I don’t remember when exactly it occurred. The days run together — let’s be real, the last year has run together — but let me set the scene for you.
My cohort/friend/sometimes boss, Alex Zietlow, and I were sitting on the concourse high atop the Winthrop Coliseum deck. The arena was almost entirely empty once you went about one row off the floor, as it had been all year. There was music blaring, to the point where Alex and I — responsibly socially distanced, lest anyone ask — couldn’t hear each other speak. We were the only two really anywhere around, aside from those on the floor.
I don’t remember what led to the question or who we asked, but we asked why the music was so unbelievably loud. I don’t even remember who answered — it could have been facilities manager extraordinaire Kyle Dickison, it could have been our good friend Bryan Dillon, who was usually around in some official capacity for the school, though it doesn’t really matter — but I remember the answer jarring me.
It was said that it gave the players “some sense of normalcy”.
Friends, I’m so damn sick of hearing the term “the new normal”. If I never hear it again after this nonsense finally fades, I’ll be perfectly happy. I absolutely won’t use it here. Just know this — nothing has been normal about the last 12 months. I won’t comment further than that.
All I know is that, as annoying as that music was as we tried to carry on conversations, conduct Zoom press conferences, or record podcasts, the morning light reveals to me that there was a grain of truth to that statement.
As I write this, some more shreds of normal have appeared. Confetti fell, a national champion hoisted the national title trophy, and One Shining Moment played. The atmosphere mostly sucked — especially in the Assembly Hall games or where the ushers shooed away the lowly plebes who dared to try to approach UCLA coach Mick Cronin after a big win — and we saw far too much of certain officials who we didn’t want to see in big games, but at least we had a tournament.
Guys like Winthrop’s Chase Claxton, about whom I penned a feature, finally got a chance to live a multi-generational dream. His former teammate, Hunter Hale, got a chance to travel to Indianapolis and root on his friends and former teammates, even though the pandemic scuttled his chance to play a year prior. The world got to meet Kelton Talford, Abilene Christian, and Oral Roberts. Upsets happened. Last-second shots fell.
May it never happen — at least, not that way — again. More on that later, though.
It started in early December. I went in the wrong entrance — again, no comment — got my temperature checked, answered a number of health questions, descended a few steps, and settled in for a truly strange year.
The Niners fell by 11 that night, which marked one of the very few times I got to see the 49ers this past season. Charlotte had a lot of early weekday starts — another part of the “new normal” I never want to come back — and some canceled games because of the virus. I did get to see my good buddy, Charlotte assistant Vic Sfera, which is always a great thing.
The “?” to which I alluded in that tweet ended up being fewer than half of my regular allotment for a standard season. That stands to reason, though, as the season started late, games got canceled, and the like. I did get to Charlotte and Gardner-Webb, along with a season to remember at Winthrop.
That season at Winthrop. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
The Eagles just kept winning. At one point, they had won 43 of their last 47 games. That seems nearly unthinkable. They won 16 straight to start the season, often doing so in unexpected ways. They hammered a really good Furman club. They bounced back from a fierce challenge from Campbell — yes, the same Campbell they would eventually face in the Big South championship — to sweep the Camels. They got 20 points on a career-best night from guard Josh Corbin to sneak past Asheville. Top 25 voters listed them on their ballots. National media paid attention. The eyes of the mid-major world were intently focused on Rock Hill, South Carolina.
Then, following one three-minute, 41-second cold streak, all that attention faded.
Interestingly, as Alex and I pointed out at the time — and a time or two since — there seemed to be a strange emotion around it all. Maybe it wasn’t relief, but there seemed to be a tinge of that. Kelsey told us this after the game:
“That’s sports. That how it goes,” stated Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey when recapping the fortunes of his side. “I told (the team), whether you win or lose, we do the exact same thing. It’s what your response is like.
“Obviously, the story that people are gonna talk about, whether it’s media, students, or fans is the disappointment over the end of a prolific winning streak … We’ll respond the right way. You dust yourself off, you pick yourself up, and you go back to work, and we’ll do that. My money’s on our guys handling this the right way and using it as a catalyst to even better things.”
Chandler Vaudrin, who was lauded by Kelsey as one of the key components of his leadership council and Big South Player of the Year, said something eerily similar.
“I’m just super excited to get back to practice. It’s life. It’s basketball,” stated Vaudrin. “It hurts a little bit, but it is what it is. Our heads aren’t down. We’re not that kind of team.
“You could see as they reacted (Asheville stormed the floor and celebrated following the final horn). Every team we play, this is their Super Bowl. This is the game they have to win. They circle it on the schedule … Yeah, it’s tough. I just love these guys. We’re gonna be okay.”
Winthrop was, indeed, okay. The Eagles chomped through the remainder of their Big South regular-season and tournament schedules, turning in a dominant trio of performances on their home deck to win back-to-back Big South crowns and their third in five years. Campbell head coach Kevin McGeehan said something about the Eagles following their loss to Winthrop in the title game that seemed hyperbolic to some and inarguable to others.
