Jon Teitel continues our season preview series by chatting with Mount St. Mary’s coach Jamion Christian about coaching at his alma mater.
You started last year 9-13, then won nine straight games before losing to Long Island in the NEC tourney title game. How was your team able to flip the switch in February? We had a group of guys who decided that they wanted to win and put their own individual wants behind them for the sake of the team. We play a very team-oriented system: 1 night Julian Norfleet may lead our team in scoring, and the next night someone else might, etc. This is hard on young people! Everyone wants to play well and be the “best player”, so it took our team a while to adjust to our persona of being the “best team.” Each of our guys has different strengths and weaknesses, but we have created a system where they have limitless freedom in the things that they do well. However, this freedom has a certain level of trust that must be earned, so when we learned to trust each other we became a very different team. Winning, like culture and like trust, takes time.
In August NEC ROY Shivaughn Wiggins transferred to Coastal Carolina. Why did he decide to do that, and how big of a loss will it be for your team? Shivaughn had a big role in changing the culture here at the Mount and helped us move into the top of the league. I will always be thankful to him for that and he will always have a special appreciation from Mount fans all over. Anytime you lose a person within your basketball family it is a tough adjustment, but we have a “next man up” mentality here and I am sure that someone on our roster is eager for the challenge of producing for 25+ minutes a night like Shivaughn did last year.
Your non-conference road schedule this month starts with West Virginia, Villanova and BYU before ending with a trip to Michigan State. How the heck are you going to survive such a gauntlet? I have always believed in challenging our teams because putting ourselves in tough situations is important for growth. Our goal here is to build a roster and program that will compete year in and year out against quality non-conference opponents. We are fired up to travel across the country and challenge ourselves against the very best. I felt our strong strength of schedule was a key to the way we finished last season. We had been in hostile arenas before, so when it came time to play on the road at Robert Morris or Bryant our players were ready for the challenge.
What are your expectations for the upcoming season? I have one expectation for our team: to come to practice each day with an enthusiasm level and focus level that will allow them to improve on a daily basis. I know that if we trust in this process of daily individual and team improvement, then when the competition level rises we will be ready because of the foundation of our expectation.
You were a three-year captain at Mount St. Mary’s, what is the key to being a good leader? A leader has to be passionate not only about what they are leading but WHO they are leading. I am a huge believer in finding a way to get the most value out of each person: spending time learning what motivates each person and then evaluating what we can do to help them reach their own desired level of excellence.
You played for College Basketball Hall of Fame coach Jim Phelan, what made him such a great coach, and what was the most important thing that you ever learned from him? Coach Phelan always understood how to get the most out of his team no matter the talent level. He was a man of great integrity and because of that you knew that whatever he was asking you to do was for the betterment of the team. I learned from him that they game will be good to you if you are good to it. Do not take short cuts. Stand up for what you believe in. Coach your team how you want to coach and do not let outsiders change how you believe the game should be played. Most importantly: trust your gut.
In the 2010 CAA tourney as an assistant under Tony Shaver at William & Mary you had a two-point win over Northeastern. How was your blood pressure doing after blowing a 14-point halftime lead and allowing the Huskies seven shots in the final 30 seconds?! We always had such great games versus Northeastern and there are very few coaches in the country that can coach their teams up as well at Bill Coen. All that being said, we knew that it was going to be a close game and that someone was going to need to make a play to help us pull out the victory. Personally, I rarely get too high or low during the course of the game. I have been involved in so many tough battles throughout my time in this sport that I know it is important to maintain you calmness under pressure. I always trust the scheme and game plan that we have put together. My faith and confidence in our plan and scheme more times than not will lead us to victory.
In the 2012 NCAA tourney as an assistant under Coach Shaka Smart at VCU, Bradford Burgess scored a game-high 16 points in a thee-point win over #5-seed Wichita State. What is the secret to pulling off an upset in March? The NCAA tournament will always be 1 of the most fun times of my life. For all college basketball players/coaches it sets a benchmark for achievement, yet it also provides everyone with hope that something greater can be achieved. Coach Smart is unbelievable in every way: as a person, coach, motivator, leader, there is none better. I do not know if greatness rubs off on those who you work with and for, but I am hopeful that I picked up some tricks of the trade along the way. The mid-major formula is March usually involves: not turning the ball over (limiting the other teams scoring ability in transition), three-point shooting (gives the smaller team an advantage against the giants), and having every person at that particular program buy into the game plan for greatness that day.
Rob Brandenburg missed a three point shot at the buzzer in a two point loss to Indiana. Did you think the shot was going in? When Rob elevated I knew it was going in, and I remain 100% certain that if that situation presents itself again he will make it. I know how hard he works on his outside shooting and what an unbelievable work ethic he has towards the game of basketball.
You were named head coach at your alma mater in 2012. Why did you take the job, and what was the hardest part of being a first-year coach? I took the job because it had always been my lifelong dream to be a head coach. I have always enjoyed leading and strategizing for competitions, and basketball allows me that platform. The hardest part of being a 1st-year head coach was working to establish a culture of how we do things here. Becoming a championship-level program does not just happen overnight: it takes hours and hours of work to establish a system that works for you at your university. I wanted our guys to love playing the game with one another and to enjoy the purpose that we provide for our university. Everything we do here is to create a team mentality: the true value of a team comes from everyone being sold on their role and its importance.
Your team plays an up-tempo three point offense and a pressing “mayhem” defense. How much of an influence was Coach Smart and his “havoc” defense? Coach Smart has influenced me at every level of my life, not just basketball. I always say working for Coach Smart was like getting my Doctorate in basketball and leadership. My first job was working for Bob Johnson at Emory & Henry where we scored 105 points per game and were third in the country in forcing turnovers. Our play last year was much more similar to that than to VCU because of the players that were in our program. VCU also plays great half-court defense and their numbers are excellent. Our half-court numbers were not excellent because sometimes we had to force teams to shoot quicker (even giving up some layups) to create the pace we needed to use our three-point shot as a true weapon. You can see Coach Smart’s influence throughout our program. He taught me a lot on the offensive end and showed me how important it is to truly connect with your players, which can create an environment that can change the trajectory of your university.