Jamion Christian has a vision of what the Mount St. Mary’s program should be and has stuck to it fervently. He has resisted to giving into any temptation to stray from it even for very talented players. With his alma mater headed back to the NCAA Tournament, he is showing that it works while also showing that he’s one of the bright young coaches in the country.
When Christian took over less than two years ago, you might say the program was down but not out. Mount St. Mary’s has a long tradition that features legendary coach Jim Phelan, but had fallen upon a couple of difficult years after Milan Brown left to become the head coach at Holy Cross. He felt he could get the program back in the NCAA Tournament, much like his coaches, Phelan and Brown, did. The Mountaineers won the Northeast Conference championship on Tuesday night, but that should only be the beginning.
“The best thing is watching this thing build,” said Christian. “The two years before I got here, they had won 17 total games. We were able to win 18 a year ago, we were able to win 16 this year and come home with the championship. I’m really pleased with the amount of growth.”
There was reason for optimism right after the 18 wins a year ago, including the unexpected run to the conference title game with two road wins to get there. It looked like they were well on their way to turning it around and even being among the conference favorites this year, something that doesn’t often happen in a coach’s second year.
Then came an exodus.
Six players departed, including former starters like Josh Castellanos (transferred to Gardner-Webb), Xavier Owens (transferred to Shorter University) and NEC Rookie of the Year Shivaughn Wiggins (transferred to Coastal Carolina). Wiggins was a big key to their late-season run, and his departure was at a bad time in that it came in August, meaning he couldn’t be replaced for this season. It was also the most notable of the six departures.
It might have looked bad on the surface, but in fact, it wasn’t.
“I made a decision,” said Christian. “We’re going to win games the right way. We’re going to win games with people who care about going to class every day, people who care about being great teammates and people who really embody our university. I just didn’t feel like we had 13 guys like that last year.”
It makes sense. This is a coach who has been at fine academic institutions his whole coaching career, most recently VCU and William & Mary. Wanting players who care about things besides winning games is part of who he is.
With the turnover, this year’s team may have been a bit short on bodies – they had eight scholarship players once two players suffered torn ACLs at the beginning of the year – but that was about the only thing they were short on. They got some contributions from walk-ons like Malik Howard, Will Lyle and Aaron Brown, with Howard helping them a lot defensively. There were some ups and downs in the win-loss columns, losing their first five games of the season including two by over 30 points, but they were good when it counted.
“We were a little bit short-handed this year in that regard, but I think it really paid off for us because we had a lot of character this year, and our guys were a lot tougher because they really had a lot more substance,” Christian reflected.
The Mount had an interesting cast of characters with its young players and seniors, including a couple of transfers. Sam Prescott and Rashad Whack both transferred and were hyped up as great players for this level. The staff asked them to play within a team concept and not be concerned with numbers, and they along with everyone else has bought into that. The adjustment from being told they would be stars to this wasn’t smooth – much like this season – but it happened. It showed up in the championship game in particular, where they shot 60.4 percent from the field at Robert Morris, including 8-18 from long range, and with all five starters handing out at least one assist, with Prescott and Whack leading the way with four apiece.
Christian admitted he made mistakes in last year’s championship game preparation, but managed it better this year. This time around, they didn’t go back to campus in between the semifinal and championship games. The players saw a coach who admitted to making mistakes and knew they could do better from that as well.
Phelan, the legendary coach who won 830 games, is still around the program often and lives near the campus. Christian talks to him all the time about so many things with the program, and you get a feel for how Phelan has influenced him with how a program is to be run. He says Phelan doesn’t talk about all the wins, but rather, the memories with his players.
“It just gives me a great sense of perspective to see guy who’s a Hall of Fame-caliber head coach, one of the best who’s ever done it, and he always makes it about his players,” said Christian.
Sticking to his vision of the program has paid off faster than probably anyone imagined and in a fashion probably fewer could have envisioned. And right now, it may be just the beginning.