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Upstate Assistant Kyle Perry Has Helped Build The Program's Prestige

The G.B. Hodge Arena is still as I remember it, many of the faces have changed in the athletic department since the start of the 2010-11 season. Thus, it is the nature of college athletics.

USC Upstate Associate Head Coach Kyle Perry
USC Upstate Associate Head Coach Kyle Perry
Courtesy of USC Upstate Athletics

Upstate Assistant Kyle Perry Has Helped Build Prestige


By John Hooper


SPARTANBURG, S.C.--The G.B. Hodge Arena is still as I remember it, many of the faces have changed in the athletic department since the start of the 2010-11 season. Thus, it is the nature of college athletics.

There were faces that I recognized, but not many. Two of those friendly faces were ones that were always a delight to see when I spent some time as intern and an assistant as a part of the ESPN3 production staff for a couple of years.

Getting to know coaches like Eddie Payne and Kyle Perry, you begin to understand why they are good at what they do and why so many kids are coming to USC Upstate to play NCAA Division I college basketball.

Perry and Payne share a city with a program, in Wofford, which has been to the NCAA Tournament in four the past six seasons. What most might have missed is just what has been going on at the other school in Spartanburg, and since 2007, Upstate has seen a meteoric rise in the Atlantic Sun Conference, culminating in last season's performance in the Atlantic Sun championship game, as Payne and Perry oversaw their best team--at least record-wise--since making the decision to make that jump some nine years ago.

The success for the Spartans hasn't come all at once, but the Payne and Perry have built what amounts to a strong foundation. Upstate would win 24 games a year ago, which was the most victories in a campaign since joining the Division I ranks back in 2007.

The Spartans made it all the way to the Atlantic Sun championship before eventually dropping a 63-57 decision to North Florida in the A-Sun title game last year. All five starters are gone off last year's team, and it was going to be tough to bring a young crop of players in time, and coach Perry and Payne knew there would be some growing pains this season. The Spartans are 7-16 to this point on the season, but the team is starting to mature and with a little time, the talented group of newcomers will likely see themselves back towards the top of the Atlantic Sun standings.

As I arrived at Upstate, I was excited for basketball and to see my two friends, and I was able to speak with Kyle Perry before the game, while getting to interview the always classy and kind Eddie Payne following the game.

Perry is a guy that I learned something from when I was at Upstate and observed what type of person he was. This is the type guy who literally loved his job and his work ethic with traveling and recruiting was amazing. His energy was palpable.Sometimes he would come in the Sports Information office during heavy recruiting periods having not slept, but still excited about the prospects he had a chance to bring in, and more importantly, about the difference he could potentially make in the lives of 18-22 year-olds.

It was that kind of excitement that helped Perry bring in two of the program's top five scorers in the past five years, in Torrey Craig (2,128 pts) and Ty Greene (1,884 pts). The two players laid a foundation for basketball that won't be soon forgotten at the small public school of about about 6,000 students located just on the outskirts of downtown Spartanburg.

But the two classes Perry brought in, if it is taken relatively in a two-year span, is arguably one of the better classes brought in by an A-Sun by any program during that time period other than maybe Florida Gulf-Coast, who at the same time was recruiting many of the players that would help the Eagles make their Sweet Sixteen run in 2013.

Among the signees were three 1,000-point scorers, with Craig, Greene and Ricardo Glenn all signing letters of intent to play for the Spartans during that two-year span. It would be the start of something speciall for Payne and Perry. The duo compliments each other in their approach to the game.

Perry is young, brash and has a good rapport with most anyone he meets. Payne is a lot like a father figure to many of his players, as the former Oregon State in the mid-90s and the veteran coach has found his niche in the Hub City. The two have been a perfect fit in Spartanburg, which was a challenge to not only get players, but garner support, upgrade facilities and re-establish a tradition that was established back with that success as an NAIA member throughout the decade of 1980s.

In many ways, in mid-major college basketball, the challenge is real and it is much harder to establish a consistency of winning. At the major level, many of those big-time, power-five conference programs can recruit simply with the name on the front of their jersey. That's not the case at Upstate, where Perry seems to take great pride in what he does.

