The Salisbury University men’s basketball team fell short of the NCAA Tournament last season.
Former head coach Andrew Sachs led the team to an 18-9 overall record and the Capital Athletic Conference semifinal game. They would fall to York College of Pennsylvania, 75-59.
Many had high expectations for this Salisbury team coming into this season. With strong seniors Blair Davis and Chase Kumor and young stars such as Gary Briddell and Mike Ward, the Sea Gulls were primed to make another run at the NCAA Tournament.
These expectations were short-lived though, as it was announced in early October that Sachs was placed on administrative leave. He would not return to the team, causing doubt to fester in many fans regarding its performance this season. The players, though, remained confident in their abilities.
“I think everyone outside the locker room didn’t have very high expectations of us, but the nine or ten of us were very confident, including Coach McDermott,” Kumor said. “He knew we were capable … Adversity makes people react in different kinds of ways, but we knew together that we were able to face all different kinds of adversity that we faced this year, and it just made us even better basketball players and people.”
Brian McDermott was named the interim head coach for the basketball team on October 2. His first experience as head coach came as an impressive scrimmage win over Division I University of Maryland Eastern Shore in the “10-Mile Tipoff.” While this was only a scrimmage, it boosted the morale of the Sea Gulls and got them on the right foot to start the season.
One of McDermott’s main priorities was to keep the team together and maintain the dynamic that many of the players had with each other. Any player on the team would be willing to speak to his positivity and support throughout the season, which helped hold the team together through adversity.
Salisbury’s cohesiveness as a team was on full display early in the season, as it was able to rally and bring a program-best nine straight wins to open the season. Despite struggles in conference play, the team would wrap up the regular season with an 18-7 record.
McDermott’s squad earned the fourth seed in the Capital Athletic Conference and hosted Frostburg State University in the first round of the CAC Tournament. It overcame a 20-point halftime deficit to secure a statement win, 78-76.
The Sea Gulls would lose their CAC semifinal matchup against Christopher Newport University, but it did not matter. The committee had seen enough from this team and granted them an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They would fall to Baldwin Wallace University with a score of 75-61.
Despite the tournament loss, this season was a success for the Sea Gulls. They were able to overcome multiple forms of adversity and still earn a ticket to the NCAA Tournament, which many teams cannot do in their best years.
“I think it was an exceptional performance by the team this year, the team and the coaching staff,” said Gerry DiBartolo, the Salisbury University athletic director. “In terms of dealing with some adversity early in the year … this team was just resilient, they decided they were going to do whatever they could to stay together and win games.”
A significant factor in the team’s ability to reach the “big dance” was McDermott’s willingness to allow input and creativity from the players. McDermott was placed into a tough situation, and the best way to find success among that was to allow the players to be themselves.
“He just let us be us, and I think it worked out to our benefit,” senior guard Davis said. “We were ready to be let loose a little bit, we didn’t always want to run a play. We felt like if we were flowing we would be good, and that was his philosophy, so it worked out.”
“I think Coach McDermott was really open arms coming in,” senior forward Kumor said. “He was put in a really awkward position, and he knew that he had to play this fine line of, ‘I gotta work with these guys, not work for them or try to be their boss.’”
The next challenge McDermott faced early in the season was managing a roster comprised of just eight players. This fact makes the early season run all the more impressive, as some victories came over teams playing nearly twice as many players.
McDermott also handled the individual emotional needs of the players very well, allowing for the team to grow closer together as a result.
“He had to manage eight guys, eight egos,” Davis said. “I think he did a good job of managing us and keeping us together, keeping us focused.”
Many people close to the team know that players had a larger role on this team than on the average college basketball team. Veteran players often worked alongside McDermott to implement new plays and ideas into the game plan.
“I would come in before practice and be like, ‘I’ve got these three new plays, what do you think of them?’ and he’d be like, ‘Oh, I like those two,’ so we would go with those two,” Kumor said. “When we would run, we would run his fastbreak offense, which was fine, we were all open arms into it as well, so I think it was a little mixture of both.”
As successful as McDermott’s first season was, it did not come without struggle. McDermott’s struggle was conference play. It becomes significantly more difficult to defeat teams when you have to play them twice, and this was evident in Salisbury’s play in the CAC.
But the ability to take a team to the NCAA Tournament is not something that can be overlooked. While the university may want to pursue a more established name in coaching, it should be a priority to ensure McDermott gets a fair swing at keeping the job if he desires to.
DiBartolo said that Salisbury is looking for hard-working individuals who are of good character and “are proud to be associated with the university.” He also said that SU wants to find a head coach that prioritizes the academic performance of their players more than their athletic performance.
There is currently an ad open for the full-time position, which will continue for one more week. Salisbury is required to keep the ad open for that three-week period.
“We formed a search committee back in January. That search committee has members of the staff as well as one outside person,” DiBartolo said. “They will go through the process of looking at every single application, and each of them will determine on their own who are their top candidates, and then they’ll discuss how we want to go from there.”
Three to five candidates make it through that process and come to campus, meeting with the search committee, DiBartolo and the basketball team. There is also an open session in which SU faculty and staff can ask questions, according to DiBartolo.
A recommendation is then made to DiBartolo, who will make the final decision. DiBartolo said he hopes to have a head coach in place by mid to late April, giving said coach opportunity to get comfortable with the team as well as meet with recruits that have shown interest and grab late-interest recruits.
Regardless of the final decision on the future leader of the Sea Gulls, McDermott made the best of a shaky situation and led an undermanned roster to the “big dance.” That cannot be skipped over and should be taken into consideration throughout the search.
“I definitely feel like we didn’t go last year, so that’s a big thing, to even make it to the tournament,” Davis said. “It’s really hard to play basketball with eight players on your team, so it’s kind of hard to manage that as well … I definitely think he shouldn’t be overlooked in this search.”
“I think he did a great job with us this year, and it’s hard to pass up a look on somebody that took a team to the NCAA Tournament,” Kumor said. “That’s something for the upstairs to decide, and we wish him the best of luck no matter what.”
By NICK LEWIS
Featured photo: The basketball team huddles after a game (Marshall Haas image).