Jamion Christian believes there’s three virtues every successful, thriving basketball program embodies. Before there’s the recruiting and gameplanning, negative vibes must exit the room. Only enthusiasm, the kind that’s infectious and illuminating. And if there’s a blemish, “Acknowledge. Address. Improve. Move forward,” the sixth-year men’s basketball coach at Mount St. Mary’s says.
The next trait is humility. To show up every day and understand the program is larger than self values and with the recognition it takes a toiled effort to reach goals such as conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths.
Then there’s the polishing: Attention to detail, which roots from such enthusiasm and humility.
“Understanding if a team scores in transition more than they do in the halfcourt, you have to get back more. It’s those little details that equal big things,” Christian said in a phone interview on Friday. “Knowing if a guy drives right hand 75 percent of the time; that’s valuable. But it’s only valuable if you can apply it.”
The enthusiasm is always in place. Heck, Christian adheres to a strict method when choosing his managers. “We have a process … of who touches our program,” he said. In the months of November and December, humble times offered reality checks. But in January and into February, those details are now being applied. And it’s showing.
On Saturday, The Mount won its eighth in 10 games, grinding out a 59-56 win over Northeast Conference preseason favorite St. Francis U to move into sole possession of second in the Northeast Conference, two games behind Wagner for first. Two days prior, it produced the second-best defensive performance during Christian’s tenure, a 67-42 win at Robert Morris.
“Little things equal big things. We’re really starting to string together some little things well,” Christian said. “Our defense is growing every day. It’s just getting better as our guys gain more experience, as they learn different of how [other teams] try to attack us.”
In the 27-point rout of then-first-place Robert Morris, the Mountaineers allowed just 29.8 percent from the field (17 of 57), including a 3-for-21 mark from deep. At one point, they led 33-4, the backend of a stretch that had 18 straight defensive stops.
Not long ago, The Mount ranked in the bottom five of Division I men’s college basketball in field-goal percentage defense, burdening the offensive load backed by a team with 12 freshmen — the most nationally.
For those who follow the Mountaineers closely know the story of last year: An NCAA Tournament win – the lone institution in the Maryland-D.C. area to do so – thanks to the university’s first conference tournament title captured at home, only to have three starters transfer, with six more players either graduating or leaving the program.
An intriguing roster then became the youngest nationally, raising questions of uncertainty. Can they win, let alone compete, with a dozen freshmen?
“We got asked that a million times. ‘Awh, you got a lot of guys coming in, a lot of young guys,’ ” senior guard Greg Alexander said after the 86-80 win over LIU Brooklyn, which aired on national television. “We got tired of hearing it. And I think they did, too. We’re coming along.”
Christian is primarily a man-to-man guy, a staple in his “Mount Mayhem” brand of suffocating defense, 1-2-2 press and barrage of 3-pointers. But this year, the Mountaineers have resorted to a 3-2 zone on most defensive possessions, simply because the personnel isn’t best fit for man-to-man.
In the months of November and December, the Mountaineers put up 77 on Ohio and 78 on Pittsburgh, but yielding 96 and 82 in losses. Against two Division III opponents – York (Pa.) and Washington (Md.) – they allowed 80 and 67 points. For a while, it allowed over 50 percent from the field.
But in this 8-2 stretch, The Mount has turned in six of its best nine defensive outings versus Division I programs this season (determined by effective field goal percentage). The Mountaineers also entered conference play with the worst defensive efficiency in the NEC. Within the league, it’s risen to fourth in that department.
“We’re just trying to put [other teams] in tough spots on the floor where it’s tough for them score,” Christian said. “I think the guys are really starting to understand the scouting report. We’re able to add some details into our defense that we weren’t able to add two weeks ago.”
The defensive uptick results from those three crucial virtues, coupled with the maturation process. Freshmen Donald Carey, Jonah Antonio, Bobby Planutis and Omar Habwe, which have combined for roughly 67 percent of the team’s minutes (3,387 of 5,076), have shown substantial growth. Carey, the 6-5 point guard, is sixth in the NEC in steals (1.6 per game). Planutis, who has five blocks in the last seven games, is becoming the post defender Mount St. Mary’s sorely needs. Antonio, a 6-5 wing, is the team’s third-best defensive rebounder. And Habwe, a 6-6 forward, adds frontcourt depth.
“They aren’t freshmen anymore,” said senior guard Junior Robinson, who’s guided the youth to this point in the season, leading the Mountaineers in scoring (21.6 per game) and assists (5.2 per game).
While details determine defensive success, enthusiasm is the engine to Christian’s dynamic offense that ranks first in the NEC. Last year, The Mount ranked 168th nationally in effective field-goal percentage (51 percent), an offense that took them to the NCAA Tournament. Through Saturday, that number sits at 53.8, good enough for 66th nationally, and better than Virginia and North Carolina.
Mount St. Mary’s is also one of the best ball-control units in the nation — 16.7 turnover rate, ranking 48th nationally — and top-100 in the country when it comes to baskets made off assists (56.9 percent; 79th nationally). Last year, its 19.1 turnover percentage ranked 223rd nationally and 46 percent assists/field goals was 308th of 352.
“You can really tell when our team plays with that high enthusiasm for each other by the way the ball moves,” Christian said. “Last year, we didn’t have that. We were almost fighting the guys to pass the ball. This year, I’m trying to tell guys to finish shots.”
Alongside Robinson, who’s blossomed into one of the top scorers in the nation, Antonio, Alexander, Carey and Wray have evolved identities of their own. Antonio is second on the team in points per game at 12.4 and shooting 40 percent from deep (40 of 100) in 12 conferences games. Alexander is averaging 10.5 points per game, shooting 38.3 percent from deep in league play and is eighth in the NEC in true shooting percentage (61 percent). Carey, meanwhile, is averaging 9.3 points and 4.4 assists during the 8-2 stretch. Wray is consistently stuffing the stat sheet, averaging 10.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.8 blocks per conference game.
Additionally, Planutis and Habwe lead the team in 3-point field-goal percentage and overall field-goal percentage, respectively, at 45.8 percent and 68.9 percent in conference play. And though 6-10 center Ryan Gomes is playing just 7.2 minutes in league games, Christian said, “We haven’t had a big guy here [at Mount St. Mary’s] like Ryan since probably the mid-90s.”
At the beginning of January, shortly after his team got waxed on the road against Wagner and LIU Brooklyn, Christian boldly declared, “I feel like this team is about to play its best basketball.”
Few predicted The Mount to reassert themselves back in the NCAA Tournament hunt, but Christian has always exuded optimism because of the belief in those three virtues that have worked time and time again: Enthusiasm, detail and humility, which is perhaps the most pivotal leading up to the conference tournament in three weeks.
“It’s going to take us locking into every game. Not even every game. Every practice now,” Christian said. “You’re looking at about 15 practices left. I really think the value of those 15 practices are the most important part about what you can do, because everyone will be ready to play the games. It’s February. March is coming. Everybody is locked into the games. But it’s who’s locked into practice every day.
“Again, we’re the youngest team in the country. It’s scary, because we’re going to keep learning if we stay humble and stay even. We can be a really dangerous team in this league.”