"There are two great joys in this business of recruiting, and the first is seeing the person succeed and believing in the person first. I love being able to be a difference-maker in a kid's life on a personal level before I am anything to him as a basketball coach. The second joy is recruiting a guy that you found and developing into a player he never knew he could be. "

"You take satisfaction in being able to see a recruit develop as a person first, and then as a basketball player because you feel like you as a coach saw something in him others missed, and seeing that kid believe in himself and the things you said to him about what he could be during the recruiting process, those things will stay with me forever as memories," said USC Upstate associate head coach Kyle Perry.

"Finding a kid like a Torrey Craig, who we were able to develop into the player he would become, we take great satisfaction in stories like Craig's. Upstate has allowed me to have some many great stories like that,"  Perry added.

In three out of his five stops as an assistant coach, Perry has covered the three main regions of the Palmetto State, having served as an assistant in the Low Country, the Midlands, and now the Upstate regions of the football-crazed state.

Perry has been a fixture on the Upstate sidelines since arriving in Spartanburg from Orangeburg, where he was an assistant on the South Carolina State coaching staff under head coach Tim Carter, as he helped the Bulldogs post an impressive 17-14 finish on the season, including a 10-6 finish in MEAC play, which was good enough for a second-place finish in conference play.

During his time in the Midlands, he was instrumental in bringing in some out some outstanding talents during his brief stop as an assistant for the Bulldogs. He

Prior to his time at South Carolina State, Perry spent time as the Director of Basketball Operations under Bobby Cremins during the 2006-07, which was Cremins' first season in the Low Country as the head coach of the Cougars. The Cougars would finish just short of a Southern Conference title in that particular season, losing to the Stephen Curry-led Davidson Wildcats.

Perry's knack for bringing in talented players started with acquiring one of the all-time greats to ever play for the College of Charleston, luring Andrew Goudelock to the Low Country. All Goudelock would do during his career at College of Charleston was finish out his career as the program's all-time leader in scoring and ranked third all-time in Southern Conference history, pouring in 2,571-career points.

Former legendary and Hall-of-Fame head coach commented on just how special of a find Andrew Goudelock was by Perry. "Basically, he had one scholarship offer," Cremins said. "Most people thought he was too small to play the two and didn't really think he was a player that fit the mold of a one. Fortunately it worked out and he went on to become one of the best scorers in SoCon history," Cremins added.

Amazingly, Goudelock missed out on scoring in double figures just 14 times in his illustrious career, finishing out his four years as a Cougar by posting 126 out of 140 games in double figures. He was an NABC and USBWA All-District selection

Perry's career path may currently have blazed a trail through the Palmetto State, hitting all three major regions of the Sandlapper State, but his career began in his state of birth--the Volunteer State. Perry, who was born in Gallatin, TN, started his career as a grad assistant some 14 years ago in the small town of Cookeville, Tennessee, as a part of Jeff Lebo's staff at Tennessee Tech.

Lebo, a former standout guard under Dean Smith in the early 1980s at North Carolina, led the Golden Eagles to a 27-7 record and an NIT appearance following an Ohio Valley Conference regular-season conference crown before bolting for the Scenic City of Chattanooga a year later.

After earning his Master of Education degree in 2002 at Tennessee Tech, Perry made the move to Division II basketball for the next four years in Jefferson City, TN, where he ws an instrumental part of

Perry arrived back in his home state after playing for Georgia Tech and receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from one of the top engineering schools in the country in 2001. Perry was an impressive student, garnering ACC All-Academic honors in all four seasons he spent as a player and student in Atlanta.

During his time as a student excelling in the classroom, Perry also began to become a student of the game as a player under ACC and Southern Conference Hall-of-Fame head coach Bobby Cremins. He developed an uncanny ability to see the game in a very intricate, astute mind, possessing the ability to translate his complex understanding of the sport into something that virtually anyone can understand, and that includes me.

"I love breaking the game down in small parts. Especially in individual skill development for each kid. It's like Ricardo [Glenn], Ty [Greene], [Michael] Buchanan. A lot of this development occurs in one on one workouts," Perry said.

Perry's skill-set is a defined, unique fit that you can't always find at the major levels of the sport. He is versatile, in that he can recruit and teach.

"We've been able to develop some players here, like Torrey [Craig], Ty [Greene] and Ricardo [Glenn] and as an assistant, there's a certain pride you take as a coach not only seeing them succeed as a player after their career is finished here at Upstate but more importantly I think seeing them go on and succeed as people. I have taken great pride at that and a great amount of satisfaction in knowing I have played at least a small role in the success of a successful young man. We grow to love those guys when they are here, and we value those relationships and friendships throughout our lives, and not just the four years they are here at Upstate," said Perry.

