No need to show bias here at Mid-Major Madness, so it seems only fair that we also provide you coverage of some of the percieved lesser lights of the basketball landscape. Last season, the Stetson Hatters lost 11 of their final 13 to wind down a 9-20 season that saw them finish eighth in the ten-team Atlantic Sun Conference.
Coach Alexander took the time to sit and chat with me about this season for a bit, and here's how it went.
I initially posed the question to Coach, as an opening ice-breaker, as to whether the team was making good progress from last season so far, and got a bit of an unexpected reply:
Well, sometimes you have to fool yourself that you’re making progress on a given day, but we’re still working hard and getting better overall.
Camaraderie fully established, I proceeded with the conversation.
Mid-Major Madness: You will be returning your entire starting five and most of the regular rotation from last season. What are the plusses and minuses to that level of roster turnover for you?
Coach Alexander: In our case it’s extremely positive. As with any coaching change, the first year involves significant transition, both culturally and schematically. Not having to do that again this year is important from a development standpoint.
We are returning 65-70 percent of our production, but we had insufficient depth last year. We also had zero point guard play – in that we had no true point guard on the floor. I think we have accomplished what we needed to in those two areas. (Junior Florida Gulf Coast transfer) Hunter Miller and (true freshman) Logan (Irwin) are both true point guards and will play a lot there, and we’re also adding quality depth.
MMM: Are there any specific ideas or skills that you brought with you from working with Rick Byrd over at Belmont? How well do you think the team bought into those ideas last season?
ALX: Philosophically, what I learned from Coach Byrd about how to run a program is who I am, even greater than I ever realized. The things I think are important are the same as what he thinks are important. We’re not trying to be Belmont necessarily, but we are trying to go about our business in a certain way, and I think we shall see the fruits of that labor sooner than later.
MMM: Is there a specific thing (or things) that your team struggled with the most last season, and how will that improve this season?
ALX: One thing we can do better this year is to have consistency from game one to game thirty, so that’s the measuring stick we use. You can break that down however you like, but my concern is are we just as good in game seventeen in terms of being ready to go and give effort. That’s where teams that have struggled to win, that’s a big hurdle for them to get over, and we didn't finish well.
Some of that was poor coaching - we hit the wall...we asked a lot of these guys and they didn't have a lot of gas in the tank when we got down to it. Another part was the mentality of being a championship team; when you don’t have the results, it can be easy to get down on yourself and just play out (the season without trying).
I think the added depth will help that, and a mentality change will help. You'll have season highs and lows - every team does at every level – but you have to be tough and determined to avoid getting stuck in those lows.
I don’t want to put limits on what we can do. Others would say that it’s reaching for the starts a bit, but my expectation is to be in the top half of the league. Our league is strong enough that if you get yourself there and into the conference tournament, you have a real shot at the NCAA tournament - and Belmont leaving opens the door a little bit wider for everybody.
MMM: I've seen you mention repeatedly in other preseason interviews about succeeding by becoming a better team defensively. Is there any one area of defense that the team was lacking last season, and how has that been addressed this offseason?
ALX: I take full blame for that. We didn't intentionally sacrifice defense, but more of our focus was on the offensive end. We are unique in how we play offense, and it takes a significant amount of practice to get it down, and so it would take large sections of time to teach that system.
In terms of offense, if there was a perfect way, we’d all be trying it. It’s a unique offense – in the traditional Princeton offense, they probably spend 90% of their (practice) time on offense… ours is completely different, but it still requires a lot of savvy and instinctive play, so you have to understand what you are trying to accomplish. We are a fast offense, but more of a traditional motion offense, rather than one based on dribble penetration or transition scoring.
Now that we have guys that understand it, at least to a certain degree, we can shift our focus more evenly to offense and defense during practices. We will always need significant time and effort towards offense, but now can go back to a more traditional practice, though now we’ll probably spend more time on defense than offense.
MMM: Is there one thing that those who watch your team regularly will be surprised by this season?
ALX: I hope it’s that we are significantly better defensively, and there are a lot of things - better effort, better togetherness, being tougher, all those things that will help us achieve that goal. We opened a lot of eyes offensively last season, and this year maybe we can open even more.