Ephs making a quick return
If we've learned anything from the first two seasons of Mike Maker, it's that you can't keep the Williams men's basketball team down for long.
Maker inherited a Williams team that had gone 4-5 in NESCAC play in 2008 and been knocked out of the conference tournament in the first round. Since their Final Four trip in 2004, the Ephs hadn't won a single game in the NCAA Tournament, much less made another run at Salem. The glory days of the Ephs under old coach Dave Paulsen, and before him, Harry Sheehy, were behind them, at least temporarily.
Williams athletics photo
But in the 18 months since his hiring, Maker has turned everything around. The Ephs are 11-1 this season, with their only loss coming to national No. 1 Randolph-Macon on the road, and they're heading into the beginning of their NESCAC schedule riding high at No. 7 in the nation. And the coach wants none of the credit.
"It's not what I've done," Maker insists. "We have talented players. We have players that have come in and made a commitment and embraced our philosophy and our style of play. It starts with the players … We have a rich basketball tradition here. I walked into a situation at Williams where people were used to winning, and I was given the talent to make that happen."
What Maker has going in Williamstown, Mass., isn't just winning -- it's winning big. The Ephs are steamrolling the competition. They beat Salem State by 29 points, Vassar by 37, Framingham State by 38. They invited Southern Maine to their invitational event last week only to humiliate them, 93-59.
But the biggest win of all for the Ephs came this past Saturday -- they played host to archrival Amherst at Chandler Gym in Williamstown, and they got the best of their nemeses in a game with huge implications on the national scene. The Ephs buried the Lord Jeffs 43-30 at halftime, held off a late Amherst charge, and walked away victorious when a buzzer-beating three rimmed out and the Jeffs fell just short.
Williams is now 12-1; Amherst, after another tough loss this week against Babson, is 8-3. Maker’s Ephs are clearly a team on the rise; for David Hixon and the Lord Jeffs, the squad is still a work in progress. That’s to be expected when four sophomores and three freshmen are seeing regular minutes in the rotation.
“I think it's a lot more teaching,” said Hixon, now in his 33rd year at the helm at Amherst. “I've spent more time this year teaching and reteaching than ever before. Every moment is a teaching moment. In 2007, when we won the national championship, and the next year when all those kids were back and we went to the final game, it was automatic. They all knew what I was going to say and when. This year, we're back to the basics, helping kids to understand the game ... It's been a day to day adventure. I love it.”
Down the road in Williamstown, Maker has the opposite problem: too much age. Too much experience. Too many talented seniors. He’s got seven on the roster altogether -- three of them start every game, including leading scorer Blake Schultz and leading rebounder Joe Geoghegan, Maker's two co-captains.
|Which way to Salem?|
|Williams went 31-1 in 2002-03 and 30-2 in 2003-04, but hasn't won even 20 games since.|
|2006-07||16||12||.571||NCAA first round|
“Our success is a direct relation to our senior class collectively,” Maker said. “Not only do we have a lot of talent in the class, but we have great leadership and character as well. It's just been been a pleasure to be around these guys for the past year and a half. There's a lot of depth in the class, there's a lot of talent, and they do all the right things on and off the court to set a great example for the other players.”
Maker won’t take any of the credit for himself -- but according to his colleague at Amherst, he’s doing a fine job in his second year at the helm.
“I think he's good,” Hixon said of Maker. “We were talking just the other day -- I told him it's a little eerie how we coach so similarly. We both ask our kids to make reads rather than make the set, diagrammed play. We ask them to make reads, we ask them to understand the game.”
Maker’s gotten his kids into the nation’s top 10. It’s a big accomplishment for a new coach with a program that was previously on the decline. But he tries not to concern himself with numbers and rankings and national credibility at the moment -- he’d rather live in the moment, focused on each individual task at hand.
"I think it's great for our players to get national recognition for their performance. To be able to get recognized that way is great for them and for their confidence. But to be honest, we don't pay that much attention to it. I know it sounds like coach-speak, but we're really just trying to get better every day, and I think we've been able to do that.
"This week we have our opening NESCAC weekend with Tufts and Bates. That's what we're trying to focus on."
Whatever’s next for the Ephs will have to wait. Their conference slate is just getting underway, and they haven’t even begun thinking about what lies ahead. The conference playoffs, the NCAAs -- it’s all too far away.
“We don't talk a lot about winning,” Maker said. “We talk a lot about playing to the level that's our best. The results will take care of themselves. It's a simple plan for us: We just want to make the people at Williams proud of us on and off the court.”
ONE MORE? Randolph-Macon picked up its first loss and is probably on its way out of the No. 1 spot after falling 90-67 at Eastern Mennonite on Wednesday. But with a coaching change this season and another Final Four team in the conference, a 13-1 start is pretty impressive.
The secret? It all starts with teamwork and unselfish play. And what better way to promote collaboration between teammates than a creative little rule that brings it out? Randolph-Macon coach Nathan Davis has one.
"We have a 'one more' rule," Davis told the Richmond Times-Dispatch this weekend. "If a guy yells, 'One more,' the guy with the ball has to make one more pass. But the guy who gets the ball has to have a better shot or see another pass that will give us a better shot."
"Most of the time, it's to get a shot, though," he added with a laugh.
The Yellow Jackets are sharing more than just the basketball. They're sharing the scoring, with four players in double figures, and the playing time, with 10 guys playing five-plus minutes a night. They were probably hoping for more than just "one more" week at the top, though.
ABOUT OUR NEW COLUMNIST: Evans Clinchy is living proof that DIII alums can go pro. A graduate of Tufts University in Massachusetts, he got his first taste of DIII hoops while covering a Jumbo men's basketball team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2006, falling victim to a deadly buzzer-beater at Amherst late that February. From there, he was hooked. Evans spent four years as a basketball beat writer, a weekly columnist, and eventually the editor in chief of the Tufts Daily, the campus' main student newspaper.
He now works as a sports columnist for NESN.com, offering opinions daily on the Boston professional sports scene, and has covered the past two men's basketball Final Fours for D3sports.com.
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