Perry takes pride in player development, which is something at more high-profile programs is often taken for granted that it would or should be better at a power five conference school rather than a mid-major program, however, that most often is not the case despite those programs having better resources.

The problem is player development at programs that get high-profile programs like North Carolina or Kentucky never really gets to take shape due in large part the fact that those programs oftentimes knows that they aren't getting a player for the long haul, so everything goes into recruiting, as assistants at major programs go on an all-out blitz for the big-time players. It's a totally different dynamic at this level.

Mid-major basketball is college basketball for the basketball purist, while at the other end of the spectrum is a stark contrast. Power programs, or high major basketball has seen a decline in interest in recent years, due in part because of the skill level and lack thereof being criticized in recent seasons.

In fact, the rule changes made over the off-season, such as the change in shot-clock was made in part because a decline an interest because of those areas of lack mentioned above. Scoring was down and the overall excitement level and viewership was on the decline in college basketball coming into the season.

But it is not that way in the Atlantic Sun, Southern Conference or Big South. In those conferences, people often make the mistake of assuming the talent level enjoys the same gap it does in football between Division I FBS programs in comparison to Division I FCS programs.

However, that is not the case, or else you wouldn't see the upsets you normally do in the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The talent gap is often the case more in the reserves between a high-major and mid-major, but for the elite programs at the mid-major level, the talent level is actually getting closer on the basketball hardwood, while continuing to grow in margin between the two classifications of Division I football.

Perry is paid to not only be a teacher of the game, but also to develop his players for a successful people first, but also as players following their careers at Upstate and in the Atlantic Sun.

From talking to Perry during my time at Upstate and for my interview for this article, it was easy to discern he was intelligent, but at the same time, he never gives you the sense that he is high-minded or some how having to talk down to you as sometimes can be the case when talking to a really intelligent individual. He is cerebral and thinks on his feet, and no matter the question, he was ready for it.

Perry said he had learned a lot from his experiences as an assistant, especially during his time at Upstate, where he has helped Eddie Payne build what is a regular contender inside the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Perry's Career At Upstate:

When Perry arrived in Spartanburg prior to the 2010-11 season, the Spartans were coming off a seven-win campaign in 2009-10, and it would be Perry's recruiting class that would drastically change the face of a program that went from transitioning Division I program to a league title contender in a very short amount of time.

In fact, Upstate's rise to the top of the Atlantic Sun was somewhat remarkable, considering the Spartans went from five wins in 2010-11 to winning 21 games a year later, but that success could all be attributed to Perry and Payne, and getting players to believe in the process and what made Upstate something special.

It was apparent that Perry had a knack for and prided himself on finding those diamonds in the rough. He liked finding those types of players that often fall through the cracks.

"Player development is a big thing for me in this profession," Perry noted. I like being able to take a guy and make him into a complete talent, and to see that come together is something that most drives me as a coach. Most importantly though, I like developing good character players that come in and work as hard on their academics and who they are as people, as I do developing them as a basketball player. Development on both levels go hand-in-hand I think," Perry went on to say.

The big turning point would come in that 2010-11 season, and though the Spartans had only five wins to show for the program that season, one of the recruiting boons that come out of that season of struggles would be the fact that Perry would be able to sell many recruits on the fact that the Spartans had taken down one of the titans of the Atlantic Sun, with a win over A-Sun champion East Tennessee State, defeating the Bucs 60-59 on an afternoon when the Dodie Hodge memorial was presented to the program in front of a sellout crowd.

Part of the perks that came with the dedication was a facilities upgrade to the Hodge Center, which added a video board as one of the major perks that season.

"I think facilities are a huge part of recruiting. These kids we recruit, they want to play at a place in Division I basketball with some incentives, and to be able to renovate the Hodge and make it have that college basketball, home court feel is huge for us on the recruiting trail," Perry said.

The win over ETSU and several other close games that season would be something that not only gave Perry's first class in the Atlantic Sun confidence, it was also something that would help the program take that giant leap forward the following season.

The following season, the Spartans added another recruit that would help be the cherry on top for Perry's recruiting classes in his first two campaigns at Upstate, and that player would be Ty Greene, as well as a heady, disciplined guard named Mario Blessing, and another solid contributor in Fred Miller, while South Carolina State transfer Jodd Maxey would be a work in progress, but was athletic and a player that Perry was able to develop into a defensive stalwart on one end and an offensive highlight reel on the other.

