It’s nice to have a little context to support the stats-obsessed nature of this space. With that in mind, I present another conversation with Longwood head coach Mike Gillian. Why Longwood, you might be wondering. Well, this site and Longwood basketball got notoriety at the same time and we’re growing up together in this crazy Division I world. Also, Mike is extremely accommodating, and offers more than just cliches in response to my cliche-begging questions. That, and he gratuitously plugs the stats on my site in his responses. So I can’t help but root for the Lancers, even though the path to establishing a Division I program is not a glamorous one.
Longwood begins its second season against Division I competition tonight at Nebraska. You can learn more about Longwood basketball at mikegillian.com and at the Longwood Athletics web site, which honestly looks better, is easier to navigate and is more informative than the sites of many big-time schools. (I’m talking to you, Florida.) If games were decided by the quality of one’s internet presence, Longwood would be like a 4-seed in March.
Before we get to this season, let’s talk about last year. The final record was 1-30, but the season was entertaining. Longwood got its money’s worth out of the hoops program in publicity alone. Just about anyone paying attention caught the buildup to the Illinois game. Your approach to the game was great and really fed the perception that this would be something like the Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals. Yet you guys were competitive for most of the contest and followed that up with a respectable showing against Cincinnati. All in all, how did you feel about the ’04-’05 season once it was over?
Coach Gillian: How did I feel about the 04-05 season once it was over – that is a common question but one that I think has particular importance in our case. That Illinois game you are talking about was sort of a microcosm of our entire season. There was a newness and excitement about it that the players in our program and the vast majority of the people at the University had no idea about. They didn’t realize the buzz we were capable of creating, how high a level of basketball we were going to be competing with and were capable of competing at.
Once the season came to an end was actually the toughest part. We had to sit back and realize that we put in a great deal of time, effort, energy, and enthusiasm into the season; we made tremendous improvements individually and collectively as the year went along; we established ourselves as a credible, respectable, and competitive Division I basketball program; and for all that we only came out of the season with that one win. How are you supposed to feel about that? The best answer I can give is what I have told all of our players and anyone else who is interested in listening – the external competition will be a constant for us now, it is the internal competition that needs to get tougher. Our returning players have to get better and the new guys we bring in have to be capable of making an immediate, positive contribution.
The other entertaining aspect of your team was that it played at a very fast pace. Is this a central part of the Mike Gillian coaching philosophy? Can we expect Longwood to continue forcing a faster pace on the opposition as you continue to put your stamp on the program?
MG: We now feel like we have at least 10 guys in our program that are quality Division I players. I want the game to be fun. I want it to be fun for the players, fun for the coaches, fun for the fans, and I think the best way to accomplish that is to play at a fast pace. The challenge in playing this way is the irony of most people feeling that style is undisciplined. If anything, it probably takes more discipline, especially self discipline, to play at a faster pace and do it effectively.
One of the main reasons I feel that way is because we are trying to push the pace by being very active defensively. Not by being a gambling, undisciplined team but by being a team that can put pressure on other teams in a variety of ways and continue to do that over the course of a 40 minute game. I just believe it creates a flow to the game that, if you can be the one controlling it and have the depth and ability to implement it, it gives you a great chance to wear the other team down and win. And back to the fun part – let’s make no mistake, no matter what your preferred style of play is, it is always the most fun to be on the winning side of the score. Lastly, I think we may have finished last year in the top 20 of the Pomeroy rankings in terms of pace of play and why mess with a top 20 ranking anytime you can get it.
What surprised you most about your first season running a Division I program?
MG: There are no surprises in the coaching business – and there is a new surprise everyday. Sounds strange but let me explain. If you are not prepared, as a Division I college basketball coach, to handle the things that are coming your way on a daily basis then you are in the wrong business. It doesn’t mean you have all the answers by any means. It just means that you can’t allow yourself to be surprised. You have to be prepared to take in unexpected information or an unexpected situation and do the best you can to handle it in the best way possible for all parties involved. You also have to be able to learn from each set of circumstances and move on very quickly, because the next day there will probably be a new surprise – but only if you let it be one.
So looking forward, you’re going to win more than one game this season with most everyone back from a young team, plus some recruits you expect to contribute. The schedule may be slightly less brutal, although there’s another potential Cold Pizza appearance before the Villanova game. A couple of questions here: What are the expectations for the upcoming campaign? And from what specific area are you expecting the most improvement?
MG: Expectations are always tough. I do expect us to be better. I think we are certainly better because, as I said earlier, our returning players are one year older and better and I feel great about the contribution our new guys should make. We were so close so many times last year that if we can just clean up our performance in a few specific areas, we will get the results we are all looking for. We need to take better care of the ball, for sure. Looking at some of your statistics can prove that. We play at a fast enough pace that if you simply remove some of the turnovers from the equation, we get more shots at the basket, more chances to get to the foul line, more chances to offensive rebound, and keep the other team from getting some easy scoring chances. Plus, no coach likes turnovers, they will drive you crazy. We also need to defend the post and defensive rebound better. We are a little undersized, so working to defend the post and rebound will be a big key for us in achieving the results we want.
Finally, last season you played in four exempt games and this season you begin the season with three more. What’s your impression of the rule experiments used in these games? Do you think the expanded lane and international three-point line make the game better?
MG: I like all of the experimental rules. I think the three point shot needs to be moved out and that distance of 20’9” is good. The NBA distance is too far and the current shot is just too close. I also like the lane being wider because we are going to have to improve defending that area and also our style of play is more cutting and penetrating and that may open up the basket area a little – we’ll see. I also like the charge line and where they have moved it out to. I like the player who gives up his body to take the charge as much as the next guy, but I can’t stand when you have a player make a great move and a charge is called on him because a defender is able to move in right under the basket and take a charge.
Line o’ the Night
FG 3pt FT Reb Min M-A M-A M-A O-T A F S TO BLK Pts Al Horford 24 4-4 0-0 3-5 1-4 2 4 1 2 2 11 Result: Win. Florida 77, Wake Forest 72.
Watch this guy. The 6-8 Horford mainly plays the four for the Gators and was solid, but unspectacular as a freshman. But he does everything well, just not in enough quantity to get a lot of recognition. His weakness last season was shooting (48% FG, 58% FT), but he’s off to a good start in that area. If this keeps up, look forward to a few stories comparing him to his dad when conference play heats up.