Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Five Years On

In Basketball on February 15, 2012 at 4:23 pm

A lot can change in five years. Just ask ex-president Richard Nixon, ex-Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush or the Confederate States of America. Five years ago, and after nearly a century of mediocrity (or worse), the William and Mary Tribe rode an unlikely wave of momentum that carried the team to its first-ever Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball championship game. Five years later, and the Tribe could finish with one of its worst regular season records since the inception of modern Division I athletics.

As if in a Williamsburg-flavored remake of The Perfect Storm, several specific conditions — injuries, growth and execution to name a few — met in the right place under the perfect atmospheric conditions to create a tempest of basketball futility with a 5-23 record. A leg injury to senior forward JohnMark Ludwick has limited him to two appearances this season. Injuries forced sophomore forward Tim Rusthoven into a walking boot early in the season, and senior guard Quinn McDowell has yet to rediscover his 2009-2010 form that averaged 15.5 points per game and a nearly 50 percent field goal percentage. The development of promising sophomore guard Brandon Britt appears to have stalled, while sophomore guard Julian Boatner’s statistics have regressed from his impressive freshman campaign. And a team that has lived and died by the trey has combined sloppy shooting with porous defense.

The season has been a disappointment, especially for those (myself included) who saw the 2011-2012 Tribe as a team that could finally lead William and Mary to the Promised Land of March Madness. Instead, fans have been treated to the fewest wins since the 1993-1994 season (when the Tribe went 4-23), suffered double-digit losses to rivals Richmond and Old Dominion, and saw the coining of a new protest chant: “Occupy Kaplan.”

That’s not to say that men’s basketball has a storied tradition at William and Mary. After more than a century of basketball, the Tribe’s all-time record stands at 1,075-1,236. That’s a winning percentage of .4651. Since joining the CAA in 1986, the Tribe has a conference record of 128-251. Overall, the program has gone 235-424 during its CAA tenure. The team has won 20 games only four times in its history — 1949, 1951, 1983 and 2010. And, as if those figures weren’t enough, William and Mary is one of only five schools to have never made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament since the creation of Division I collegiate sports in 1939. The failure of the 2011-2012 Tribe is certainly the low point of head coach Tony Shaver’s tenure at the College, and is a marked downturn from what has been ostensibly the best five-year period in the modern history of Tribe men’s basketball, but it is hardly out of character from William and Mary’s basketball history.

Unfortunately, disappointment is only one narrative raised this season. The performance of the 2011-2012 Tribe also raises a tough but important question: What if the last five years were a fluke and this is the real face of Tribe basketball? It’s a sobering thought for many William and Mary fans to consider, especially given the team’s historic performances since 2007. The 2007-2008 team showed flashes of brilliance, coming out on top in heated rivalry games and taking the College to its first CAA championship. But the collapse of the 2008-2009 squad from 17-16 CAA finalists to 10-20 first-round losers seemed to relegate the achievements of its immediate predecessor to a footnote in the Tribe media guide.

The 2009-2010 season changed that. A team that should have been blown out by a strong Connecticut squad only fell by nine. It took a triple overtime buzzer beater from a then-unknown Jeremy Lin to carry an on-the-rise Harvard team over William and Mary. And then the Tribe produced 10 straight victories, including upset victories over Atlantic Coast Conference powers Maryland and Wake Forest. By Jan. 16, its record stood at 14-3, which garnered an RPI ranking of 2. From David Schneider’s bunny hop shooting motion to Danny Sumner’s coolness on the court, everything was breaking the Tribe’s way. Despite again coming up short in the CAA championship, William and Mary was picked for  its second appearance in the National Invitation Tournament — its first since 1983. The team lost in the first round to eventual NIT champion North Carolina, but that hardly mattered. William and Mary basketball had arrived.

A regression in 2010-2011 was to be expected. The team was young, with center Marcus Kitts as the only senior on the roster. But the experience that underclassmen like Britt, Boatner, McDowell and then-sophomore guard Matt Rum possessed would pay off for 2011-2012, even if it had to be forged in the fires of another sub-.500 season. And that’s what makes this season such a disappointment. Last year seemed to be a kind of penance, a parquet purgatory that would lead to greater achievements from the team in the future. For some, that’s indictment enough to call for Shaver’s job. “It doesn’t matter what replaces him — Shave the ‘Stache.”

For Tribe fans, frustration is understandable — Chicago Cubs fans have seen more World Series victories than William and Mary fans have seen playoff appearances — but firing Shaver is short sighted and undeserved. Look past Shavers win-loss record, and he’s arguably one of the greatest basketball coaches in the College’s history: two CAA championship game appearances, one NIT selection, rivalry victories over Virginia Commonwealth and ODU and a 20-win season. In so many words: basketball relevance at a university with little basketball tradition other than losing.

Now take another look at the 2011-2012 season. After an abysmal start, which included embarrassing losses to Lehigh and Liberty, the Tribe has come within one point of defeating last year’s Cinderella story VCU. The Tribe dominated a stronger Northeastern team in every aspect, turning in a 25-point victory, and were one field goal away from taking out the CAA-leading Drexel Dragons. Ludwick, Rusthoven and McDowell appear to have recovered from their injuries. Britt played with more determination against Northeastern than he has all season. And Marcus Thornton. It took 1,000 words for his first appearance, but it was well worth the wait — freshman guard Thornton has been nothing short of amazing in his inaugural campaign with the Tribe, shooting a 37.9 field goal percentage and 35.4 beyond the arc. The CAA tournament is approaching. It’s unclear who William and Mary will face in the first round, but one thing is certain: Tribe fans should be more confident in their chances today than they were a month ago. Which reminds me of a story…

I went to the 2008 CAA championship game, the final stop of the Tribe’s improbable tournament run that year. The College raffled-off tickets for a school-sponsored charter bus from Williamsburg to Richmond, and a few of my friends and I were lucky enough to be picked for the trip. Images of Schneider’s buzzer-beater and Laimis Kisielius’s last-second layup had been burned into our minds. We were freshmen, and to us, that was William and Mary basketball — hustle and drama, with just a little bit of luck.

The night of the game. The Richmond Coliseum was everything that Kaplan Arena was not. Even during the regular season upset victories over ODU and VCU, Kaplan seemed to be a stale place. It lacked energy, it had empty seats, and the seats that were occupied were dominated by blue or black shirts. But this game, this arena, this feeling, they were different. Shouts and chants and green and gold filled the arena up to the rafters. The Tribe was going to beat ODU. The Coliseum trembled.

At the half, my friends and I left our high-altitude seats and snuck down to the Coliseum’s lower bowl. We talked our way past the ushers and found three open seats and claimed them as our own. In front of us sat a group of Monarchs fans — rowdy, boisterous but passionate, living and dying with every shot. Behind us sat three William and Mary fans. Their collective age was probably more than 200, but they matched the ODU fans, chant for chant, taunt for taunt. After a characteristic Schneider field goal, one of the Tribe fans grabbed us by the shoulders and yelled, “Take it in, boys. You all are watching history.” He was right. That game was historic.

Hopefully it won’t be unique.


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