But the real gem of the class was Greene, who was recruited by some other reputable programs, including Furman and Belmont, but chose to continue his career at Upstate. Along with Craig, Perry had garnered the services of two players that would become the cornerstones of Upstate's Division I transition, leading the program to standards that will be goals for future classes to achieve.

The 2011-12 season would turn out to be a benchmark season, and one that still often elicits a grin among the Upstate supporters to this day. It was due largely to the efforts of Perry and Payne, and their vision for the program from the outset. As it is with any program, whether it be other schools in the Palmetto State such as PC or in the mid-1990s Wofford, making the transition to the Division I ranks is no easy undertaking. Just ask Wofford or PC. In fact, it took Wofford 12 years before that program began to see real progress being made in the Southern Conference.

The 2011-12 season would turn out to be a 21-13 campaign, with the Spartans gaining some national attention along the way. A 13-5 conference mark was good enough to ensure the Spartans a third-place finish in the league standings, and one of the more impressive results came in the middle of the season, with Upstate looking to stay in contention for the league title.

Upstate fans knew they would be better, and if the win over ETSU a season earlier was a feather in the cap of both Perry and Payne, then a win over Belmont, which was playing its final season as an Atlantic Sun member before moving to the Ohio Valley Conference most would have been the kind of win that dreams would be made of.

Never before had an Upstate team gone on to defeat Belmont since joining the A-Sun some four years earlier, losing all 12 contests previously to the highly respected staff of the Bruins, which was no doubt one of the premier staffs in all mid-major basketball, and in particular, Rick Byrd. A cagy, veteran head coach Rick Byrd.

The Jan. 21, 2012 game for USC Upstate against defending league champion Belmont was one that will go down as a milestone win not only for Perry and Payne, but it was special to be able to notch a win of such magnitude with players, like Greene from Knoxville, who was recruited by local area schools, to be one of the ones that shined the brightest on that particular afternoon at the Hodge.

The game was in doubt for most of the way for Perry and the Spartans. To give you an idea of just how talented Byrd's Bruins were, they had given Duke all it could handle and then some in the season opener that season, and probably should have defeated the Blue Devils in that particular campaign only to lose by one (77-76) at the No. 6 Blue Devils in a game many felt that the Bruins should have won.

The Spartans were facing a program that were 0-12 against as A-Sun members, and a program that had won 20 or more games in six of the previous eight seasons, and had made four NCAA Tournament appearances in its previous six campaigns.

The game would play out much like you would think, as Upstate seemed to just be missing that extra gear for much of the contest, and trailed by 16 (43-27) at the break. Over the 40-minute game, the Spartans led for a mere total of 22 seconds. It seemed loss No. 13 to the Bruins was on the horizon. However, the Spartans would slowly but surely chip away at the lead. With the game 49-36 in favor of the Bruins with 16:36 remaining, Upstate embarked on one of the most important runs in the history of its short Division I status, using a 16-4 spurt over the next four minutes to cut the Belmont lead to 53-52.

With more than a few eyebrows raised, including mine, the finish of the game will be one I will not soon forget. Heading into the final minutes, however, the Bruins would begin to show their championship pedigree, stretching the lead back to six, at 70-64, thanks to A-Sun Player of the Year candidate Kerron Johnson, who scored on a layup.

But Upstate wouldn't go away, as confidence grew in players like Greene, Glenn, Maxey and Craig, who combined for a total of 63 of the team's eventual 79 points in the contest. All four guys had bought into what coach Perry had been teaching, and it was about to pay off in a major. With the Bruins clinging to a 71-70 lead. However, the Bruins would again push their lead back to two possessions, as the Bruins got a huge triple from JJ Mann taking the narrow one-point margin to four points, at 76-72, with 2:45 left.

After another Bruins basket, the Spartans kept fighting, and a three by Craig and a monster dunk by the most athletic player on the floor--Jodd Maxey--kept Upstate alive, down just 78-77 with 1:33 remaining. It would be high drama at the Hodge to close out the game, and likely is one of the best games the facility has ever witnessed.

The normally sure-shooting Ian Clark missed a rare open three, but the rebound was tracked down by Belmont's Mick Hedgepeth, and the ball eventually found its way back to Clark in the corner, who then missed a second three, but this time Maxey corralled the rebound for the Spartans and with just 31 seconds remaining. Upstate ran 17 ticks off the clock, as it was down to 14 with the shot-clock off before taking a timeout.

