It’s a little late, but here’s the annual interview with Longwood head coach Mike Gillian. One of the guys I root for, because, well, he reads my web site. Previous interviews from 2004 and 2005 are available for a little background. In Year 2 of Longwood’s Division I odyssey, the Lancers posted a record of 10-20 after the memorable 1-30 season from Year 1. Without further ado, here is another informative chat with the fourth-year head coach…
Before we talk about Longwood, I have to give you some space here to comment on George Mason’s run last season. You helped recruit and coach Jai Lewis and Lamar Butler as freshmen. You worked for six years under Jim Larranaga. How much did you enjoy watching that team advance to Indy?
Watching Coach Larranaga, the George Mason team, and that whole university community go through their NCAA Tournament run was just incredible. Bill Courtney (now with Dave Leitao at Virginia) and I were there with Coach L for a long time and we always believed that the players we were recruiting were capable of eventually making a run deep into the Tournament. You had asked about the GMU memories when we first did this two years ago, and the first round tournament game we played in 2001 against Maryland. We thought that GMU team had the ability to do exactly what last year’s team ended up doing.
This is where Coach L deserves all of the accolades that have been coming his way over the last 7 or 8 months. Everyone should understand that this was no fluke George Mason did what they did; the groundwork for an accomplishment of this magnitude had been laid over the course of a long period of time. Bill Courtney and I did a lot of work together to put together the players that made up a good bit of that Final Four team; Lamar Butler, Jai Lewis, and Tony Skinn in particular. It’s very gratifying to have seen them accomplish what they did and, more importantly, to show the appreciation they did to all of those who helped them make their Final Four run.
Let me digress here for just a moment and plug the guy who is my best friend in coaching, Bill Courtney. I feel compelled to do this whenever I get a chance because one day very soon he is going to get an opportunity to be a head coach at this level and, when he does, he’s going to make some athletic director very happy. After I had left Mason to come down here to Longwood, BC recruited a couple of guys very hard, against high profile programs, and those guys turned out to be the two other stalwarts of last year’s Final 4 team; Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas. Now that he is at Virginia look for him to have an immediate, very positive impact on all the areas of the Cavalier program.
On a related matter, a big story from the off-season was the push to expand the tournament field. Almost all of the opinions I’ve heard have come from coaches in the multi-bid conferences. What’s your opinion on tournament expansion?
Tournament expansion is a good topic for discussion. I believe that once something like that comes to the table the way it did, as you referenced, it doesn’t just fade away into the sunset. Everyone in college basketball was thrilled with George Mason’s accomplishments last year. How could you not be? Some of those leagues that had members left out because teams like Mason were included are not against including Mason, they just want to be in too.
That being said I think it is just a matter of time before the powers that be eliminate the post-season NIT and just put on one big tournament that includes all of the qualified schools. This leads to a whole other series of questions that need to be addressed; how many schools should it be, what about expansion for the women’s field as well, what about TV, missed class time, effects on conference tournaments, and then what do you do with the one school from a high profile conference that gets left out because Longwood deserves an at-large bid in the year 2014 – expand the tournament?
There are a few people that believe the tournament at the end of the year should include every Division I program. I don’t think people realize this (I am fairly certain it is accurate but if not I will gladly be corrected) but the foremost among them is none other than John Wooden. Who is going to argue with an idea from him, certainly not me!
OK, on to the Lancers. Your program provides a good test for the stats page, because I have to confess to having never seen you play, though I have listened to portions of games thanks to the free radio feed provided on the web site. But just judging from the numbers, the Lancers appear to be aggressive on defense, probably playing almost exclusively man, and gambling more than most. How close am I?
Your assessment of our playing style is fairly accurate. We are very aggressive defensively and we do play almost exclusively man to man defense. We will mix it up with a few different trapping defenses and full court defenses as well.
The one thing you are a little off on is in assuming that we may gamble more than most. It is actually quite the opposite, we reinforce constantly that we don’t want to be gambling on defense, and gambling is exactly the term we use for it. We equate gambling with “false hustle”, plays that compromise the defense more often than not. In actuality, what we are trying to do is force the other team into making mistakes with the ball because of the pressure, and putting it in places that we are anticipating, so a play can be made on the ball without having to gamble.
In playing this style we are also trying to get teams to play a little quicker than they are accustomed to on offense and take shots that are out of their normal rhythm. That all sounds good and works well, until you go up against a team like Villanova last year that is just capable of picking the defense apart patiently. Fortunately, we are developing some cohesiveness on offense, too, so when those nights happen we are able to keep up by playing well on offense.
In reflecting on the team’s improvement last season, most of it was due to a better offense, which showed an overall improvement, but the area where you improved most was in getting to the free throw line. Last year in this space you expressed a desire to get better in that area, and the improvement was one of the best in the country in ‘06. Some of that was due to playing from ahead more often, but even if we accounted for that, we would still see some serious improvement in getting to the line in the regular flow of the offense. Was there anything special that you stressed to make this happen, or was it just the fact that the offense improved in general making your team harder to guard?
In response to us being better offensively—Our team really began to play well together and trust each other offensively a lot more as we got toward the end of last season. One of the big factors in that for me was cutting down on the turnovers a bit. I think that was accomplished in large part by our players understanding the “sequencing” that exists in our offensive scheme much better and having a better feel for where and when their shots were going to come.
Once this happened we got more shots at the basket (logically), our shot selection was better and our shooting percentage went up (logically). As these things begin to occur you are naturally going to get to the foul line a little more by attacking the basket. You also are giving yourself a chance to play from out front more often and as a result of this you will get to the foul line a little more often. Not to be overlooked in all of this is the fact that when your good offensive rebounders can understand where and when their teammates shots are coming, they have a great chance (regardless of size) to get to the offensive glass – which adds to your scoring and free throw opportunities. Kirk Williams and Clayton Morgan were way up there for much of last season in the Pomeroy stats for offensive rebounding efficiency as a result of these factors.
Let’s stick with the Pomeroy stats for a moment because two things don’t lie, videotape and numbers. Not that they give you all the answers, but when you look inside the numbers here is what I see. If you like to play at a high tempo like we do, when you cut your turnovers and get more shots at the basket and run offense better and get to the foul line some more; your offensive efficiency will go up. Even if your defense remains exactly the same and your offensive efficiency improves, your team will be better and you will have a chance to win more games.
What the stats you compile do for us at Longwood is give us a tool to show the players what we are doing is working, and if they will continue to be diligent in their efforts to trust each other and the scheme – we’ll win. Make no mistake about it, every coach wants to win.
Thanks, Coach! We look forward to your appearance in the 2014 tournament field.