Takeaways from a talk with Coach Aldrich
BY CHRIS COOK
The follow-up to Longwood University’s breakout 2018-19 men’s basketball season may be two months away, but Head Coach Griff Aldrich and his staff have already begun molding the Lancers into shape.
For the past seven weeks, Longwood’s second-year head coach has guided his roster of 13 through a preseason grind aimed at laying the foundation for the season to come. His group includes seven returners, three returning starters, the four-man senior class of Seán Flood, Shabooty Phillips, JaShaun Smith and Jaylon Wilson, and eight intriguing newcomers.
With a schedule full of predawn lifts, summer classes, morning and afternoon workouts and evening team meetings and dinners, free time has not been easy to come by for coaches or players. However, Aldrich and members of the team emerged from the confines of Willett Hall in their final week of camp for a special meet-and-greet at the new North Street Press Club in Farmville. The event came on a packed night at Farmville’s newest dining establishment and treated those on-site to a live edition of the Longwood Basketball Coach’s Show with Aldrich and Voice of the Lancers Sam Hovan.
During the show, Aldrich and Hovan dished on the start of year two of the program under Aldrich, the wealth of new faces in the Longwood locker room and what fans can expect from the Lancers in 2019-20. Below are five key takeaways from the show and the state of Longwood’s squad heading into the start of the fall semester.
1. Longwood is a much different team.
If Jerome Kersey Court is a chess board, then Griff Aldrich is short on pawns and long on just about everything else.
The returning players are familiar names, from 2019 Big South Newcomer of the Year Shabooty Phillips to sharpshooting Irishman Seán Flood. However, with a signing class that includes eight new players, more than half of Longwood’s roster is made up of newcomers. Strengthened by that incoming group, the Lancers have a unique blend of size, athleticism and versatility entering the 2019-20 season. That’s no accident, as the Longwood staff’s targets in their first full recruiting cycle were long, athletic shooters who would fit well within the team’s fast-paced, three-point focused scheme.
Of Longwood’s eight newcomers, six are 6-foot-5-inches or taller with the lone exceptions being 6-3 freshman guard Heru Bligen and 6-2 East Carolina University transfer guard DeShaun Wade. Every one of those eight is a long-range threat, adding even more shooters to a roster that returns its top six scorers from last year’s CBI quarterfinal-bound squad, including proven scorers Phillips, Jaylon Wilson and JaShaun Smith from the starting lineup and Flood, Jordan Cintron and Juan Munoz off the bench.
Of the newcomers, Aldrich praised freshman guard Heru Bligen’s dedication to improving his jump shot, freshman guard Nate Lliteras’ shooting ability and overall upside and freshman forward Bennett Mohn’s feel for the game and fit within Longwood’s system. He compared freshman forward Leslie Nkereweum to junior Jordan Cintron in terms of his unrelenting intensity and high-level athleticism, and he highlighted junior forward Ilija Stefanovich’s dedication to excellence and attention to detail. Freshman Cameron O’Conner drew Aldrich’s praise for his shooting stroke and commitment to the team, while Aldrich also noted sophomore East Carolina transfer DeShaun Wade’s energy and culture-boosting demeanor and sophomore forward Christian Wilson’s makeup, versatility and ability to drive through the lane.
2. The extension of the three-point line will be a boon to Longwood’s style of play.
The NCAA announced in early June that college basketball’s three-point line would move back to 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches, a shift of a foot-and-a-half that equates the college line with the international three-point distance and sends the arc 18 inches closer to the NBA’s maximum 23-foot-9-inch three-point line.
It was certainly impactful news for a Longwood team that took more than half of its field goal attempts from beyond the arc in year one under Aldrich, but Longwood’s head coach said it will do little to deter the Lancers from doing what they were built for.
“We’re not going to move away from shooting threes,” Aldrich said.
That’s likely not a groundbreaking revelation for a team that last year broke the school record by hitting 333 three-pointers and whose 2019-20 roster includes a take-your-pick lineup of sharpshooters. However, Aldrich said the extended line, along with Longwood’s three-point-heavy reputation, may result in adjustments to how teams defend the Lancers this season.
Aldrich sees the intention of the rule as a means to spread the court and encourage more teams to drive to the basket. However, his expectation is that teams may place an even greater emphasis on defending the interior and instead dare opponents to take those longer three-point shots. The foot-and-a-half adjustment, Aldrich said, isn’t a massive impact for a good shooter, but it can be significant for a marginal shooter.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see some real strategic adjustments by teams as people try to tinker with how to play in this new environment,” he said.
3. Aldrich loves Willett Hall, but he can’t wait for the JPB.
The 2018-19 season was groundbreaking for Longwood men’s basketball in more ways than one. Along with the team’s success in their first year under Aldrich, the program got its biggest boost after the season when Longwood University announced a gift of $15 million from philanthropist Joan Perry Brock, a 1964 Longwood grad, for the construction of the Joan Perry Brock Center (JPB).
That new venue will serve as a multifaceted convocation hub in the center of campus that will not only be the home of Longwood basketball, but a state-of-the-art performance center for Longwood and the Town of Farmville.
Aldrich was profuse in his excitement and praise upon the announcement in April, and he felt the same during the coach’s show in June.
“It’s a huge opportunity for our players, our fans and the community at large to experience college basketball in a great venue,” he said. “We’re obviously excited from a recruiting perspective to be able to encourage players to come and play in a state-of-the-art facility, but I’m also really excited for the Farmville community. To be able to play in a first-class venue and enjoy good college basketball in a high-class fashion is going to be a lot of fun for spectators.”
But in migrating from Longwood’s longtime home in Willett Hall, Aldrich isn’t about to leave behind the home-court atmosphere that allowed the Lancers to go 10-5 at home in 2018-19.
“I like Willett Hall,” Aldrich said. “It’s a very intimate atmosphere. President Reveley and the committee that’s designing the building with the architects — I’m really excited about the designs I’ve seen and how they’re trying to shape it. President Reveley has a vision for it to be one of the premier small-college venues to both play in and watch a game. I think it’s going to be a really cool environment.”
As to who he thinks should be the first to take the court upon the Joan Perry Brock Center’s planned opening in the spring of 2022?
“I sure hope it’s Mrs. Brock,” he said.
4. Gains, gains, gains.
The Lancers are bigger and stronger this year, and that’s no accident. Aldrich identified team-wide strength gains as a priority for the summer, and with the help of longtime sports performance coach and recently-promoted Senior Associate Athletics Director Rick Canter, the team gained more than 100 pounds from the start of June.
Several players made significant jumps, including Cintron who is now up to 220, freshman Abraham Deng, whose 6-11 frame now weighs in at 226, and newcomers Mohn and Christian Wilson, who both packed on more than 10 pounds apiece to tip the scales at 176 and 193, respectively. Along with Mohn, each of Longwood’s five freshmen benefited heavily from their introduction to a Division I weight training program and gained an average of more than a pound per week.
As a group, the average body weight of Longwood’s 13 players jumped from 186.7 pounds to 194.5 over the summer, which should pay dividends for a roster whose average height of 6-5 is the tallest of the Lancers’ Division I era.
5. Bennett Mohn is the funniest freshman of Longwood’s newcomers this year.
That’s according to the ever-upbeat Shabooty Phillips, so consider the source. Mohn is a 6-6, 175-pound sharpshooting forward from Austin, Texas, who Aldrich said will redshirt this year. While Longwood fans may be disappointed to have to wait a year to see what Mohn can do on the court, at least that gives the Lancers another full year of his jokes.