Another of those new crop of players procured by Perry--Adrien Rogers--threw up a shot, and the ball caromed off the rim before being eventually hauled in by Torrey Craig whose baby jumper bounced on the rim and through the basket with just two seconds left, sending the crowd into a raucous frenzy. Belmont's heave down the court in hopes of a Thomas Hill to Christian Laettner like miracle was not to be, as Ricardo Glenn intercepted the pass and the Hodge officially had its first court-storming, which has become all the rage these days in college basketball.

The result was one of those that sent shockwaves through the rest of the A-Sun. Perry and Payne's Spartans had arrived as a program, and they had done in it such a short span time. For players like Craig, Glenn, Greene, Maxey and Miller, the win was a part of something that would become an expectation over the next several seasons. Craig was brilliant in the game, and showed character that Perry so adamantly wants to instill in each one of his recruits. Following a half with only five points, the second frame for the native of small Great Falls, S.C. was huge, as he posted 17 for a game-high 22 points in the win, but none were more important than his final two.

"There is no denying this is a signature win for us," Payne added. "We are trying to get over the hump and we haven't beaten one of the top teams in our league such as ETSU and Mercer. Jacksonville beat us (Monday Night), so to beat a team like Belmont and coming from 16 down to do it is a big accomplishment for us," head coach Eddie Payne said. (Quote taken from USC Upstate game recap, Jan. 12, 2012)

The Spartans would go on to the A-Sun Tournament for the first time, qualifying as one of the top eight seeds, facing dangerous Florida Gulf-Coast in the opening round. Many expected a win for the Spartans in that contest, and some even expected Upstate to be a contender for an A-Sun Tournament berth.

Others considered Belmont that favorites, while Mercer was a close second considering the Bears were hosting the tournament at the fashionable Hawkins Arena. The FGCU Eagles would upset the apple cart, however, as it knocked off both Upstate and Mercer to move to the title game where the Eagles' run eventually came to an end with a loss to Belmont.

But Upstate's season wasn't over, and the Spartans would be invited to their inaugural postseason appearance, when the CollegeInsider.com Tournament came calling. Another milestone moment for Payne and Perry and a feather in the cap for a program growing rapidly.

The carrott at the end of the season would be a game against Kent State in the program's first even non-conference sanctioned postseason tournament. It was a year of firsts for Upstate. It would be one that would see coach Payne honored as the Lou Henson Award recipient awarded to the two top mid-major coach in the nation for his part in helping what was a 16-game turnaround.

Greene was named the league's Freshman of the Year, while Craig garnered Player of the Year honors. The Spartans even got a win over over Kent State (73-58) at the Hodge, as Upstate etched another first in a season of firsts. The 21-13 mark no doubt set a foundation for future teams to follow.

Upstate was in a league that also included a program that went to the Sweet 16 a year later, in Florida Gulf Coast, and one in Mercer, which knocked off mighty Duke in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in what was its final season of Atlantic Sun basketball in 2013-14 before moving on to the Southern Conference.

If Upstate can draw anything from those experiences, it is that both programs came from relative obscurity to on to become name program themselves. The prestige level for the conference has been set by three teams during a three-year span.

Upstate would make more noise in Craig, Glenn and Maxey's senior seasons, knocking off Virginia Tech (64-63), South Carolina (74-68) and would defeat nemesis Mercer (80-61) on Super Sunday at the Hodge in the 2013-14. But the Spartans bowed out of the A-Sun Tournament in the semifinal round of the tournament to Mercer once again, in a game that was another classic between the two, as the Spartans fell 62-60 at Hawkins Arena.

Still, it was another postseason appearance and a trip to the CIT for a second season in a three year span, facing Towson only to lose on a halfcourt heave by the Tigers' Four McGlynn as the buzzer sounded to suffer a bitter defeat in what was the final game for players like Glenn, Craig, Maxey and Babatunde Olumuyiwa, who who four cornerstones of the Perry's and Payne's program in the transitional process to Division I. The four had helped carve out a future path and set a standard to be followed.

"Guys like Ricardo [Glenn] and Torrey [Craig] were two of the many trailblazers for this program, and two that helped us get to a place to be able to recruit at a higher level. They will never be forgotten here at Upstate," Perry said.

