Every one of them has a story to tell.
Jamion Christian, who once led his small Virginia high school to a state championship, endured a humbling end to his college basketball career at Mount St. Mary’s, the small Catholic university in Emmitsburg, Md., where he returned as head coach at age 29.
Rashad Whack was a well-regarded recruit when he graduated from Bishop McNamara in Forestville, Md. in 2009. But his time at George Mason, a mid-major power, didn’t work out. He needed a new home.
Julian Norfleet was the best player on a team that won just eight games in 2010-11. The spindly point guard had to accept a different direction when Christian and a new coaching staff were hired two years ago.
The Mountaineers finally have a stage to tell those stories now. Mount St. Mary’s qualified for the NCAA tournament last week by winning the Northeast Conference championship. On Tuesday night, as a No. 16 seed, they will face fellow No. 16 seed Albany in a first-round game in Dayton, Ohio. If they win, the Mountaineers’ reward will be a date with No. 1 seed Florida in Orlando on Thursday.
“We’ve been through ups and downs and bumpy roads,” Whack said. “They say only the strong survive. We fought through a lot of adversity just to be able to cut down the nets. It’s been a great experience.”
Whack was on campus, but couldn’t play as a transfer student during that miserable 2011-12 season when coach Robert Burke took a leave of absence from the program in February and resigned after the season. To go from there to a tournament title and an NCAA appearance just two years later is hard for even the players to describe.
The Mountaineers were the fourth seed in the NEC tournament, but found themselves down 19 points on their home floor against No. 5 St. Francis (N.Y.) in the quarterfinals. With 1:53 left to play they were still down 11. With 1:05 to go they were still down eight.
But a combination of St. Francis turnovers, missed free throws and inexplicable fouls gave Mount St. Mary’s life. Whack’s dramatic three-pointer with two seconds left gave it the lead for the first time since the opening bucket and when it was over hundreds of fans rushed the court as if the Mountaineers had won the title. That would happen six days later when they went on the road and demolished top seed Robert Morris, 88-71.
“This is a little overwhelming,” guard Sam Prescott said. “But just a little bit.”
Christian could say the same thing. Three years ago he was an assistant coach at William & Mary and watching from a Buffalo Wild Wings in Williamsburg as Colonial Athletic Association rival VCU made its magical run to the Final Four under coach Shaka Smart.
Coming off a 10-22 season with the Tribe, Christian was wondering about his own job prospects and how he’d compete on the recruiting trail against a mid-major program that had just become a national darling.
Two months later, Smart hired him as an assistant coach. After one season with the Rams, Mount St. Mary’s asked Christian to return home to rebuild its program. He is still just the fifth-youngest head coach in the country.
“The biggest thing when you work for Shaka Smart [is] you get a doctorate in basketball leadership,” Christian said. “I think I would have been ready to coach here earlier with the x’s and o’s. But I don’t know if I would have been as prepared to use my youth as a big time strength.”
And so Christian is a hands on coach. He even jumped onto the floor during a practice earlier this season to impersonate BYU’s top scorer before a game in Provo. The Mountaineers play a similar style of basketball to VCU, famous now for its “Havoc.”