KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Javan White sat steps away from the court where he had frustrated the opposition all night, frustrated with himself. The Kansas City big man had given Western Illinois fits down low, forcing the Leathernecks to adjust their lineups to him as he scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Though he didn’t make the final basket, he was arguably the most important part of a one-point home Roos win.
That was a change from the year before, where White saw scant playing time in his first and only year at Clemson. He had arrived at the ACC program from Oral Roberts in 2018 as a rare graduate transfer with two years of eligibility after a knee injury had forced him to essentially miss his entire sophomore season. He was brimming with potential, as he had grown into a consistent interior force and starter during his final year at ORU.
But after that limited action at Clemson and with a master’s degree in hand, he made the final move of his college career to Kansas City, where he’s back playing a main role. That’s made him happy, but only to a point last Saturday night.
“I’m getting used to it again,” White said. “Obviously my efficiency is horrible so trying to get better at that. But it’s definitely good to be one of the main guys and have the responsibility of being a leader.”
First-year Roos coach Billy Donlon didn’t let that self-critique hang in the air as he sat between White and senior guard Jahshire Hardnett at the post-game press conference.
Hardnett, a BYU graduate transfer, was fresh off a 19-point outing in which he had hounded Leathernecks’ star point guard Kobe Webster into a difficult night. He’d also hit a pair of pressure free throws with five seconds left to win the game. Like White, things hadn’t gone the way Hardnett likely envisioned the previous year, as the one-time starting point guard saw his role reduced after a mid-season hand injury.
With all that history, Donlon wasn’t dwelling on shooting numbers.
“Not only have they not been ‘the man’ in over a year, they haven’t played as much, so it’s going to take some games to get the rust off,” Donlon said. “This is the best Javan’s guarded the ball screen, and this is the best Jahshire has guarded the ball on a really good player [Webster]. When Javan talks about his shooting, we’re sticking with these guys as long they guard, defend hard and play the right away.”
The freshest of starts
Signing — and sticking with — those two has already yielded positive results for Donlon as he takes over a program that has had just two winning seasons since 2005.
No first-year coach is surrounded by as much new-car smell. Kansas City unveiled a new logo and athletics department branding (dropping the “Kanga” to simply be the “Roos”) over the offseason, and will soon play in a new conference as they move from the WAC back to the Summit League next season, where they had played from 2007-13. And at one point, it seemed Donlon might have an entirely new roster too.
Players rushed to the transfer portal after former coach Kareem Richardson was let go after six seasons in March. In early April, 11 players were in the portal, ten of which had begun exploring options before Donlon had been named the new coach. That left the former Northwestern assistant potentially facing a bare roster and an especially hasty scramble to simply fill minutes when the season rolled around.
“I was very honest,” he said in an interview over the summer. “I didn’t walk in the door and say to the kids that put themselves in the portal, ‘you need to leave.’ But I also didn’t beg them to stay. I was honest, and said ‘I think you should go through workouts for a couple weeks and then together we can decide if it’s a good mix.’”
Ultimately, four players from the initial mass exodus bought in and decided to return. And they were four big “re-additions,” as the group included all-WAC defensive guard Brandon McKissic, three-point specialist Rob Whitfield, athletic wing Marvin Nesbitt Jr. and frequent starter Jordan Giles. On top of that, Donlon got busy adding a mix of instant impact graduate transfers ready for big roles — like White and Hardnett — and a slew of younger players with multiple years of eligibility.
That new group went to the Bahamas Showcase a week and a half ago with a 2-3 record propped up by two wins against non-Division I teams, and came back with a wave of momentum.
The Roos used a furious comeback to knock off George Washington in their opener and then beat East Carolina to reach the tournament’s final. Those wins were the program’s first over teams from the A-10 and American Athletic Conference, respectively. They would fall to a Liberty team loaded with expectations in the final, but the trip had already had its effect.
“I feel we got to the Bahamas, got a couple wins and it opened a big picture for us on how it feels to win games,” Hardnett said.
For a locker room not used to winning, Donlon said he wants the program to get to the point that making a non-conference tournament is the expectation and not the icing on the cake itself. But that didn’t change the fact that the trip was a success, and the positive vibes continued with the win over WIU on Saturday — one of only two non-conference home games Kansas City has against Division I competition this year.
It may be a small step, but the recent run —stretching back to a Nov. 18 win against NAIA Bacone College — is the first time the Roos have won four out of five games since late in the 2016-2017 season. And it’s been a team effort with different players taking star turns, which is the way Donlon said this team will have to win.
Against GW, it was Hardnett — who started 47 games over two years at BYU — scoring a career-high 25 points to lead a late comeback. The next day it was Whitfield pouring in seven three pointers and a career-high 29 points, while White pitched in a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds), to push the Roos past ECU. Back in the States against WIU, it was Hardnett and White that helped Kansas City start fast and hold off the Leathernecks, which had fought back to lead with under a minute left.
“If you could draw up a way to win a game I’d take that way, and I’ll tell you why,” Donlon said. “This is a new group with a lot of guys getting to know each other, and now five games from now we can point back and say, ‘we were down late and had to get a stop, then had to go get a bucket, had to get a stop, had to make free throws,’ and those are growing opportunities.”
Doing what hasn’t been done
The question becomes how far the Roos can rise with those growing opportunities.
Kansas City was understandably picked second-to-last in the WAC preseason poll with its first-year coach and rebuilding roster. But as the calendar flips into December, the 5-4 Roos are the only league team with a winning record. While that stat may be skewed by the quirks of early season mid-major schedules, Kansas City doesn’t look like an easy out in Donlon’s debut season.
The former Wright State coach was let go following a 22-13 season in 2015-16, a decision that didn’t sit well with many people, especially after he’d taken the Raiders to three Horizon League Tournament title games in four years. Defense was his teams’ calling card at Wright State, and the Roos have fit that mold over the past few weeks, holding the opposition to under a point per possession in six out of their last seven games.
Stringing together 40 minutes of quality team play is something that Donlon said his team is still working toward, but the potential is certainly there with a group gelling quicker than many might’ve originally thought. Wherever this season leads, the Kansas City job appealed to Donlon in part because it gave him a chance to build toward what hadn’t been done: an NCAA Tournament appearance. That vision and energy is what drew Hardnett to the Midwest for his final college season.
“It was trying to do something that hasn’t been done,” Hardnett said. “[Kansas City] hasn’t been winning, and that’s no shade at [Kansas City]. Just knowing [Donlon] wanted to turn this program around, I kind of felt like I’ve been an underdog and wanted to accomplish something like that in my life.”
That golden, NCAA Tournament moment in year one likely remains a tall order. But laying the foundation for that down the road is off to a good start with a pair of graduate transfers leading the way in the final chapter of their respective careers.