In 2014-15, the program would take an even bigger step towards its goal of making it to the Big Dance, as Ty Greene became one of the most recognizable figures in mid-major college basketball, leading the Spartans all the way to the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Tournament.

The Spartans, which won a Division I program record 24 games, including nine on the road--its most since 1991--helped blaze even further along the path to the ultimate goal for the small Division I program that plys its trade in the A-Sun. The A-Sun Player of the Year put together one of the finest seasons in the history of Upstate basketball, as he was named the Mid-Major Lou Henson Player of the Year. His 20.3 PPG ranked tops in the A-Sun and ranked 11th nationally. He now is in the NBA Developmental League with the Delaware 87ers, hoping to get that shot at greatness.

Perry takes it all in-stride, and even though this season has been a bit of a struggle, replacing much of his starting five, he is cool, calm and collective about believing in his guys. He has players, though young, aren't that far away from getting back to the success of the aforementioned group. Perry seemed to know that, and it's these seasons, which can often be frustrating for coaches and assistants that seem to drive him even more.

"If I have learned anything about this profession, it's that you can't become complacent. You can't rest on what has been accomplished. You can't ever believe you are in a comfortable spot. Recruiting is no easy job, and you just have to always be ahead of the game and be looking for players to develop and you have to have the drive to find those guys who are going to take your program even closer to that ultimate goal. That's my drive and the biggest thing I have learned and will take with me throughout my career no matter where I am," Perry said.

The Game: Kennesaw State (Jan. 27)

As I settled into my seat at the Hodge Center on Wednesday night, a decent crowd had filed into Hodge Center as the game got closer to its eventual tip-off between USC Upstate and Kennesaw State. Noticeable and rowdy groups of sorrorirites had shown up in full force for the game, including a couple of young ladies sporting Kansas and Duke jerseys across the way, while also donning flat-brimmed caps tilted to the side. I thought it was kind of cool, but I also thought those probably should have been Upstate jerseys and not the aforementioned big-time programs that were easily noticeable from across the gym at my media placement.

I noticed in the game notes that Al Skinner had succeeded Jimmy Lallathin as the head coach at KSU. A place that has struggled to consistently win since Tony Ingle was fired at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season. Ingle had led the program to a Division II national title some seven years earlier, and now KSU had put its faith in the former Boston College head man in charge of an attempted revival of basketball on the outskirts of Atlanta.

As the game started, it became quite evident the Spartans had talent, especially in players like Michael Buchanan and Mike Cunningham--players who have shined throughout a season of ups and downs. Upstate came out a little flat, and despite a furious rally in the end, the Spartans fell short in heartbreaking fashion, as Kennesaw State came in to steal a 78-75 triumph at the Hodge.

The good news is, head coach Eddie Payne knows the struggle well. He has been through it numerous times in his career at every level, and his belief in his kids is apparent. As he settled in for the post-game presser, he was disappointed, but echoed some positives about the type kids he had, including Mike Cunningham, who did not quit despite struggling, and would get hot down the stretch in the contest.

Cunningham and Buchanan are a couple of nice pieces of a new generation of talent ushered in by the cagy veteran head coach, as well as Perry doing the phone calls and traveling. It was evident in having watched this team that they had talent and athleticism, and the mistakes, the struggles at the charity stripe, and some of the ill-advised turnovers, were all fixable.

It's definitely not a talent issue at Upstate. In many ways, it's one of the more remarkable stories in the mid-major landscape. A school with so few alumni and in many ways struggles to sometimes generate revenue, yet they find ways to get it done. It says something about leadership and trust that both Perry and Payne embody as coaches. They are obviously doing a lot right.

"We aren't where we want to be yet. We can't be happy with close losses, or good effort. We have to take it to the next level," Cunningham said in the press conference following the game.

"The A-Sun is a little down at the top this year, but overall I would say the league is better towards that bottom half and that would include us." Payne said.

A lot of the season remains, and Upstate is a program positioning itself nicely for a February run after some struggles to start the year. The Spartans picked up another huge road win Saturday at Lipscomb, 92-91, in overtime and have a chance to exact revenge on Kennesaw State tonight at the KSU Convocation Center. A third win in the A-Sun would put the Spartans right back in great position to finish strong going into tournament play in March.

Perry and Payne have built something special at Upstate, and that speaks loudly about the type of leaders of men they truly are. It's only a matter of time before the Hodge is filled on selection Sunday to hear CBS call out USC Upstate on one of the most special days in the college basketball season.