Sportswriters get into routines. They take the same seats on press rows. They make the same drives through the night to get to the same places. They see the same people.
You get the picture.
Though my eighth season with this humble little national outlet started much the same as it always does — Media Days in October, games shortly thereafter — there was nothing routine about the way it ended.
We couldn’t even apply our usual guiding quote this year.
I don’t want this to take a wistful tone — though every season-ending piece I write will always do so. The beginning of the year was…well, I’ll just borrow a word I frequently use on Twitter: suboptimal.
Shortly before Big South Media Day, I had the “layoff roulette” land on my number. It sucked. I went into that day — and this season — adrift. It hit me really hard at the time. and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t occasionally hit me really hard since. I couldn’t see in the midst of all of what was happening, but the (paraphrased) words of former Longwood and current Cincinnati coach Jayson Gee would eventually prove prophetic.
This is a setback, not a loss.
More on this situation later.
A picture postcard
A folded stub
A program of the play
File away your photographs
Of your holiday
(Editor’s note: I’ve referenced Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” in this epilogue for a few years. I’ve done this to honor my buddy, former Padres and Cubs and current White Sox voice Andy Masur, who cited it when he left San Diego and returned home to Chicago. If it’s good enough for my man Masur, it’s good enough for me. However, I saw a Billy Joel song bracket on Twitter, so I’ve used a different song this year. More on that later.)
For the first time I can recall, the season actually started before Media Day. Elon visited Gardner-Webb the weekend prior, participating in an exhibition game that drew donations to the United Way to help care for those struggling after Hurricane Dorian. It wasn’t the most picturesque opener I’ve ever seen — Gardner-Webb led by 17 in the first half and 14 at the interval, before finally winning in overtime — but it taught me a couple of things.
- Gardner-Webb forward Ludovic Dufeal had one of the single-largest year-over-year improvements I’ve seen. He was a healthy scratch at times late in his freshman season, and just a year later, earned my vote for Big South Defensive Player of the Year. Wonder why I voted as I did? Here’s why:
- I also got my first look at Elon coach Mike Schrage in that game. Schrage took over for Matt Matheny in the crown jewel of Alamance County under less-than-ideal circumstances, and everything I’d heard about how talented and capable he was proved itself in short order. I covered Elon twice more during the season, and Schrage had cobbled together a group of freshmen, grad transfers, remaining players, and more into a developing squad. The Phoenix knocked off second-seeded William & Mary in the CAA quarterfinals, then lost a close outing against Northeastern in the semis. The future is bright with Schrage on the deck in the Schar Center.
41 games. 12 conferences. Nine venues. Three states.
It’s admittedly odd to distill four-plus months of your life into those numbers. (“You enjoy your 35-to-40 games,” former ESPN Big East voice Mike Gleason told me after one of the many times I shared press row with him this season.) I did him one better, and got to see him a few times during the Big South tournament. Mike’s a pro’s pro, and I always enjoy his company.
I was there when Gardner-Webb unveiled its banners to start the season, commemorating its first-ever Big South championship and NCAA tournament appearance. The Runnin’ Bulldogs dropped a tough, seven-point decision to the Paladins, kicking off a season in which the Paladins were likely headed for one of the “big two” postseason tournaments, and Gardner-Webb may have been selected for the CBI or CIT.
Speaking of teams likely headed for postseason play, the Charlotte 49ers took one of their first steps toward that destination themselves a few days later. Ron Sanchez’s club bounced back from a challenging, eight-win season in 2018-19, with part of that rebound a victory over Davidson for the Hornets’ Nest trophy. Charlotte had not claimed a victory in the rivalry since 2012, and while Sanchez expressed his opinion on the trophy itself in my story that night, the triumph meant a lot to Niner Nation.
More on that Charlotte club later.
And your mementos
Will turn to dust
But that’s the price you pay
I got to see a number of new venues this year — new to me, anyway — ranging from the legendary (the Dean Dome) to the sentimental. Indulge me on a brief detour to the sentimental side.
I covered a game in the Battle 4 Atlantis for the first time ever, and it so happened to be in Elon’s Schar Center. The place is a gem. If you get a chance, go see a game there. Elon’s building a beautiful little athletics complex, and the Schar Center is the epicenter of that part of campus.
The sentimental part?
I attended Elon. I played many games in the old Alumni Gym. I covered games in Alumni Gym (including one where some Elon students had some pretty creative instructions for the UNCG students that made the brief trip over on 85/40). As nice as Schar is — and, again, it’s an awesome place — there’s still a part of me that misses the square/rectangle building, the cramped seats, the odd angles, and the other cool features that place had. I guess I always will.