“I’m so proud to be the coach of our team. We had something really magical going here, and if we hadn’t played probably the best team the Big South has ever had, we probably could have kept this thing going for one more game and played in the NCAA tournament.”
Before we continue, let’s pause for a minute and honor that Camel team.
Kevin also mentioned after that game the fact that his club was picked to finish tenth in the league (“wrongly,” he dubbed it), and Cedric Henderson, Jordan Whitfield, and a Campbell group that was incredibly connected and committed all year found itself just 40 minutes away from going dancing. It’s only right, then, that I reveal here that I voted for Kevin to be Coach of the Year in the league — Kelsey received the honor, and it’s tough to claim that was a bad pick, either — largely because of how that team came together. My vote was not to “punish” Kelsey, but to reward McGeehan. That said, nobody cares about my vote, so let’s move on.
Winthrop eventually succumbed to Villanova in the first round of the NCAA tournament. which I appropriately covered from my recliner. Kelsey talked during the run-up to the game about Jay Wright and his Wildcats, how Wright is a Hall of Fame coach and how well his teams are prepared. Those words proved prophetic, as the ‘Cats largely quieted Vaudrin and the high-powered Eagle offense. Alex and I didn’t get a chance to talk to Kelsey in the postgame press conference after that one, because of an internet outage at Indiana Farmers Coliseum. We didn’t realize at the time — and simultaneously probably could have predicted — that we would never have another presser with Kelsey as the Eagles’ coach.
Kelsey would depart days later for a chance to helm the College of Charleston basketball program. The Cougars afford Kelsey the chance to take over a program in a bigger league with a beautiful arena and a solid fan base. Sure, there were some jokes made about the situation — Kelsey’s acceptance and eventual rejection of the UMass job first and foremost among them, along with former Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall having accepted the Charleston job and changing his mind.
I said this when Kelsey took the UMass job. It’s somewhat eerie to look back on those words now. That said, I stand by those words. I’ll remember the off-the-floor stuff about Kels more, like when I would run into him in the hall an hour and a half after a game and he’d ask for my thoughts on some team they were going to play, or seeing how much he and his players love his three kids.
Kels cited his mentor, Skip Prosser, almost as often as he breathed at Winthrop. One thing he routinely quoted really resonates now.
“A season is a lifetime.”
He gave Winthrop nine of those lifetimes, and his legacy is etched in Eagle basketball lore.
It’s only fitting, then, that he hands the keys to Mark Prosser, Skip’s son and his former top assistant. Prosser comes back to Rock Hill after three seasons at Western Carolina. Detractors will — fairly, perhaps — cite his record in Cullowhee as a problem. Talk to those who have worked or played for Pross, though — and I have — and they’ll tell you what a great man and coach he is. I know Pross, too, and I know that so many of the qualities that everyone loved in Skip are resident in his son.
He may be as great as his dad and former boss. He may be fired in three years. Nearly every coaching hire is a crapshoot. And, let’s be honest — Justin Gray or Des Oliver, the other two finalists, would have both also been outstanding hires. Perhaps Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin’s comment in the introductory presser about how Skip Prosser’s imprint is on this program couldn’t have been reflected any more perfectly than going from a figurative imprint to a literal one.
“It always ends in a loss.”
I’ve included that nod to Kyle Whelliston and The Mid-Majority for as long as I’ve been doing this. It’s one of the most accurate things anyone’s ever said, but it’s also an important reminder that — sometimes, anyway — losses are just setbacks.
It ended in a loss for fans of Big South basketball. Four of the five players on the all-Big South first team are gone. Phlandrous Fleming will transfer for his final year, leaving Charleston Southern as not only one of its most decorated players, but one of its best representatives in a long line of them that includes Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper. I got to see Phlan once this year, but he went off for 32. Vaudrin declared for the NBA Draft. Gardner-Webb’s Jaheam Cornwall will also transfer for his final year.
So, too, will Hampton’s Davion Warren. Warren, who will finish his career at Memphis, was a key cog for a really good Hampton team that battled for a Big South championship in his penultimate year as a Pirate. The light really came on for him, though, in a regular-season victory at Winthrop that year. Hampton coach Buck Joyner told me this about Warren after that game:
“It was good for him,” said Joyner of Warren’s performance. “Davion has been great for us at home, but has had a tough go of it on the road. He was able to do some things on the road. Hopefully, it will pick up his confidence.”
Warren finished second in the Big South Player of the Year race this season, and to say that it picked up his confidence was a significant understatement.
It ended in a loss for Winthrop, on several fronts. Whether this is a temporary or permanent loss will take a while to determine.
It also ended in a loss for several of my friends in the business. Griff Aldrich’s Longwood Lancers continued their ascent under his leadership this season, riding a prolonged win streak to a Big South semifinal appearance and a trip to the CBI. The Lancers fell to Pepperdine in the first round of the CBI, but Griff emphasized the positive things that came from the season. Star guard Juan Munoz is transferring for his final year, and he will be tremendously missed. The rise should continue for Longwood, though. My friends T.J. Wengert and Katie Pate even lent their voices to one of the most incredible moments you’ll ever see in college basketball.
