graduate — but times ahead are bright for that program.
Before we move on from Charlotte, though, we need to mention the next game they played.
It was a pretty normal Saturday afternoon in Halton Arena. The Niners welcomed Big 12 foe Oklahoma State to their home court, and things looked quite dire for much of the game. The Cowboys zoomed out to a 37-19 halftime lead, and the situation was quite bad for the home side.
Inexplicably, it got even worse.
At the second media break of the second half, Charlotte trailed, 52-30. ESPN’s win predictor — and no, I won’t comment on its accuracy — left the Niners with a .01 percent chance of victory.
From there, Charlotte unleashed an absolutely crazy 26-4 run, drawing the game level at 56. The Cowboys didn’t hit a field goal for the final 7:36 of game action.
And then, there was Davis.
The man who made his career at Charlotte hitting big shot after big shot knocked down one of his biggest, draining a banked-in triple with just over a half-second to play, guiding his club to a 66-64 victory.
I still, five months later, have no idea how they pulled it off.
It was only November 10th.
Days later, I saw another first.
Longwood replaced Jayson Gee, about whom I commented at length in last year’s epilogue, with a then-little-known director of basketball operations from 2018 tournament darling UMBC. He told me — and several others — that Will Ferrell would be his choice to play him in a movie about the Retrievers’ magical run.
Few really knew what to expect from Griff Aldrich and his Lancers. Aldrich said at Media Day that his club would play a fast-paced style and be a fun team to watch.
The defensive rock fight I covered between this then-undefeated squad and Charlotte was, to say the least, unexpected. So, too, was the thumping handed the Lancers by USC Upstate, the only conference game the Spartans won all season.
However, Longwood turned in a number of great peformances, too, including a 14-point drubbing of Winthrop.
The season ended with a loss for Longwood, but it didn’t really feel that way. The Lancers finished one win shy of tying their season-high in victories in the program’s Division I era, and participated in their first-ever postseason tournament. That trip to the CBI also netted Longwood its first-ever postseason victory, a 90-68 hammering of Southern Miss — who, by the way, won their game I covered at Charlotte when Tyree Griffin calmly dribbled the ball up the floor and did this:
Were that not enough, Aldrich finished the season among 12 finalists for CollegeInsider.com’s Joe B. Hall Award, distributed to the nation’s top first-year coach. The first-year leader — and, admittedly, (somewhat) doppelgänger of Ferrell — also finished third in the Big South Coach of the Year voting, garnering three first-place votes from the league’s media and sports information directors.
I said after the Charlotte and Upstate games that Longwood had the right man for the job. I also said it after the Winthrop game, and after the Lancers completed their CBI run. With Aldrich and staff in tow and the Joan Perry Brock Center coming in 2022, the future is bright in Farmville.
It ended in a loss — a number of them, actually — for Presbyterian, too, but that wasn’t before the best season the Blue Hose have ever enjoyed in Division I basketball.
Coach Dustin Kerns made the short trek from Wofford College down I-26 to Presbyterian two seasons prior, taking over a PC team that — let’s be honest — has its share of challenges. Kerns and his staff and team embraced the challenges, though, as evidenced by the #takethestairs hashtag the team employed. The team doubled its win total in Kerns’ first year, then nearly doubled it again in year two.
The magical season enjoyed by PC allowed it, like Longwood, to make its first-ever postseason appearance. Kerns’ team won twice in the CIT, advancing to the quarters, where it was eliminated in a back-and-forth contest at Marshall. Guard Davon Bell earned second-team all-league plaudits, with forward Francois Lewis receiving honorable mention. Freshmen Adam Flagler and Cory Hightower also starred for the Hose, with Flagler taking the Freshman of the Year award from the Big South.
Kerns also mentioned to me in our first-ever discussion that he wanted his teams to be about “books and basketball”, and wanted to recruit players who understood both sides of the proverbial student-athlete coin. Lewis turned out to be an incredible example of what Kerns meant. After finding himself academically ineligible to close Kerns’ first season in Clinton, he strongly rebounded with the help of his teammates, and enjoyed a tremendous season.
“I just feel like everything has changed for me,” Lewis told me in the postgame press conference after PC’s Big South tournament game with Radford. “Everything hasn’t gone my way, but … The team that we have, and the people that we have, everybody has that chip on their shoulder. We’ve all been through something. I feel as if I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder, as well, and that’s what brings that edge to this team. I feel like that’s what teams see when they play us. We all have that chip on our shoulder.”