I also covered two games in Liberty’s Vines Center. This is the last year for the Vines Center — as a full-time basketball facility, anyway — before the Flames move a few feet away to the new Liberty Arena. The new building will be much smaller than the Vines — though nicer — and represents the next chapter in the ever-evolving Liberty program.
As nice as it will be — and Liberty does everything nice, when it comes to facilities — I grew up in that building. I used to play pickup games there. My high school graduation was held there. I saw — and later covered — a number of significant events there. Time marches on, but just like Worthington Stadium (where I played baseball, also on Liberty’s campus), there’s still a part of me that will always miss the old place.
I’ll still get the walk across Liberty’s picturesque campus from the Academic Commons parking garage, though — despite that walk being much less fun in the freezing winters my hometown often experiences.
I also saw Wofford’s Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium for the first time — twice — this season. What a place. It is, as everything on Wofford’s campus, architecturally gorgeous on the outside, and is a wonderful venue in which to watch a game. The media room is just steps off the floor, which helps for those of us there to write, but that’s also a minor concern.
(A note: If you ever get a chance to see a Wofford-Furman game in that venue, do it. It is a must-see event.)
I said this after Charlotte’s season last year:
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.
Little did any of us realize that the brighter times would so quickly arrive.
Charlotte lost star guard Jon Davis? That hurt, but on came Freshman of the Year Jahmir Young. Charlotte won eight games the season prior? The 49ers doubled that win total. Were that not enough, Ron Sanchez’s charges set a single-season school record for wins in Halton Arena, as the Niner faithful got to celebrate 13 victories.
Along with the win over Davidson, the Niners scored an overtime win over Wake Forest. They came back from a double-digit deficit to stun FAU. The Niners even found a way to shed their trademark reliance on defense and win a crazy offensive shootout with UTSA and stars Jhivvan Jackson and Keaton Wallace.
Charlotte went from a season in which it could not even qualify for the Conference USA tournament to a campaign in which it secured the fourth seed, before the tournament — like just about every other — was called off. There’s no way of knowing how Charlotte would have performed in Frisco — the 49ers were slated to face off with fifth-seeded FIU, then draw top seed North Texas, should they have advanced — but that may not have been the real story. The 49ers’ chances of securing a bid in the CBI or CIT — assuming, of course, that they could not have earned the automatic NCAA bid — seemed pretty strong.
The 49ers suffered a couple of tough losses after the season, as star sophomore Malik Martin and rotational guard Tyler Bertram entered the transfer portal. Guard Caleb Stone-Carrawell, who redshirted this season, stands to get a chance to replace Martin’s productivity. Any other immediately-eligible transfers will also get a look. The veteran presences of graduate transfers Drew Edwards and Amidou Bamba will also be missed.
The one thing of which we can be sure is that Charlotte is in good hands with Sanchez and his staff. Few groups are better prepared as leaders and teachers, and they have instilled successful habits in their club both on and off the deck. I’m really excited to see what Charlotte can accomplish in the third season under Ron Sanchez.
I spend a lot of time covering Winthrop basketball — for proximity’s sake — and the Eagles turned in a memorable season. It didn’t start that way — the Eagles were 4-7 at one point, and lost to Tennessee Tech on their home floor — and looked as if it may have been derailed a bit during a perilous string in which Winthrop dropped 3-of-4.
That third loss, a six-point decision Winthrop dropped to Hampton at home, left Eagles coach Pat Kelsey searching for answers. This quote he gave us after the game spoke volumes:
“We’ve gotta figure it out. I’ve gotta figure it out. We’ve gotta figure out a way to use this as a catalyst, to use this as something that we look back on and say, ‘That tough stretch that we had was a big reason why we finished the season the way we did.’ We’ve got no other choice.”
Before that skid, though — and we’ll get back to it in a minute, because it’s an important milepost — the Eagles put forth a 14-game win streak. The final 12 games of the streak put Winthrop atop the Big South standings, with a number of games that solidified an Eagle club that featured a mixture of graduate transfers, freshmen, and several holdovers that were practitioners of the Winthrop way.
One such game was an epic, triple-overtime contest between Winthrop and Gardner-Webb, an affair that nearly defied explanation. Three buzzer-beaters punctuated the ends of regulation and the first and second overtimes, before Winthrop finally managed to fight off the Runnin’ Bulldogs. The sides again battled in Boiling Springs — resulting in one of those three Winthrop defeats — and in the Big South semifinals.
That semifinal helped Winthrop avenge one of the three defeats. No matter who the Eagles faced in the championship, Kelsey’s club would have its chance to avenge another.
Hampton and Radford did battle in the other semi, a game in which Jermaine Marrow demonstrated exactly why he was — and is — regarded by so many as a star. The Hampton senior — who began the year in the transfer portal and missed roughly half the season due to injury — somehow managed to top an incredible 32-point performance in the Pirates’ quarterfinal opener.
