Matt Langel remembers walking into a virtually empty Las Vegas gym three summers ago and realizing he was the only college coach in the place.
“I looked around for the designated NCAA coaches seating area,” the Colgate basketball coach said with a laugh Thursday morning. “At all those AAU tournaments, they always have a place where the coaches are supposed to sit. I couldn’t find one that morning. Apparently, there was no need.”
Langel was there to watch Jordan Burns, a 6-foot guard from San Antonio. At the massive Las Vegas summer event, teams play on a number of levels, starting with “gold” and working down. “This was like copper,” Langel said. “Maybe the eighth level of the tournament. But we’d seen some tape on him and thought he was worth a look.”
On Wednesday, that look paid off in spades. Burns, now a Colgate sophomore, scored 35 points in the Patriot League championship, leading the Raiders to a 94-80 win over Bucknell — a team that had beaten Colgate by 29 points a year earlier in the title game.
The victory was the culmination of an eight-year quest Langel began when he was hired at Colgate. Burns, who averages 15.8 points and 5.8 assists for the season, is exactly the kind of player Langel and his staff search for: the hidden gem who might be playing at the eighth level of a summer league tournament.
“Let’s be honest,” Langel said. “I have never once met a player who said to me, ‘My dream is to play college basketball in Hamilton, New York.’ But there are players out there who see Colgate as an opportunity who — most important — are good players and students. We look at every piece of tape, answer every email, follow up on any player we hear about who might have a chance, any chance, to be good. Last night, all of that paid off.”
Colgate had not won a Patriot League championship since 1996, when Adonal Foyle led the school to its second straight trip — until now its only two trips — to the NCAA tournament.
Foyle was an outlier, a 6-10 mega-talent who was recruited by most of the power schools — his second choice was Duke — but chose to play at Colgate in large part because his guardians were both Colgate professors and he felt comfortable with the school and with the coach, the late Jack Bruen. Foyle would play 11 full seasons in the NBA. Since he left school in 1997, Colgate had not finished first in the Patriot League regular season standings — until two weeks ago, when Colgate (24-10) and Bucknell, the league power, finished tied for first.
As Langel noted, Colgate is not the easiest place in the world to recruit to for a basketball coach. It is an outstanding academic school, but athletically — Foyle aside — it has traditionally been a football and hockey school. There have been nights when one can hear echoes inside 1,750-seat Cotterell Court.
What’s more, as pretty as the Colgate campus is, Hamilton is remote, to put it politely — or somewhere near the end of the earth, to put it not so politely.
Langel knew all this when he took the job. He had been a first-team all-Ivy League player for Fran Dunphy at Pennsylvania, then played overseas for four years before going to work under his college coach for two years at Penn and then five years at Temple.
Langel developed a reputation as a dogged recruiter at Temple, in part because of his pursuit of Juan Fernandez. Langel flew to Cordoba, Argentina, to see Fernandez play, having been told he could take a taxi to where Fernandez was playing for the Argentine under-18 national team.
“It was true, I could take a cab,” Langel said. “But they told me it would cost twelve-hundred dollars and the closest they could get me was two hours away. I asked if there was a plane, and they said — yes, in two days, and that would get me within an hour of the place. I finally went to Hertz and the only car they had was a stick shift, which I barely knew how to drive. Took me 10 hours on a two-lane road, but I got there.”
Fernandez became a key player, hitting a buzzer-beating jump shot in the 2011 NCAA tournament to give Dunphy his first NCAA win at Temple.
Five weeks later, Langel was the coach at Colgate.
“All of us who played for Coach Dunphy have ‘Dunphisms’ that we follow,” Langel said. “One is, you go where someone wants you and do the best you can and not worry about anything but that.”
It wasn’t easy. Although the records got better and the team became more competitive, it wasn’t until last winter — Langel’s seventh in Hamilton — that the Raiders had a winning season. They went 19-14, finished second in the conference and played in the College Basketball Invitational tournament.
The willingness to look under rocks in recruiting began to pay off. Will Rayman, a 6-8 forward from New York, was the conference rookie of the year two years ago. Burns enrolled a year later. This season, starter Tucker Richardson arrived as a freshman after spending a year at prep school on Langel’s recommendation.
The most important addition, though, was a transfer: 6-10 Rapolas Ivanauskas, who had grown up in Illinois and went to Northwestern for two years. Hampered by injury, he played little and transferred to Colgate. He has averaged 16.4 points and 7.9 rebounds this season and was named conference player of the year.
“A year ago when Bucknell buried us in the title game, I wondered if we could get good enough to do this,” Langel said. “But I saw the progress: second place, the conference final, the CBI. Then we added Rapolas and Richardson and there we were in the locker room, everyone crying for joy.”
Looking at his players in that moment, Langel though of another Dunphism: “Moments like this are why you coach,” he said. “You look around and see what it means to your players to have all the work you demand of them pay off, and you realize how lucky you are to be a coach. It might sound corny, but it’s so true.”
At 41, having pulled off the nearly impossible at Colgate, Langel will no doubt find plenty of suitors tracking him down once the season is over. He would be crazy not to listen. But, with his five leading scorers returning next season, Langel will be perfectly content to stay in Hamilton.
He may not have dreamed about coaching there, but his dreams have come true in a place that was filled with nothing but warmth this past Wednesday.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.