Among the 53 Division I men’s basketball programs that changed head coaches after the 2009-10 season, only four are giving a greater share of minutes to and receiving more scoring from their freshmen this season—in the head coach’s second year at the helm—than UNC Wilmington. Seven freshmen have combined to play 1,354 minutes and score 489 points for the Seahawks, which represents 52.1 percent and 55.2 percent, respectively, of UNC Wilmington’s overall output.
At the other end of the spectrum is Hofstra. Only four of the 53 schools with a second-year head coach are receiving less minutes and scoring from their freshmen than the Flying Dutchmen. While the class technically consists of three players—Moussa Kone, Jordan Allen and Jereme Good—Allen is expected to redshirt and Good is a walk-on. So Kone has accounted for all 48 points and all but six of the 258 minutes the Dutchmen have received from freshmen, which represents 4.7 percent of the points and 8.6 percent of the Dutchmen’s overall output.
Yet while the circumstances by which Buzz Peterson and Mo Cassara inherited their teams demanded that they build their programs in different ways, they are doing so with the same goal in mind: To bring about the type of stability that yields the success to which both schools have grown accustomed. With the Dutchmen visiting UNC Wilmington tonight, we thought it would be interesting to look at their approaches and ask each coach the rationale behind the decision-making process.
While Cassara took over a program loaded with senior and veteran leadership and focused on bringing in his first impact class of newcomers in his third season, the cupboard was just about bare at UNC Wilmington for Peterson, who inherited a 9-22 team and saw four players either transfer or flunk out of the program in his first few months.
With point guard Chad Tomko entering his senior year and only one building block—sophomore big man Keith Rendleman—in place, Peterson not only had the opportunity to start anew with his second recruiting class, but little other choice.
“What we decided to do, instead of going the transfer or juco route, we decided, hey, let’s just go with the high school kids,” Peterson said Friday. “Let’s build this program up and back into the top third [of the CAA] like it used to be. So it’s going to take some times, let’s go that route.”
Peterson and his staff ended up signing eight freshmen for this season, two of whom are redshirting. Luke Hager took a redshirt before the season and Craig Ponder, who started three of the first four games, opted to redshirt after suffering an ankle injury in November. Of the six remaining freshmen, three—Adam Smith, K.K. Simmons and Cedrick Williams—rank among the Seahawks’ top four in points scored and minutes played. Smith leads the way with a team-high 16.8 ppg in just a shade over 30 minutes of action.
Emphasizing youth required patience on the part of Peterson as well as the UNC Wilmington administration and fanbase, which, after four losing seasons in the last five years, is eager to again taste the success the Seahawks enjoyed in winning four CAA titles from 2000 through 2006.
“You’ve just got to make sure that your AD and president and everybody are on board,” Peterson said. “Sometimes, your boosters and alumni, they want to see you win instantly. But the problem is this thing was not in great shape. What we’re trying to do is get it back to where it was. It’s not easy and it takes a little time if you want to do it the right way, the only way I know how to do it.”
Peterson and his staff, meanwhile, have found it necessary to remain patient in all facets of coaching—from re-implementing most or all of what they put into place last season to guiding the newcomers through their freshmen year.
“It seems like we’re almost starting all over again,” Peterson said. “I feel like we’re doing a lot of the same things, teaching a lot of the same things, I put in place last year. So hopefully after this year, a lot of that is in place and we can start the building process.”
The Seahawks have exceeded expectations thus far: Despite a rigorous schedule that included road games at Maryland, Dayton, Toledo and Wake Forest, UNC Wilmington is 6-7, including 6-2 since an 0-5 start, and 2-1 in CAA play after beating Northeastern in Boston on Wednesday for the first time in program history. A win tonight would give the Seahawks their first four-game winning streak in almost four years.
“Eager to learn—eager to learn and listen,” Peterson said of his freshmen. “Sometimes they don’t follow through. But they’re bright-eyed and seeing what it’s like to go through [a season]. They really do listen and that’s the thing about having some young kids. It [results] in some good habits and it pays off. This bunch here is willing and they want to get better.”
“We’ve got to be patient with them and it’s not just watching them on the basketball court. We’ve got to watch everything they do, not just on the court but off the floor. Trying to just instill some good habits, on and off the floor. After time that will pay off.”
For Cassara, the challenge was balancing long-term objectives with giving the veterans he inherited a chance to win in their final season or two. Last year’s team featured Charles Jenkins, the best player in school history, as well as Greg Washington, Hofstra’s all-time leading shot blocker, and won 21 games while finishing third in the CAA.
Two of this year’s captains are fifth-year seniors Nathaniel Lester, who redshirted last year, and Mike Moore, who is in his second season at Hofstra after transferring from Fordham. The Dutchmen have exhibited flashes of promise in beating Cleveland State and Iona but are 6-9 overall and 0-3 in the CAA, where two of their losses have been by a combined three points.
“That’s certainly in your mind all the time—those guys are all veteran guys, older guys, who have paid their dues and worked to get to the position they’re in,” Cassara said.
With that in mind, Cassara and his staff tried finding players in the spring of 2010 who could contribute right away. Of the four players in Cassara’s first recruiting class, three have played vital roles for the Dutchmen during the last two seasons. Senior point guard Dwan McMillan and sophomore forward Stephen Nwaukoni are current starters while sophomore guard Shemiye McLendon is the Dutchmen’s sixth man.
“I think because of the coaching changes and some various other things, we’re still very much in that process of really trying to string recruiting classes together,” Cassara said. “Over the last year-and-a-half we’ve had to plug some holes to get us through.”
Cassara’s approach with his second recruiting class was impacted by a series of developments last spring. Malik Nichols, who committed to Hofstra in the fall of his senior year and was expected to play right away for the Dutchmen, opted to go to prep school and re-open his recruitment.
And Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Taran Buie decided to transfer from UConn and Penn State, respectively, The Hofstra staff had ties to both players—ex-UConn assistant coach Patrick Sellers is the newest member of Cassara’s staff while Cassara heavily recruited Buie while he was an assistant at Boston College—and focused their efforts on the duo, who agreed to transfer to Hofstra this summer.
“Those guys are not only very talented and can definitely be very good players in this league, but we had ties to them both,” Cassara said. “So that changes your focus a little bit, to look at transfers and different possibilities. Those two guys popped up at the right time.”
McCoombs-Daniel and Buie can also provide the type of stability not often associated with transfers. McCoombs-Daniel will turn 23 shortly after he suits up for the Dutchmen for the first time while Buie will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
With McCoombs-Daniel, Buie and Allen all practicing with the Dutchmen on a daily basis, Cassara is hopeful the chemistry—between the redshirts and the Dutchmen who will return next season as well as incoming freshmen Dallas Anglin and Jimmy Hall—will take less time to develop once November rolls around.
“I think they have a nice situation, to sit back and see some of the things that might work and might not work,” Cassara said. “They’re gaining knowledge and information and experience. I think down the road that will benefit them. It may not necessarily come to fruition in the first month of next season, but I think that can be very valuable down the road for those three guys.”
With much of next year’s class of newcomers already in place, Cassara, like Peterson, sees the objective of rebuilding the program coming to fruition, even if the current composition of their rosters is different.
“We’re still very much in that process of really trying to string recruiting classes together,” Cassara said. “Now we’re starting to look over the long run and plug some holes with transfers and redshirts.
“I think we’ve started to back up some kids for next year, we’ve signed young kids. Now we just want to continue to build with this and string a couple of classes together and get some real consistency in the program.”