Marrow scored 36 points and handed out 10 helpers — the first Big South player to accumulate that combination of double-double — and teamed with fellow star Ben Stanley to guide the Pirates to the final. The Pirates’ ascent was something to see, as they shook the knock of being a team that could score, but not defend. Hampton locked down its first two opponents on the strength of suffocating defense, and a swagger from Marrow and his teammates in what would be his final few collegiate games.
The teams headed back to Rock Hill — again, defying the expectations of many — to see if Winthrop could win five in a row and, as their coach said, make that string the reason for why the team finished the season as it did.
The day started about as poorly as it could for the Eagles. Hampton raced out to a 22-7 lead, and Winthrop appeared to be on its heels. Somehow, the home side whittled the Hampton lead to five at the interval, before constricting the duo of Stanley and Marrow.
As what Hampton coach Buck Joyner aptly called “a tale of two halves” finally settled into a decision, this happened:
It seemed almost poetic that Hale — one of the triumvirate to which Kelsey referred as his “leadership council” that helped right the ship and who had transferred from Division II Grand Valley State — dribbled out those final seconds. He had persevered through years of hard work, of trying to get the opportunity he felt he’d earned, and he was the final player to clutch the ball as his club became champions and his dream would now be realized.
Little did Hale — or we — know that would be the final time he or his teammates would dribble a ball in a game this season.
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss
In a five-month period filled with so many losses — both figurative and literal — it would be easy to extract from those a narrative that fit the quote that Kyle Whelliston and the Mid-Majority made famous, and which usually colors this yearly epilogue.
“It always ends in a loss.”
Let’s take this one year, this one chance, and look at things a little differently.
As my courtside cohort Alex Zietlow beautifully presented, there was still poetry to be found in Hale’s story. Sure, he and his Eagles would soon be told that they would play in the tournament without fans in the stands — and then, find out they wouldn’t be playing at all. But instead of Hale and his teammates potentially leaving the floor in some random outpost, another in a long line of a lower seed bested by a “blue-blood”, the memory we’ll always have of Hale and Josh Ferguson was of their leaving the floor as winners. There’s a beauty in that.
Then, there’s the story of Marrow, one of Hale’s opponents on that fateful Sunday. The Pirates fought so valiantly to get to that game, only to fall short, meaning Marrow would not get to realize his dream of leaving the court a champion.
I might argue, though, that he did leave as a champion. Marrow emerged from a tough upbringing to be a champion in life, with the bond between he and coach Buck Joyner bringing many — including us sitting feet away during the final press conference — in tears.
“I’m a kid from downtown Newport News. It’s a rough spot. (Joyner) gave me an opportunity that not too many people wanted to give me,” said Marrow, through tears. “He believed in me from day one. The school believed in me from day one. I’ll love them for that forever.”
Joyner showed his love for Marrow, as well.
“(Marrow) brought me to a championship, to a second championship. We’ve played in three straight postseasons with this young man. Maybe another, we don’t know.
“At the end of the day, I’m proud of the product that he’s become. I’m proud that I was able to give him an opportunity to do the things that he’s done. You say one of the most decorated careers at Hampton University, I don’t know that you’ve read the stats. He’s one of the most decorated players in college basketball. I can run them off to you. I was here with him to help give that opportunity, and that was a blessing. As (forward) Ben (Stanley) says, ‘To God be the glory’ for that. I’m so happy for him now.
“Where some people say, ‘What’s next?’ and ‘What is he gonna do next?’, I was there to help him make sure that he could provide a life for himself, his son, and his family after this, and he’s gonna do that.”
Marrow is an outstanding kid, with the world ahead of him in whatever path he chooses. His coach showed us why relationship matters, why faith matters, and why commitment matters. I’d consider that a winning lesson for everyone who came to know it.
The year was a win for Charlotte. Sure, it may feel a bit incomplete, since we didn’t get a chance to see what the 49ers could have done to bring to a close their renaissance season. Perhaps it’s better that way, though. The fan base is starting to become energized again. The leadership is as solid as it has ever been in Halton Arena, from the athletic director to the sports information department, from the head coach to the director of basketball operations. Hope — an emotion Charlotte fans struggled to find for many years — springs eternal.
I’ll remember Charlotte this way:
And, amazingly, it ended with a win for me, too. After five months of a frustrating — and often heartbreaking — search, I spent part of halftime and a little of the first segment of the second half of a Big South quarterfinal game in a freezing cold parking lot in Radford, Virginia, conducting a life-changing phone call.
Almost 24 hours later, sitting in a Chick-fil-A, of all places, I accepted a job offer.