Now, Lewis will graduate, as will Bell. Flagler, Hightower, and freshman guard Kody Shubert are all in the transfer portal. Kerns’ success also did not go unnoticed, and he was named shortly after the CIT exit as the new head coach at Appalachian State. Kerns will take his entire rising young staff with him to Boone, and they have already begun to embrace the challenge of bringing exciting basketball back to the Holmes Center.
Coach Kerns left PC in a considerably better place than he found it, though. College of Charleston assistant Quinton Ferrell, a PC grad, will take over the reins of the program, and he does so having recruited 11 of the 13 players on Charleston’s roster last year and PC’s two top all-time scorers during his time as an assistant in Clinton.
I look forward to meeting and covering Coach Ferrell. At the same time, man, is Coach Kerns’ departure a huge loss for those of us who have had the privilege to know and cover him and his teams. Thankfully, he won’t be too far away.
It also ended in a loss for arguably the greatest player I’ve ever covered — and, more importantly, one of the greatest young men I’ve ever covered.
Chris Clemons is just on another level. It’s hard to even explain his impact on and off the floor without seeing it in person. He makes the impossible seem commonplace. He hits shots that most people have no business taking. He rebounds. He defends. He passes. He leads. Most importantly, he does it with a level of class, humility, and intelligence that makes it hard not to root for him.
Yes, I know, we don’t root for players or teams. We root for stories. We root for excitement.
Chris Clemons is one of the best stories I’ve ever covered. Period.
Whether it was the 51-point effort against UNC Asheville in the quarterfinals of the Big South tournament a couple of years ago that pretty much single-handedly advanced the Camels past the Bulldogs, or his nearly willing his club in a comeback attempt in the Big South quarterfinal against eventual champ Gardner-Webb that fell just short, there was never a dull moment with Clemons on the court. It was almost more surprising when one of his shots didn’t fall than when one ripped the nylon.
If you’ve never seen this year’s leading scorer in Division I, treat yourself:
Clemons went through the NBA evaluation process after his sophomore and junior years, and the lessons he took from that process were on display all year. His coach, Kevin McGeehan — justifiably — raved about him and the impact he and post player Andrew Eudy made on both he and the Camels during their careers in Buies Creek.
After the Camels fell to UNCG in the first round of the NIT, Clemons penned this note to Campbell and its fans. It was, as he has always been, pure class.
No matter what Chris does in life, he’s going to be a star. I, for one, can’t wait to watch it unfold.
Finally, there was, perhaps, the biggest first of all.
Gardner-Webb was picked to finish sixth at this year’s Big South Media Day, with much of the attention — rightly — focused on Radford, Campbell, and Winthrop. There was something about that team, though, that kept bringing me back to thinking it had a special year ahead.
I asked Runnin’ Bulldog coach Tim Craft at Media Day what would need to happen for his club to raise the championship trophy. His answer proved to be quite prophetic for those who spent any time around his team:
“If our team completely buys into team … If the individual parts can completely buy into not caring who gets the credit, not caring what their role is, but just that whatever their role is, they’re gonna do it to the absolute best of their ability, and they’re gonna do it every day. If we can have a group that does that […] For us to have a chance, we have to buy into being about our team and being about the daily process of winning.”
The ‘Dogs had, if nothing else, an interesting season. I first saw them very late in November, as much of their first month was spent on the road. That game at USC Upstate was a Big South game that was actually not a Big South game — it was the second game of a home-and-home series signed before Upstate joined the league — and the 74-61 Gardner-Webb victory was just its third in eight games.
The real victory came from something that took place within the game, however.
Freshman Jose Perez scored 17 points in what would be the last of his regular appearances off the bench. Perez would soon become a fixture in the starting lineup, and Gardner-Webb SID/oracle Marc Rabb told me in the near-silence of the postgame wrap-up that Perez would “have a triple-double someday”.
That someday came four days later.
Perez again scored 17 that Saturday, while grabbing 10 boards and dishing 10 dimes in the first triple-double I ever witnessed in person. The 37-point win over Savannah State opened Gardner-Webb’s home schedule, and was, in retrospect, quite the foreshadowing of a campaign that would lead Perez to a runner-up finish in the Big South Freshman of the Year voting. Speaking of firsts, Perez said in the postgame comments that the feat was the first triple-double he had ever recorded.
The freshman from The Bronx provided the game-tying and (eventual) game-winning buckets a few days later against Kennesaw State (“Big players make big plays,” he smiled and told me after the game, when I asked if he had any notion of dishing before hitting the runner late in regulation), and the ‘Dogs were on their way. Road wins at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest served as highlights of a win streak that reached eight games, and seemed to have Craft’s side poised to make a statement in Big South play.
