For Longwood men’s basketball head coach Griff Aldrich, it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish – and his Lancers seem to be heating up when it matters most.
The Lancers sit ninth in the conference at 6-9 with a chance to host their first Big South postseason game for the first time in program history. After starting the year 8-15 overall and falling to 1-6 in the conference standings in early February, Aldrich put responsibility on himself for the way the season had been going.
“It’s been a challenging year because I think in many respects, because number one, there’s a lot of newcomers and new faces, but (we) have six returners who play key roles,” Aldrich said prior to the win over Charleston Southern on Feb. 6. “I think this is a team that probably did not progress as quickly as we all would have hoped, and I take responsibility for that. It’s a team that the understanding of our principles and what we’re trying to accomplish schematically and strategically I think has progressively been getting better throughout the season.”
The results since then have backed this up, as the Lancers have won four out of seven games including a gut-wrenching loss to Winthrop on Feb. 8 and a down-to-the-wire win over Campbell on Feb. 10. Three of their last four games have been decided by one possession.
However, coming out of their performance against Winthrop where the Lancers were unable to get a potential game-winning shot off on the final possession, those in attendance wouldn’t have guessed Winthrop was unbeaten and came into Willett Hall on a 13-game win streak.
Only three wins separate third place and last place in the Big South, as Winthrop and Radford have all but locked up the top two seeds in the conference tournament. Aldrich spoke highly of the competitiveness in the Big South and even tabbed Winthrop as being one of the best mid-major programs he’s coached against in his career.
“The America East, when I was at UMBC, did not have this level of parity. This year, what I would say is I think (like last year) there is an incredible amount of parity, though I do think Winthrop and Radford have separated themselves, and Winthrop probably quite considerably,” Aldrich said. “I think on any given night you can beat anybody, some teams you’d have to play really well, but for the vast majority of the conference, I think every game is going to be highly contested.”
A portion of why the Lancers have bounced back from a 1-6 conference start can be attributed to their defense which boasts the third-best scoring defense in the Big South, allowing 69.7 points-per-game and additionally forces 15.1 turnovers per game, which is also good for third in the conference. On the flip side, their offense has had their fair share of troubles, having struggled to move the ball effectively and run through their motions.
“Some of it (falls on) the execution on the details, and making shots hides a lot of flaws. What we really focus on a lot both offensively and defensively is less of whether the ball goes in and much more of ‘did we run our offense the right way?’” Aldrich said.
This is where game film becomes a coaches best friend, as himself and his staff will look at game tape and grade each possession on a one to four scale; one being very poor and four being exactly how they want to run their offense. However, in games where the team takes high percentage looks after running a smooth offensive possession but are unsuccessful, Aldrich saw it translate over to their defensive possession.
“When you’re not making shots, how does that impact your energy and effort on the defensive end? And that’s a problem that teams throughout the country have,” Aldrich said. “I think that’s something we’ve got a lot better at more recently.”
The energy and effort Aldrich referred to has shown out in their recent performances as the Lancers, even when falling behind double-digits, have found a fight in them which was rare in the first half of the season. Contributions from redshirt sophomore guard Juan Munoz, who is averaging 14.8 points-per-game in conference play and senior forward JaShaun Smith, the fourth-year veteran leader, are just a sample of the recent successes the Lancers have enjoyed.
Not to mention, Smith, with a layup in the first 14 seconds of their Feb. 6 game against Charleston Southern, reached the 1,000-point plateau, becoming the 23rd player in program history to reach the mark.
When Munoz went down hard on his side late against Winthrop and was held out against Campbell last week, Aldrich relied on freshman guard Heru Bligen to fill the shoes - and he had no problem doing so. Bligen came up with some of the biggest plays of the game in their win, including stops on Campbell's final two possessions. Bligen said he’s noticed a change in the team’s approach to games recently as well, keeping faith as March approaches.
“(Aldrich) emphasizes purpose, us being connected and just execution. So, if we do that and keep pouring into the root, we’ll eventually get better each and every day. And that shows on the court.”
‘Pouring into the root’ – a saying Aldrich has drilled into his team to encapsulate the ongoing growth of their on-court performances. This, along with a few elements of on-court control, sums up the play style the Lancers are sharpening to salvage a roller coaster season only weeks away from ending.
“We talk about pouring into the root a lot – you can control your effort, you can control your focus and you can control your attitude. Those are the three things you can control; you can’t control whether the ball goes in or not,” Aldrich said. “If we are doing those things, I can live with the results because we will be playing to the best of our ability every day and will be controlling what we can control. When we don’t do those things, that’s the problem.”
The Lancers will have their next chance to move toward hosting a playoff game on Thursday as they will travel to USC Upstate and take on the Spartans.