Scenario time: the Longwood men’s basketball team can own as high as the number four seed and as low as the sixth seed in the Big South tournament, as the race has somewhat smoothed out as of late. The Lancers own some tiebreakers between the two other teams in contention for their spots, should it come down to it.
However, the Lancers were the only team with one game left on their schedule, playing and winning a battle at Presbyterian Thursday night, while the rest of the conference plays out one more game on the final day of the regular season this Saturday. The Lancers quite literally don't control their own destiny this weekend, having to wait to see how it all pans out on Saturday.
It’s confusing enough already and only shows the sheer competitiveness of the Big South. The conference boasts one of the nation’s wildest seeding races with every team ranked fourth through eleventh within three games of each other less than a week away from the postseason. Sources close to the team have said in their time associated with the Longwood athletics department, they've never seen a conference race as tight as this.
Though, the only two teams who have considerably separated themselves from the rest of the pack are Radford and Winthrop, who will represent the top two seeds. As it stands, the Big South tournament would run through Radford as the top seed.
The road to where the Lancers stand now wasn’t so easy. They sat briefly in last place at one point with a 1-6 record, struggling to run their offense; however, they’ve since won eight of their last eleven conference games to break the program record for most conference wins in a season since joining the league in 2012. For the first time in program history, they finish the regular season with a .500 conference record at 9-9.
“Continuously they’ve done a great job coming in every day to work hard and continuing to try and get better. We have our saying ‘pouring into the root’ and you can do that with your attitude, your effort and your focus,” head coach Griff Aldrich said. “A combination of an attitude of playing for the team and great effort has been the cornerstones of this turnaround.”
The team has harped on the saying ‘pouring into the root’, a mixture of different elements acting as the driving force behind their on-court performances. For senior guard Shabooty Phillips, its exactly why the Lancers are where they’re at now.
“We just kept sticking with it and staying focused on what coach was telling us and now we’re seeing the result of it,” said Phillips. “We’re not result-driven, we’re just pouring into that root and focusing on what we can control.”
What they can't control anymore is where and when they'll play next week, but if Phillips had a preference of those outcomes, he'd laugh and say, "we don't care," because he believes the Lancers can take anyone on any given day.
Unlike power-five conferences, mid-major conferences like the Big South have teams, no matter the record, fighting for only one guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament, giving them much more to play for. The one-and-done playoff format sees the Lancers hoping to avoid an off night of any sorts.
Senior forward JaShaun Smith is all-too familiar with Big South competition, being the only senior on the squad who has spent all four years with the Lancers. However, this year is different, because he’s never seen such competition than he has in his final year in blue and white.
“You can’t take any team lightly, can’t take anything for granted and can’t take plays off,” senior forward JaShaun Smith said. “We have to play hard every play and every possession and relying on the personnel we have comes into play too.”
During this hot stretch of games, the Lancers have enjoyed seeing all-around individual production. To name a few, freshman forward Leslie Nkereuwem, who has shown his dominance in the paint but can also act as a wingman, was awarded Big South Freshman of the Week on Feb. 17. Freshman guard Heru Bligen has provided sparks off the bench making key plays on both ends of the floor, and sophomore guard DeShaun Wade, who has been a sporadic starter, notched his career-high 19-point performance last week to topple Tubby Smith’s High Point squad.
“It’s great because we do have a lot of different tools in the toolbox or weapons that you can utilize, and if someone is having an off night, we have other opportunities in the form of players,” Aldrich said. “The beginning of the year was a challenge because there wasn’t a whole lot of separation, and there still isn’t a whole lot of separation between the players. I think when we settled more in to our rotation in late December and early January, things started to smooth out a bit.”
While the Lancers have smoothed out wrinkled areas from early January, the Big South has done the opposite. Should the Lancers finish either fourth or fifth, they’d have a bye and travel to the top seed’s location to play on March 5. Should they finish sixth, they’d host one of the bottom three seeds in Willett Hall on March 3. Here's how it could all play out: The Lancers would take the fourth seed and have a bye if both UNC Asheville and Hampton lose, and take the fifth seed and still have a bye if only one of either of those teams lose. Longwood would take the sixth seed and host a first round game if both Hampton and UNC Asheville win.
Yet, with the Lancers in position to either host a first-round conference tournament game for the first time in program history or have a bye into the Big South quarterfinal, there was, unsurprisingly, a resounding consensus on whether or not it matters to have home-court advantage or a free pass to the second round.
“No. The reality is, is that any team in the tournament we feel we can beat, and anybody we play is good enough to beat us,” Aldrich said. “We have to really focus on continuing to get better as a team and continue to execute at a high level and be consistent with our attitude and our effort.”
“If we can do those things, we’re happy to play whomever, wherever.”