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.”
Christian dubs his style “Mayhem” – though while Mount St. Mary’s will press and trap all over the floor, its real strength is offensive spacing that allows its shooters to hit from 3-point range. Only four teams in the country have taken more 3-point shots than the Mountaineers’ 797. And while they shoot at a .356 clip – 121st overall – they always have a punchers’ chance.
“It’s hard for teams to prepare for us because of the way we play,” Norfleet said. “A lot of times we’re getting up and down the court, we’re shooting a lot of threes and that’s tough to scout when you have as many plays as we do.”
It sounds like the chesty confidence every low-major team takes into the tournament this time of year knowing full well they’re likely to get bulldozed by whatever major power they see.
Mount St. Mary’s, though, isn’t all talk. On the road against then-top-ranked Michigan State on Nov. 29, the Mountaineers hung around late into the first half and were down just five points after 15 minutes of play before the Spartans blew the game open.
Whack and Norfleet were the starting guards in a game at Verizon Center last season when Mount St. Mary’s pulled to within six points of Georgetown with 8 minutes left to go. They lost that game by 22, but the belief remains.
After the miracle St. Francis win, Christian was in the shower and overheard a conversation between his players in the locker room next door.
‘They picked us sixth this year, man. They picked us sixth,” Norfleet fumed. “They didn’t think we had a chance.”
“Yeah, we’re winning this thing,” Whack said. Added Prescott: “I’ve never been a champion before. We’re gonna win this.”
Later that day, Christian answered a “good luck” text from a coaching friend. He just smiled and texted back “We’ve got this.” The Mountaineers hit five 3-pointers in the first 13 minutes of the Robert Morris game and were up 17 points before the stunned crowd knew what happened.
It was a gratifying moment for Christian, who came to the Mount as a 17-year-old to play for legendary coach Jim Phelan, who led the program to 830 wins over a 49-year career at the Division II and Division I levels. That included Mount St. Mary’s first two NCAA tournament appearances in 1995 and 1999.
Christian never got to play in one, though. Virginia’s Single-A player of the year and a state champion at New Kent High in 2000, he was the Mountaineers’ leading scorer as a sophomore and a three-year captain. But Phelan retired after the 2002-03 season and new coach Milan Brown didn’t have a place for Christian. His minutes dropped from 26.1 per game to just three.
But Brown kept Christian involved, spending extra time with him going over scouting reports, allowing him to address his teammates and helping them find ways to make them better players. That’s when the coaching bug first took hold.
When the Mountaineers last reached the NCAA tournament under Brown in 2008, he sent Christian a text thanking him for his attitude and leadership during that first, difficult season in 2003-04. Brown left to become the head coach at Holy Cross in 2010. Even now, Phelan, who still lives in the area, will stop by the basketball offices and talk to Christian, an alum happy to guide his school back into the spotlight, if only for a few hours.
“I didn’t really pay off for [Phelan] as a basketball player,” Christian said. “I was looking at my numbers the other day. They’re not the greatest. But I like to think my reward has been in coming back here and trying to continue his legacy on through our work that we do every day.”