The league slate didn’t quite start as the ‘Dogs had hoped, though. Gardner-Webb found itself 2-4 after six league games, including a 97-88 loss in a nationally-televised game at Winthrop. Gardner-Webb put up 62 second-half points against the Eagles that night, but that second-half output couldn’t erase the 21-point deficit the club took to the interval. Craft had one postgame comment, though, that linked back to what he told me two months prior at Media Day:
“It gives me hope that we didn’t quit, and we stayed together out there when I think everything was going against us. We certainly could have folded, and we could have started pointing fingers and blaming each other and blaming the game plan, or blaming whatever, but I thought our guys just tried to stick with it, and they tried to stay together. That gave us a chance to have a good second half, and for that, I’m really proud of our group.”
Craft had reason to be proud. His club lost just twice more in the regular season, including an 87-79 decision at High Point in which a huge second-half comeback from the Runnin’ Bulldogs was thwarted by a Jahaad Proctor step-around triple late in the contest.
As the league tournament arrived, the Runnin’ Bulldogs again found themselves matched up with the Panthers, a theme that would carry throughout each of the three tournament games Gardner-Webb played. Each opponent GWU faced would be one that provided one of their regular-season defeats.
Gardner-Webb clipped the Panthers, 75-69, in a game it led by as many as 19 points in the second half. Then, it accomplished another first, earning its first-ever appearance in the Big South tournament final by virtue of a semifinal victory over Campbell on the Camels’ home court.
Then came the two biggest firsts in program history.
The ‘Dogs beat a second-straight opponent on its home floor, knocking out Radford behind a performance for the ages by DJ Laster and winning the Big South title. After spending much of the year with this team — and it was more out of proximity’s sake than any other reason that I did so — seeing those kids and that staff achieve their dream was incredible, just as it was every year prior I’ve witnessed it. The fact that they stopped their celebration for a prayer circle spoke volumes.
I had the privilege of being in attendance at their watch party as the bracket was revealed. I was mere feet away as the celebration began.
I also got to cover the Runnin’ Bulldogs in Columbia, as they made the short trek from Boiling Springs — and seemingly brought the entire town with them — to participate in the tournament.
As you know, Gardner-Webb didn’t win that day, but they handed the eventual national champ the biggest deficit it faced throughout the entire tournament. Even though it may have ended with a loss on the scoreboard, it didn’t feel so much like one for the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
Amazingly, in the three NCAA tournaments I’ve covered for this humble site, I’ve gotten to cover three national champs (Duke in 2015, North Carolina in 2017, and Virginia this year). That’s a pretty solid track record.
Before I wrap this up, I should also mention another first in this year of so many. there’s one more I need to mention.
I was on the scene for Liberty’s first-ever ASUN tournament victory, a convincing 14-point result over Jacksonville. The Dolphins took the fight to the Flames early, but Liberty responded and defended its home floor. Two victories later, Liberty celebrated a tournament victory in Lipscomb’s Allen Arena, then went on to claim its first NCAA victory in taking down Mississippi State.
Many dislike Liberty, which is their right to do, but believe me when I tell you that those associated with the program are quality people in every manner. I’m happy for those great people.
There’s more to write, but we’ll leave it here.
What a year. My childhood team — and, no, I didn’t root for them while covering them — won a national championship. I sat next to John freaking Feinstein, of all people, a true titan in the industry. He actually talked to me throughout that day. I interviewed a Hall of Famer. It all happened because you followed along, and thanks to the help of so many great people.
To every coach, SID, and support staff member with whom I had the privilege to work this year — and every year — thank you. I appreciate your kindness, your willingness to accommodate me when I visit, and your friendship. You make my job so much easier and more fun. From Charlotte’s Brent Stastny at the first game I covered to UNC Asheville’s Brian Hand and Gardner-Webb’s Marc Rabb at the next-to-last, I so appreciate you all. It’s also a privilege to continue to work with great people like Mark Simpson and Brandon McGinnis from the Big South, Brett Redden from Winthrop, Steven Gonzalez from Liberty, and so many more I’ll inevitably forget to mention.
To the parents, family members, and fans, thank you. I appreciate that you consider me and the site one of the methods by which you keep up with people who so matter to you. Whether we’ve met in person or just interacted on the internet, it’s been a pleasure. I hope to continue to have the privilege.
And so brings to a close year number seven for the site, and for my being here. There will be news to break in the coming days and months, but let’s plan to meet back here in the fall and do it all again an eighth time, shall we?
Since a Billy Joel song is good enough for my pal Andy Masur from the White Sox’ radio team to use to sign off, I’ll again borrow it here.
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…