I had the privilege of doing so surrounded by family, whom I don’t often get to see. I don’t know that I could have written a better script.
I already privately credited him with this, but I need to take a moment and make it public here. Longwood coach Griff Aldrich was right.
It was just after his team had lost to Winthrop, and I was leaving the locker room after interviewing him for my story. He stopped me for a moment — who does that after a game? — and told me that something would find me. I wanted to believe him, but was struggling to do so at the time.
He called it.
He wasn’t the only one, either. So many people, from Aldrich to the Charlotte Observer‘s David Scott, to the many people along this beat that I realize now more than ever that I’m lucky enough to call friends routinely checked on me, prayed for me, and kept me in their thoughts. No matter where the rest of this life guides me, I’ll never forget the care and concern I got this year. I appreciate every last one of you, and always will. I’ll always value your friendship.
Oh, and after shooting a ball — poorly — for the first time in years, I put home a layup, made a great bounce pass over to the rack where the other basketballs were assembled, then walked off a nearly silent floor after a Winthrop practice. I knew I couldn’t top that one.
For every year’s a souvenir
That slowly fades away
Oh yeah, the Billy Joel song.
It’s called “Souvenir”, and it spoke to me. It’s incredibly short — roughly two minutes or so — and wasn’t a big hit, but it seems to resonate, particularly in a year that so many of us may find incomplete without March Madness. Again, though, being wistful is a choice, and I would rather make a different choice this year.
So, with a smile instead of a frown, thus ends my eighth year here at College Hoops Digest. As always, I need to thank everyone who helped make this season such a great one.
The people who deserve the biggest thanks are the sports information directors. Brett Redden (Winthrop), Marc Rabb (Gardner-Webb), Brent Stastny (Charlotte), Steven Gonzalez (Liberty), Chris Cook (Longwood), Stefan Nolet (Asheville), Taylor Blue (Radford), Phil Marcello (Wofford), Jim Heath (Hampton), Mark Simpson and Brandon McGinnis (Big South Conference), and so, so many more that I’ve accidentally neglected to name — my apologies — have all made my life scores easier through the years, and make my job millions of times easier. I hope I cause them as few problems as possible.
Many of those SIDs are among those I count as friends, as well. They’ve offered me counsel, said a lot of things off the record that I greatly appreciate, and have given me enough laughs and kind words to carry me for years. If you’re a journalist or just a fan, thank your SID. They connect you to the teams you cover and/or love, and work like crazy behind the scenes.
To every coach I cover and with whom I regularly talk, thank you. There are likely many times that I’m the last face you want to see after a game, but you’re always so kind and giving of your time, no matter the question. The love you have for the kids you guide is an inspiration. I appreciate every one of you.
There’s also my buddy — and sometimes boss — Alex Zietlow. I referenced some of Alex’s work earlier here, and I’ve referenced much more of it throughout the season. I didn’t quite know what to expect when Bret McCormick, alongside whom I’ve sat at Winthrop games for years, departed for a great new opportunity after last season. Bret made me a better writer.
I can officially say this now: Alex also makes me a better writer. He’s still new to the business, but you’d never know it. He works like crazy, asks incisive questions, and does it all with a sense of joy and discovery that we should all look to emulate. He shares with Bret a vision for great stories, and has seamlessly integrated into both the Winthrop community and the local circulation area he serves. Great things are ahead for him.
Alex is one of the many buddies with whom I regularly share press rows. Damien, David, Jake, Jon, Matt, Naz, and my other “regulars” always make each game that much more fun.
And finally, there’s this outlet — and you, the reader. We’re an independent bunch, and there’s still a charm to that. Josh, our managing editor, has been here from day one, and I joined shortly thereafter. We’ve done some new things this year, such as the Inside the Numbers pieces, and we’ll continue to innovate. Thank you for the shares, the likes, the retweets, the comments, and for eight great years. I’m ready to make it nine, and I hope you’ll join us.
Speaking of joining us, if you’re looking for an outlet for which to cover hoops, tweet us at @NCAAhoopsdigest on Twitter.
Pat Kelsey has cited his mentor, Skip Prosser, so many times in eight seasons that I’ve lost count. Perhaps his comment this year about the length of a basketball season hit home more than most.
“Babies are born and people die,” he recalled Prosser saying.
Just the month of March may be the longest we’ll experience in a long time. Winthrop won the Big South title roughly two weeks prior to my writing this, and there’s still over a week left in the month.
It’s been a long and trying time for a lot of you, and for me — it even took 35 days to finish a game this season. As a coach once told me, “there’s joy in the process.” It’s not always perfect — or sometimes even close — but joy can be found everywhere you look.
Here’s to all of us finding ours, and to creating even more when we reconvene in just a few months.