It also ended in a loss for Dustin Kerns and the Appalachian State Mountaineers. App conquered the Sun Belt tournament in Pensacola, making its way to its first NCAA tournament in over 20 years in Dustin’s second year in Boone.
Dustin said to me, “How about this? Incredible.” about this tweet and his team’s season.
As I said after Norfolk State ended the team’s season, that loss felt more like a beginning than an end. Considering the leadership of Dustin and his staff — combined with the veteran standouts they have coming back — the Holmes Center is set to rock for years to come.
And now, for something I’ve never said in nine years of doing this.
Hopefully, our biggest losses are yet to come.
The loss of constant fear. The loss of cancellations. The loss of sparsely-filled — if not entirely empty– arenas. The loss of personnel “tiers”. The loss of Zoom press conferences. The loss of social distancing. The loss of 2:00 weekday tip times. The loss of looking at others as “spreaders”, instead of people with whom to tailgate, high-five and share stories. The loss of off-site announcers.
Most importantly? The loss of loss.
If you feel inclined to get vaccinated, do it. If you would rather not — or can’t, due to religious, health, or other concerns — don’t do it. Keep your stakeholders close. If you see them in the mirror, in your wedding, in your place of worship, or near your death bed, let them know they matter.
If you need help — with anything — get it. You are worthy. You matter.
I always find myself thanking the real heroes of every basketball season in this space, and it’s especially important to do that in this season.
Winthrop’s sports information dynamic duo of Brett Redden and Alyssa Sconzo are always on the list of people I most appreciate, and their work of putting together a place for Alex, Matt Shealy — whom it was great to actually see this year, and has a bright future ahead of him — and me to work this year alongside everything else with which they were tasked deserves all the accolades in the world. Lauren Lowitt and Petey Powers from the creative staff helped coordinate Zoom calls, overcame numerous technology challenges like total pros, and graciously shared the recordings of those press conferences with us. Now-Charleston DBO Zack Freesman helped set up player interviews, often on incredibly short notice. I’ll never forget any of that willingness to help.
Charlotte’s Brent Stastny and Gardner-Webb’s Marc Rabb were also kind enough to open their doors to me this season, and even though I didn’t get to have my regular conversations with them, I appreciate their kindness and understanding in trying times. Their patience will not be forgotten. I owe Brent a handshake and Rabb a chocolate chip cookie.
And then, there are Kyle Kallander, Mark Simpson, and Brandon McGinnis from the Big South office. They conducted virtual media days, supported all of us like pros, and put up with my silly questions all season. I couldn’t ask for a kinder group of people.
There’s my boss, my cohort, my co-host, my dude, Alex Zietlow. In a season when I think both of us lost our minds a bit at times, he’s been a great resource in many ways. I can count on him for inspiration, comic relief, a challenging question, or flipping me work. He tells great stories, he’s a skilled thinker, and he makes me a better writer. The sky’s the limit for him.
A tip of the cap to Jeremy over at BloggingTheWU — which we actually got to shout out on the podcast a time or two — my friend Jake from the Shelby Star and other publications, Agent 49 and all my pals up at Charlotte, Damien and Jon at the News-Advance and A Sea of Red, and my other friends up and down the road. I hate it that we didn’t get to see each other as much as usual this year. Let’s right that wrong next season.
Finally, there’s all of you. Whether reading our site’s content, asking questions on Twitter, inviting us on podcasts, or Venmo-ing us money — okay, the last one didn’t really happen, but a dude can wish — you’re sharing with us your passion for this game we love and the way we tell its story. I speak only for myself — though I’m pretty sure I can speak for the rest of us, too — in saying that I hope if you ever see me in an arena, you’ll say hi.
And so it ends. Transfers still need to find homes, there will still be a coaching move or two, and we’ll now turn our attention to summer, baseball, traveling, and whatever else we choose to do with our time as the chill breaks and the sun turns its unrelenting eye toward us for several months.
When we reconvene, this humble little site will be a teenager. Next year will mark season number 10 for us, and that number feels significant. We’re doing some new things, including the podcast with Alex and me. If you’ve got ideas for other new things, please hit me up on Twitter (@sportsmatters) or tag our site’s handle (@NCAAhoopsdigest). Our eyes and ears are always open.
I also owe Josh a thank you, as always. Nearly ten years ago, he and I were working together at another outlet when he started this place and pulled me over here to join him. It’s been a crazy decade, both personally and professionally, for both of us. Yet, here we are, still standing. It’s still weird to tell people we’re based out of New York when I’m writing about stuff down here in the Carolinas, but maybe I’ll eventually figure it out. Thanks for everything, my friend, and here’s to another 10 years.
If I’m going to harp on you about getting back to normal, I should probably close this out in the normal fashion.
As a tribute to my good buddy Andy Masur, let’s close with the usual passage from Billy Joel.
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 againBilly Joel, Say Goodbye to Hollywood
To quote Josh, “God willing, we’ll never have a season like this again.”
Until next season, y’all.