Presbyterian men's basketball trades success now for wins later

Presbyterian's Travis Smith is in a tight spot during Saturday's 39-point loss to North Carolina, one of several routs the Blue Hose have suffered this season.
Presbyterian's Travis Smith is in a tight spot during Saturday's 39-point loss to North Carolina, one of several routs the Blue Hose have suffered this season. (Gerry Broome/associated Press)
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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Al'Lonzo Coleman and two other juniors at Presbyterian College have dominated most of the team's basketball practices this season but will not score a single point in a game -- and that's by choice.

While other schools are aiming to be at their best this March, the 1,200-student liberal arts school in Clinton, S.C., is eyeing March 2012, the first year its team will be eligible for the NCAA tournament. The Blue Hose's three most experienced players have opted to redshirt this season so they will be fifth-year seniors when the school completes its five-year transition to Division I.

"It has been tough, but in the future I know it will pay off," said Coleman, who earned second-team all-Big South Conference honors last season. "It is just about having patience. We are going to be with each other for five years, so I think we'll be ready to compete with anyone in the nation."

The unusual decisions by Coleman and teammates Pierre Miller and Josh Johnson -- a trio that combined for 55 percent of the team's scoring last season -- offer a glimpse into the unique challenges schools face when attempting to position themselves for success during a transition to the Division I level.

The absence of three players who started every game last season leaves Presbyterian with the youngest team in the country. A roster comprising six freshmen and no seniors will navigate a Big South schedule even though the team is not eligible for the conference tournament until the 2011-12 season.

Coleman, Miller and Johnson can only watch from the bench as their teammates confront a nonconference schedule as challenging as almost any in the country. The Blue Hose (2-8) play four teams -- North Carolina, Ohio State, Florida and Marquette -- that have won a combined four national titles and made eight Final Four appearances this decade alone.

Even with three key players sitting this season out, it is a schedule the Blue Hose have to play for financial benefits. For many of the nation's small schools, road games against prominent programs usually mean two things: a beating and a paycheck.

Presbyterian has made $1.6 million the past three seasons -- including more than $500,000 this season -- by playing road games against high-profile competition, earning between $60,000 and $90,000 for each blowout loss.

"Schools our size have to do that because we're not bringing in big money in terms of season ticket sales and things like that," said Coach Gregg Nibert, who has led Presbyterian to one NAIA tournament appearance and four NCAA Division II tournament berths in his 20 previous seasons. "We have to go on the road and play these people to bring in revenue for our athletic department."

In addition to a 39-point loss at North Carolina on Saturday, the youngest team Nibert has coached also lost to Clemson by 43 points and Illinois by 46. But anytime Nibert senses low morale, he reminds players of the ultimate goal: the 2011-12 season, when the team will be at full strength and poised to challenge for an NCAA tournament berth.

"Of course we talk about it," said sophomore guard Chase Holmes, who leads this season's team in scoring at 14.8 points per game. "That's our goal every day. It's scary to think about -- I don't think there will be a team that is not scared when they come to play us when we have those three players on the court with us."

It has been Nibert's plan all along. He had heard the horror stories about trying to recruit during a transition to Division I, knowing that some prospects would be reluctant to come if they would not have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament during their careers.

So Nibert told Coleman, Miller and Johnson three years ago that -- if they redshirted -- by the time they were seniors the team would be eligible for the NCAA tournament and "was going to go for it." He left it up to them when they would sit out.

The three wanted to play as freshmen, when the Blue Hose traveled more than 13,000 miles to play 25 road games in 13 states -- many against high-profile teams -- in their first Division I season. And they wanted to play with the seniors on last season's team, which played Presbyterian's first Big South schedule.

Coleman led the team in scoring and rebounding last season, Miller led the team in assists and three-point shooting, and Johnson was third in scoring. The three felt the midpoint of their careers was the best time to refine skills and preserve the year of eligibility.

"It's kind of like a professor going on sabbatical for a year," Nibert said. "Sometimes you are not mature enough when you redshirt as a freshman. They know they only have two years left. I see a sense of urgency that I don't think I would have seen if they redshirted their freshman year."

During practice, the three play on the white team against the starters, and usually win. During games, they wear warmups on the bench, giving teammates encouragement and Nibert input about set plays and personnel. The trio believes it is laying the groundwork for a reward that won't come for another two years.

"I owe a lot to them, and Presbyterian owes a lot to them because of their loyalty and wanting to see us through this Division I process," Nibert said. "I think they will go down in history for leading us in this process."

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