Seven years have passed since Wes Miller’s interim stint began, and it’s safe to say Miller has flipped the script at UNC Greensboro.
When Mike Dement stepped down as the head coach of the Spartans basketball program in mid-December of 2011, it would be up to Miller to finish out the season in relief longtime head coach. Ultimately, Miller proved himself and then some.
Not all that far removed from winning a 2005 national championship with the North Carolina Tar Heels under the direction of Roy Williams, Miller would help the Spartans to a 13-19 overall finish and a 10-8 conference mark in the SoCon’s North Division, which was good enough to ensure a SoCon North Division title. Despite being an interim, Miller earned SoCon Coach of the Year as an interim, which all but ensured he would be named UNCG’s full-time head coach the next season.
When Miller took over the coaching job in mid-December, the Spartans had a 2-8 overall record, but unfazed by the quick transition, Miller led the Spartans to an 11-11 record the rest of the way.
Success didn’t come until after Miller lost his first six games as the head coach, with the Spartans falling all the way to 2-14 before he led the Spartans to wins in nine of the next 14 games, polishing off one of the best turnaround seasons in program and Southern Conference history.
The Spartans lost a school-record 25 games in a season in 2008-09, finishing that season with a 5-25 record. From 2008-13, the Spartans were 42-113, which is a stark contrast to the successful days they have enjoyed over the past four years. In fact, the Spartans had three-straight 20-loss seasons from 2008-11. The success of late has seen a definite uptick in the type of player that Miller and the Spartans have been able to attract.
Flipping the script at a place like UNCG hasn’t been easy. It’s a commuter school, and when kids are around on campus on a given weeknight or Saturday night, they are all usually supporting their local favorite ACC school. Basketball is big here.
“When I got here, one of the things that was hardest to figure out was how to get guys interested in coming here to play and how to get them to buy into the vision that we had,” Miller said.
In the early days, Miller had to learn how to get kids to come to Greensboro that might not get a shot at a North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke or Wake Forest. He needed to get kids interested in UNCG basketball, and he’d need players that were on a Southern Conference level or better, but off the radar of the major ACC schools in the area. Not only that, He’d need to fight off other mid-major schools in the immediate area like Elon, North Carolina A&T, High Point, North Carolina Central and Davidson.
Historically, Miller has been able to do that with kids that have not only been good basketball players, but kids that have been electrifying athletes like high-rising guards Trevis Simpson (2010-13) and Isaiah Miller (2017-present).
“To be honest, Trevis is a big reason I am the coach here today for what he was able to do in the first season I was here as the head coach,” Miller said. “That was the season we finished 10-8 in the league and won the North Division and we won nine of our last 10 games.”
There had been issues for Miller’s predecessors in sustaining success and establishing tradition, including guys like Mike Dement (1991-95; 2005-12), Fran McCaffery (1999-2005) and Randy Peele (1995-99). But one of the advantages Miller had was having spent three seasons as an assistant coach, with two of those coming under Dement at UNCG before eventually taking over the head coaching reins.
Miller, a Greensboro native, spent one season as an assistant at High Point in 2009-10, and in a basketball hotbed in the heart of basketball country along Tobacco Road. The three years spent at two different institutions in the city of Greensboro allowed Miller to get a sense of the recruiting culture.
Fast forward to this season. Last Thursday, Miller and UNCG were looking to rebound from road losses to Furman and Wofford, facing an upstart, young Western Carolina team.
Thursday night’s game against Western Carolina was a proving ground for UNCG, which lost consecutive SoCon games at Furman and Wofford for the first time since Jan. 2017, which ironically, also came on the road at both Furman and Wofford.
UNCG came out with a hard-fought, 79-76, overtime win over Western Carolina courtesy of a big shot from Francis Alonso, who canned a three-pointer with five seconds remaining to give the Spartans its first overtime win all season. All things considered, Alonso’s resiliency during that game showed the kind of grit and determination that has often become a trait recognizable in Miller-recruited players.
It was a serious bounce back game for the senior from Malaga, Spain. After scoring 10 points in a loss at Furman, and being held to just four points in a 30-point loss to Wofford, Alonso finished with a game-high 28 points and recorded his eighth game with 20 or more points this season.
But then on Sunday, the Spartans made the most of Senior Day against East Tennessee State, as Miller’s runner in the lane with 3.8 seconds remaining allowed the Spartans to escape with a 60-59 win over the Buccaneers, locking up the No. 2 seed for the upcoming Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville.
As it is with any senior class at any institution throughout college basketball, senior days at a program are never easy, but for a the class of 2018-19 for Miller at UNCG, their Senior Night was particularly special.
After all, seniors Francis Alonso, Demetrius Troy and Lloyd Burgess have been part of the most successful class in the program’s Division I history.
“I can’t put into a few sentences and tell you how much these seniors have meant to this program,” Miller said. “These [seniors] are part of the foundation of this program and part of why we are having so much success as a program right now.”
The trio of seniors has helped the Spartans post a 91-42 overall record, two regular-season SoCon titles, a SoCon Tournament and NCAA Tournament automatic bid, an appearance in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), three-straight 20-win seasons, and an appearance and postseason victory in the 2016 College Basketball Invitational (CBI). But for Miller, the class’ impact extends beyond the accolades.
“This job is more about the relationships you form along the way, and these seniors have meant so much to me and my wife,” Miller said. “What these guys have meant to me and my family, and to this community can’t be measured. You can’t sum it up in a few words or a few sentences, and that’s truly what makes this job so great.”
While success has been sustained of late, it’s not lost on Miller or UNCG program where this program was just a decade ago, which is not one that was setting records of the memorable sort when assuming the head coaching duties.
“That has something to do with the improved talent level in this league as a whole over the past few years,” Miller said. “I mean, there are a lot of attractive options to a high school recruit in this league now, but it’s so different than when I first got here. Guys are able to see what we’re doing here and there’s a sense of excitement surrounding this program and in this area for UNCG basketball.”
UNCG brought in four-star recruit Mohommed Abdulsalam last year and added their second four-star guy this year, with the signing of Williams, and the signing of the Langley brothers will give the head coach one of the top recruiting classes in the Southern Conference once again this year. So it’s not as if head coach Wes Miller’s Spartans are going anywhere anytime soon.
They’ll be a factor in Asheville, and while Wofford is the talk of the SoCon right now, knocking the Spartans won’t be easy. Miller has changed the narrative. He’s built a program that reloads instead of one that rebuilds.