FARMVILLE, Va. — Mike Gillian operated in a different dimension of college basketball for the better part of a decade.
Next week, the Longwood coach and the rest of his school’s athletic department finally will be on the same plane as nearly everyone else.
The Lancers formally join the Big South on Sunday, a move announced in January. It marks the end of a trek through the wilderness of Division I independence that began with the first steps of reclassification in 2003.
Gone will be the trips to the far-flung outposts marking the fringes of major college basketball. The hopelessness of knowing any season possesses a certain expiration date sometime in late in February will vanish. The recruiting disadvantages of playing without a league melt away.
Instead, the Virginia public school roughly an 80-minute drive south of Charlottesville and southwest of Richmond is making a jump every bit as big as moving up from Division II in the first place.
“The reality is we were existing in this parallel universe,” Gillian said over lunch recently at Perini’s Pizza, less than two miles from his campus office. “We’ve jumped out of it. Now we have to jump in and compete at as close to a level as possible as quickly as possible.”
That goes for the rest of Longwood’s department, which always was a natural geographic fit for the Big South but found itself waiting for an invitation in part because of the absence of football. That left basketball as the flagship sport at a school with a women-only enrollment until 1976, and it is the team most likely to generate attention as part of a conference.
“We have a lot of people saying ‘We’ll be on TV next year there.’ There’s a lot of excitement about what can happen next year,” athletic director Troy Austin said. “I’m excited for it. As a department, we’re looking at what we need to do to best position ourselves coming out of the next few years to really make some hay.”
Growth in the country
Some locales fail to live up to their names. Farmville, Va., isn’t one of them.
It is nestled in a rural area and not especially close to much. But the town itself is growing, fueled largely by a campus teeming with construction projects.
“When you hear of Farmville, it’s just the name,” former Longwood star Antwan Carter said. “Where am I going? I know I’m going in the country. But when you get here, it’s where you want to be. If you come to college to work hard in a sport or to focus on your schoolwork, this is the place to be. There’s not too many distractions like some of those big schools. If you want to work and come to work, you’ll succeed here.”
Few thrived more than Carter, a 6-foot-6 center who capped his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer (1,886) and second-leading rebounder (1,008, behind only 17-year NBA veteran Jerome Kersey) last winter. The nomadic Lancers visited 26 states during his career.
Neither he nor his teammates experienced a conference tournament and the hope of an NCAA tournament bid that came with it.
“Each year you went into it you played, you knew the schedule, you knew how you were approaching it, you knew the games, you tried to get better toward the end of the year,” Gillian said. “Would it have been great to have all that and have that opportunity? Absolutely. But you didn’t worry about that because you knew it was not possible.”