Evidence of commitment

Published 5:18 pm Thursday, January 3, 2019

Longwood University’s men’s basketball team has made a statement through its first 15 games of the 2018-19 season.

The Lancers opened the campaign with four straight wins, starting 4-0 for the first time in the program’s 15-year NCAA Division I era, a Longwood athletics press release noted. It added that this was the team’s best start since the 2000-01 Lancers started 7-0.

On Saturday, Longwood defeated host The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, which had been the NCAA’s top scoring team, officials stated in a release. They cited the 110-94 victory as having made the 2018-19 Lancers the program’s fastest team to reach double-digit wins since the 2000-01 Lancers opened 10-1 as part of a 23-8 season at the Division II level.

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The 2018-19 Lancers are 10-5 at the conclusion of non-conference play.

It’s clear Longwood’s players have established trust with new Head Coach Griff Aldrich.

“I think the guys have done a great job in really trying to execute on what we’re asking them to do,” he said. “I said this in the preseason that they have consistently had a willingness to buy into what we’re trying to do and put forth the effort that’s required to become a successful program, and that’s really a credit to them. We’ve asked a lot of them, and by no means have we been perfect, but I think the trajectory and the effort that they’ve put forth has been really good, and I think as a result of that, you’re starting to see some wins in the games.”

Over Christmas break, Aldrich and his staff have gotten the players into the habit of getting together for a team shooting session in the morning followed by a practice session in the afternoon. The two-a-day arrangement is similar to what Aldrich did with his teammates as a player at Hampden-Sydney College when he was coached by Tony Shaver.

“It’s a lot for the guys, but I think it’s evidence of their commitment to what they’re trying to do,” Aldrich said of his Longwood players. “Hopefully the shooting will continue to be strong. You see in our last two games, we shot at 50 percent or right around there against Stetson (University) and The Citadel from three(-point range), and I think there’s no question that some of that is attributable to the fact that the guys are getting shots up every day in the morning and then also in the afternoon, so I think that’s been a plus for us.”

In terms of the unprecedented Division I achievements of the Lancers this year, related to their record, Aldrich said he and his team intentionally try to avoid focusing on those things.

Reflecting on the current 10-5 mark, though, he said, “No, we didn’t have expectations that we would necessarily have the type of record that we have at this time, but to be honest, I’m not sure we knew what type of record we’d have. There’s so many new faces, so many new pieces to try to put together, it wasn’t really until our first two scrimmages that we had a glimpse of where we thought we could be.”

“So … as we get into the Big South Conference, we’re picked 10 out of 11,” he continued. “… I have not closely watched a lot of our competition thus far, and so I’m not really sure where we’re going to stack up, but I do know that our focus throughout has been less on the result and more what we pour into the program, and we call it ‘The Root.’ And what are we pouring into ‘The Root,’ and if it’s effort, or I should say consistent effort, consistent focus, then the results are going to be what they’re going to be.”

Like with most seasons, some impressive and disappointing performances have led to the Lancers’ current record. The coach took a moment to highlight the lowest and the highest moments for his team so far, mentioning two in each category. Starting with Longwood’s weakest showings, he brought up its Dec. 7 game against visiting Frostburg State University, an NCAA Division III school. The Lancers managed to win 68-65 in overtime but gave the Bobcats plenty of opportunities for the upset with a remarkably poor shooting performance.

“Last day of exams, I thought our guys were not prepared mentally for the game and then gave a lackluster effort, and I don’t think they performed at the level even close to where they need to or where they’re capable of,” Aldrich said. “And then secondly, I’d say Cornell (University). I thought the Cornell game our guys really just never had that competitive spirit and competitive fire throughout the game, and even though we had a chance to really win it there at the end, I think that lack of competitive fire really contributed to our inability to execute on several plays that could have gotten us over the hump. I think that’s so important for this team is to have that competitive fire, which is a nice segue into our two positives.”

He started with his team’s most recent contest, its final non-conference game of the season.

Honestly the high point probably is The Citadel game,” he said, referring to the Lancers’ 110-94 road victory over the NCAA’s top scoring team Dec. 29. “They’re a very tough team. They’re having an amazing non-conference season — 9-2 against some really good competition. … And I think, really, we went in there with a fearless attitude and an attacking and aggressive mentality, and I think that that really played out throughout the course of the game.”

The other standout performance Aldrich pointed to was Longwood’s 63-58 win against host University of Richmond on Nov. 9 that improved the Lancers to 2-0.

The coach noted how his players faced adversity in that game as the Spiders, Longwood’s first Division I opponent of the year, went on a run and looked like they would be sending the Lancers to an all-too-familiar losing result. But Longwood did not fall apart; it responded to the run.

“I think for a program that has not experienced a ton of success in the past, there’s no doubt a lot of question in certain of the minds of guys who’ve been here: ‘Uh-oh, is this the same old thing?’” Aldrich said. “And I think they were resilient there, and that resilience, I think, can be tied to their effort and their fight.”


Another way in which the Lancers have demonstrated their resilience is in how well they played while injury sidelined their leading scorer. Redshirt senior guard Isaiah Walton, who is averaging 18.6 points per game, missed eight games from Nov. 23 to Dec. 17. During that time, Longwood experienced its low points, but it still avoided a losing record, going 4-4.

Aldrich said that obviously, Walton is a gifted player and scorer.

“The type of offense we’re running, it’s really supposed to be a system where the system helps create opportunities, and then the players execute on those opportunities,” the coach said. “And in one respect, that’s a challenge for such a good scorer like Isaiah, who’s used to going one-on-one a lot, and we’re asking him to adjust his playing style to conform more to what we’re trying to do.”

He indicated that Walton being temporarily sidelined could have — oddly enough — been a blessing in disguise.

“Guys who came in, Juan Munoz, Seán Flood, JaShaun (Smith) and Shabooty (Phillips), those guys aren’t necessarily a bunch of one-on-one players,” Aldrich said. “They do it more by committee, and so the ball is moving a little bit more quickly, there’s more sharing of the ball and not reliance on one person to make a play, and there’s an understanding of that. And so I think in a weird way, it could have been a blessing.”

The healing time gave Walton an opportunity to see how the new system works and how it is supposed to look.

“He’s done a really nice job since coming back,” Aldrich said. ” I thought The Citadel game he did an amazing job of just letting the game come to him … When he just relaxes and lets the system create the openings, I think you saw in The Citadel game, I think he scored 29 and had two turnovers and three assists, so that’s a fantastic game for him.”

Though the opponents change now from non-conference to conference, Aldrich said it is business as usual in terms of preparation, particularly with so many new coaches and teams in the Big South.

“For us, it’s just we have to continue to execute on our defensive and offensive principles and continue to become more consistent in doing what we do and doing it to the best of our ability while giving a tremendous effort,” he said. “And we tell the guys a lot that, ‘Look, if we play with a great effort and do what we do to the best of our ability and somebody comes out and beats us, then we can live with that. But it’s the games where you either haven’t given your greatest effort or you haven’t been as focused and mentally prepared as you needed to be, well that’s harder to live with, because those are things that we can control,’ and so that’s kind of how we look at it and what we want to preach to our guys …”

The Lancers open their 16-game Big South schedule 4:30 p.m. Saturday at reigning conference champion Radford University.