The Blueprint: Longwood makes it three straight winning seasons

Published 5:52 pm Sunday, March 3, 2024

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At the time, it might not have registered as a big moment. It’ll show up in Longwood men’s basketball history, but you might miss it if you’re not careful. When the Lancers beat UNC Asheville in front of a home crowd on Wednesday, Feb. 21, they guaranteed a winning season for the third straight year. To put it in perspective, the last time that happened was the Ron Carr era. That was from 1992 to 1995, when Longwood was in NCAA Division II, so it’s been a minute. 

That length in between back-to-back-to-back winning seasons spotlights the challenges college coaches face in an era of NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) deals and a very active transfer portal. Add in an ever-changing non-conference schedule and college basketball seems like a puzzle right now, one coaches and players have to figure out while acquiring pieces throughout the season. 

And yet, despite those challenges, Longwood is following their #OnTheRise motto. They’re doing exactly that, growing and building a strong program. Before current men’s basketball coach Griff Aldrich arrived, the Lancers had one winning season on the Division I level. That was back in the 2008-09 season under Mike Gillian, when they went 17-14. You have to go back even farther if you want to find Longwood’s last season with 20 or more wins before Aldrich, to Ron Carr’s 1993-94 squad. And yet here we are, with three straight winning seasons for the Lancers. The point is that in the middle of navigating a changing college basketball climate, Longwood appears to be doing what every coach and fan base wants. They’re building a good program, not just a good team. 

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“It’s hard,” Aldrich said. “Our goal has always been to build a high quality program that competes year in and year out. We made it to the NCAA Tournament, then last year had a 20-win season. Now with [the UNC Asheville] victory, we assured ourselves of a third winning season. That’s the right direction. That’s what we want to be doing.” 

And again, the numbers back it up. The team’s 40 home wins over the last three years are the most over a similar timespan in its history. Aldrich has also collected 105 wins as a Lancer. To top that, you’d have to go back 30 years, again to the Carr era. 

Building a better program at Longwood 

So how does that happen? To assemble a program capable of winning seasons year-in and year-out, it takes time. And that’s something college coaches often find themselves lacking in this current atmosphere. College basketball analyst Evan Miyakawa did a study of last season and found 29.3% of all Big South Conference players entered the transfer portal. That adds up to 46 players in total, the majority of whom were starters. 

It creates an atmosphere where instead of helping a player grow and get deeper in his knowledge of the team’s system year over year, coaches find themselves filling holes in their depth chart. And yet, while other teams scrambled, Longwood hasn’t had to deal with much of that. Instead, the majority of their players stay put. The only real transfer has been Justin Hill, who went to Georgia after the Lancers’ 26-7 season in 2022. It’s that continuity, Aldrich said, that’s helped his teams keep winning year over year. 

“Program building often requires continuity,” Aldrich said. “We need players to be within the system to understand the values and the culture for more than 10 months.” 

The challenge now, Aldrich said, especially for mid-majors, is that you run the risk of developing a player, only to see him jump to another school. 

If you recruit a high school kid, there’s now added risk that young man won’t be with you all four years,” Aldrich said. “You’ll be investing in him when he’s at his most inexperienced and then the risk of course is that they move on.” 

His comments are echoed by many coaches across the board, including Tony Shaver. The former William & Mary coach is well known in the Prince Edward County area for his time at NCAA Division III’s Hampden-Sydney College. During his 17 years there, the Tigers won 226 games and made it to the National Championship. Shaver said the key to his success was stability, something he sees little of in today’s game. 

“I think maintaining stability, which means maintaining your players and having a coach stay for several years, is how you [win year after year],” Shaver said. “Now it’s more difficult in some ways because of the transfer portal. Let’s say Longwood or Hampden-Sydney gets a great player. Within one year or two, they may go somewhere else.” 

‘Find players that fit’ 

But as we mentioned, Longwood has mainly been able to avoid problems from the transfer portal over these last few years. Winning plays a part in that, Shaver believes. But he also feels that students are starting to see the portal isn’t a cure-all. 

Once you start winning, that establishes an expectation level,” Shaver said. “You constantly want to push your program to new heights. I remember the first time we ever made the NCAA tournament at Hampden-Sydney. Several of the ODAC coaches told me, ‘hey just go and have fun because you’re not going to beat anybody in this tournament.’ You learn that’s not true. Players learn that’s not true.” 

Players see that they can win. They also realize there’s an opportunity to start, Shaver said, rather than sitting on the bench at a bigger name program. 

And then there’s the results of the transfer portal, which have kept some from trying it. While we’ve all heard of the major transfers, those were just a drop in the bucket of the overall number. The NCAA’s transfer portal database shows just 50% of the 9,567 athletes who entered in 2021, the last year we have accurate data for, actually enrolled in another school the next semester. That leaves 8,284 students, some of whom find themselves without a team, while others just quit the sport. Overall since it started operating, only 57% have successfully found a new team. 

It becomes a case where students are starting to realize the portal doesn’t guarantee you anything. 

“High school kids haven’t been anywhere else,” Aldrich said. “The allure that the grass is always greener is very real for them. They haven’t been in other situations where they realize “ok yeah this is kind of similar to what it was like at my other institution’.”  

Looking ahead for Longwood

But while three winning seasons is impressive, it’s not what Aldrich and his players or coaching staff are focused on. They still have a conference tournament to compete in. It’s been a bit of an up and down year for the Lancers, but the regular season ended in a made-for-tv finish, with guard Walyn Napper beating High Point in the final second. 

“I think our group has always believed that we can play with and beat anybody in the conference,” Aldrich said. “I think this is a team that really believes in itself.” 

As for the Big South Tournament, No. 4 Winthrop will take on No. 5 Longwood in the second game on Friday, beginning at 2 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.