By John Feinstein
Sunday, January 4, 2009
It was one of those moments when a coach can see the play he has just called develop exactly the way he drew it up.
With Navy's defense spread out to guard his team's best shooters, Longwood Coach Mike Gillian told E.J. Dawson to keep going to the basket until someone came to stop him. Longwood trailed 81-80 in Annapolis Tuesday night, when Dawson took an inbounds pass with 7.3 seconds left. His path to the basket stayed clear until the last possible second when Kaleo Kina realized his team was about to give up a game-winning layup and flashed to the basket.
Too late. Dawson (Mount Vernon High) had to twist his body slightly to get the shot over Kina but it was still a layup. It rolled onto the rim, over it . . . and off. The buzzer sounded, allowing Navy to escape after blowing a 15-point second-half lead against a team that has no league to play in, almost never gets the chance to play on TV and was playing its eighth road game in a brutal 11-game stretch that also included dates at West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Virginia.
"Oh, I thought we'd done it," said Dana Smith, Longwood's leading scorer. "I had a perfect view of the shot, and when it was on the rim I thought it was going in and we'd won." He shook his head. "A year ago we couldn't play with these guys even at home. This year we were so close. The only way to look at it is that we're going in the right direction."
If you are Longwood, or any of the 11 NCAA Division I teams that have no league to play in, going in the right direction isn't easy. As the new year began, the Lancers (7-8) had the fourth-best record among the independents. Utah Valley State (7-5) was the best. North Carolina Central (0-16) and New Jersey Tech (0-14, with a 47-game losing streak stretching back to the 2006-07 season) were the last winless teams left after Houston Baptist (1-14) beat Howard on Wednesday night.
"The key, long-term, is to get into a league," Gillian said. "We know that. You need to have the chance to play your way into the NCAA tournament, which we don't have right now. But I can't go around moaning about not being in a league yet. Are there moments at night when I wish we could have a chance to play in postseason? Yes, of course. But when I wake up, I can't do anything except try to help our team get better. And I think we are getting better."
Gillian, who worked as an assistant to Jim Larranaga at Bowling Green and George Mason, was lured to Farmville, Va., six years ago to take Longwood University through the difficult transition from Division II to Division I. In 2004-05, the team's first season playing a D-I schedule, the Lancers went 1-30. Since then, Longwood has won 10, nine and nine games, very respectable given the scheduling difficulties independents face.
"Getting James Madison [an early season win] to play at our place is a big deal and getting George Washington to come in is a big deal for us," Gillian said. "Needless to say, there aren't a lot of teams that want to play us home-and-home."
Last night, George Washington found out why a lot of teams won't schedule Longwood home-and-home, losing to the Lancers, 80-78, in one of those signature wins that Gillian has been looking for.
The guarantee games Longwood plays on the road against power-conference schools, including one this week at Florida, are necessary to fund the program. Games such as against Navy are now considered winnable.
"They're really not easy to guard," Navy Coach Billy Lange said. "Mike does a nice job running stuff for his shooters, and he's got a bunch of guys who can score. They're going to beat some teams this year."
The Lancers have beaten six teams -- most notably James Madison and Gardner-Webb, which beat Kentucky last season -- and Gillian thinks a winning record is not out of the question.
"That would be a big deal for us," he said. "Not only would it show progress, but it would definitely be something we could talk about in recruiting."
Not surprisingly, recruiting is difficult for an independent. Realistically, until Longwood gets into a league, there is no chance to play in the NCAA tournament, the ultimate basketball reward for most college players.
"Every basketball player's dream is 'The Dance,' " said Smith, who scored 19 points before fouling out in the final minute of the Navy game. "If we ever got to the dance we'd probably play a team like Florida or Virginia Tech or West Virginia. Well, we play those teams now just in the regular season. Those games against the big teams are our version of 'The Dance.' "
That's what Gillian sells: a chance to play and a chance to play quality teams. His hope is that the day will come when his team can be competitive against those teams, even on the road.
"I tell the kids they shouldn't choose a place to play based on the possibility of playing one game, maybe two over four years in March," he said. "They should choose a place where they can have a good experience for 120 games over four years."
That's a good pitch, but everyone at Longwood knows that the future depends on finding a conference to call home. That job falls on the shoulders of Athletic Director Troy Austin, whose "interim" status was removed from his title last April. Austin has talked to the Big South and the Atlantic Sun about expansion but has found the going tough.
"Everyone wants to take a wait-and-see approach right now," he said. "There's been so much movement and expansion the last few years that I don't think anyone is looking to do anything right at this moment. We just have to keep working and talking and hope something opens up."
The best bet might be the Atlantic Sun, which has an odd number of teams (11) and a natural travel partner for Longwood in Campbell. Until that happens, Gillian and his players will have to keep grinding, hoping that the next game-winning shot rolls in rather than off. This year's team has only one senior starter, Ryan Bogan, and has genuine scoring threats in Smith (Hylton) and Kevin Swecker, both juniors.
Smith is a fifth-year junior, having been granted two medical redshirt years after knee surgeries. He has had two ACL operations and one for a MCL. He already has one undergraduate degree and is pursuing another one.
"If you sit around and think about how tough things can be in a program like this, you could probably lose your mind," he said, smiling. "It's like going through knee surgery and rehab. You can't think about why you can't do it, you have to think about what you need to do to get where you want to go."
For now, Longwood's coaches and players would like to win more games than they lose this season.
"That would definitely be something to hang our hat on," Gillian said, walking out after the Navy loss. "This would have helped. Still, I couldn't be more proud of them for getting to this point."
There are still many miles to travel before they get close to where they want to go. But they've already come a long way down the road.