Wofford has been no stranger to the national spotlight this season.
The 22nd-ranked Terriers’ brutally efficient offense and undefeated run through a strong Southern Conference seemingly has them in the NCAA Tournament, whether or not they snatch the league’s automatic bid. It’s something the national media has understandably taken notice of again, again and again, and that attention reached its first high water mark in late February, when Wofford entered the AP Poll for the first time in program history.
At the time, head coach Mike Young summed up the feeling in six simple words, which could well have stood in for his team’s entire regular season.
“That was special,” Young said. “That was awesome.”
It’s a success story that Dustin Kerns can appreciate better than most. The Presbyterian College head coach spent seven seasons — split over two stints — as an assistant to Young, being a part of both the foundation-laying in the mid-2000s, as well as back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2014 and 2015.
“If you look at the whole process, it’s taken 15 years of excellence to get to this stage [at Wofford],” Kerns said. “Certainly the blueprint is there.”
Out of the national spotlight, and just some 30 miles south of the Wofford fairytale, Kerns has begun laying his own blueprint while engineering one of the country’s most significant turnarounds.
In 2016-17, PC finished the year on a 1-19 slog to cap a 5-25 (1-17) season. Longtime coach Gregg Nibbert had built PC into a consistent winner at the Division II level, going 335-216 over 18 seasons, but had not had a winning season 10 years into PC’s Division I era. There were some competitive spurts after the Blue Hose transitioned in 2007, particularly between 2010-12, but Nibbert resigned after that five-win campaign.
Two years later — in Kerns second year in charge — it’s been a season of firsts for the Blue Hose.
Entering the Big South Tournament at 17-14 (9-7), PC notched that first winning season since the Division I jump. It also posted its first ever winning record in Big South play, and ended losing streaks of three or more years against six league teams, the longest of which — to Charleston Southern — stretched back to 2011.
And it’s done so in a very Wofford-like way.
A three-point heavy Blue Hose attack currently sits as the 98th-most efficient offense in the country, a sharp cry from 2016-17, when they finished third from bottom (349th). In part that’s been boosted by senior big man Francois Lewis (15.0 PPG, 39.2 3P%, 5.1 RPG), a former Florida A&M transfer who has created match up problems throughout the season.
“He stretches the floor, but he’s more than just a shooter. He’s an exceptional passer and he’s got really good ball skills,” Kerns said. “From a versatility standpoint and from a match up standpoint he’s a very key component.”
That was present in arguably PC’s most thrilling win of the year, a 103-11 overtime rumble against Gardner Webb on Feb. 9. As a part of a career-high 29 points, Francois scored six points — on a three-point shot and three free throw’s — in the final 23 seconds of the extra period to grab the win.
Fellow senior and second-team all conference honoree Davon Bell (10.4 PPG, 6.4 APG) was around for that 5-25 season, and has been an important part of the turnaround. The point guard has been a steady hand, posting the highest assist rate in the Big South for a team that rarely turns the ball over. And he’s helped set up a quartet of freshmen who could lay a long-term foundation for the program.
That, according to Kerns, was a piece of strategic team building.
“I want to build it with high school players,” Kerns said. “We might sprinkle in an occasional transfer every now and then, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I want to build a program and not a team, and when you build a program you’ve got four year guys.”
Chief among those youngsters has been Big South Freshman of the Year Adam Flagler. The guard burst onto the scene with big outings against Marquette (20 points) and UCLA (29 points) in November, and has continued to run wild as a long-range shooting threat in the Blue Hose attack (15.8 PPG, 38.7% on 234 3PA). Sparkling efforts against Winthrop and UNC Asheville helped the Blue Hose snap losing streaks that went back to 2013 and 2015, respectively, against those programs.
It’s all come as zero surprise to Kerns.
“I offered him the first week on the job,” he said. “I certainly felt like he was capable of having a big impact, especially when he got on campus and we got to work with him. You never know, but certainly we thought he would do some of the things he’s doing.”
Fellow freshman forward Cory Hightower also landed on the league’s all-freshman team, and the Blue Hose have gotten quality minutes out of freshmen guards Chris Martin and Kody Shubert as well.
The attention now turns to the Big South Tournament, where PC has won just a single game in its six seasons in the event. Campbell — which the Blue House beat on Feb. 16 — and Radford seem the favorites in a parity-filled field that includes eight teams with nine wins or more. For the first team in years, the resurgent Blue Hose are right in the thick of that competitive scrum, and a March run — tough as it may be — could produce the program’s most notable “first” in a season full of them.
PC hosts UNC Asheville in the first round of the Big South Tournament on Tuesday night.