Last fall, while few were paying much attention, the winningest men’s basketball team in Maryville College history started practice.
That could very well be the storyline in two months time.
Senior Alex Bowers leads a Maryville team that had to replace 62 percent of last year’s scoring when practice opened. Two of three starters, including the program’s second All-American player, had graduated. The third starter transferred.
In his 27th season as coach at Maryville, Randy Lambert took the helm of a team with no entrenched leader from the year before — no Kelvin Richardson, no Dee Bell, no Chris Housewright, no Sidney Ellis, no Bobby Golden — and only Bowers around which to build a winner.
Fast forward three months, and the 2007-08 Scots are on pace to eclipse the mark of arguably the greatest team Maryville has ever sent to the hardwood.
Maryville is 13-2 entering tonight’s 7:30 tipoff with King College at Boydson Baird Gymnasium. It’s still going to take some doing to better the 25-4 mark of Richardson’s 1991-92 Scots, Maryville’s all-time best finish in the shot-clock era, but this team has a shot, a real good one.
WBCR radio, AM 1470, will have tonight’s broadcast.
“What stands out is their willingness to accept a role,” Lambert said. “There are no egos that you have to stroke or feed.”
The ’92 team was a known commodity long before it ever played a game. The year before, the Jesse Robinette-led Scots had become the first Maryville team to reach the NCAA tournament. Those Scots would finish 22-5. When Robinette moved on at year’s end, in came the sky walking Richardson, who’d signed with Memphis out of Alcoa High School, to take his place.
With a star-studded cast of Glen Cullop, Tim Lawrence and Babatu and Amirou Willingham to surround the Division-I Richardson, Maryville tore through the season to finish within an overtime loss in the Elite Eight of reaching the Final Four.
With All-American Bobby Golden and forward Bradley Blair both seniors a year ago, point guard Bo Mason, the team’s second-leading scorer, transferring, this year’s Scots started with Bowers the only player returning with double-figure scoring.
“I knew he had the ability,” Lambert said. “I didn’t know if he could handle the mental aspect, and he has.”
Bowers began measuring himself for the mantle of leadership when the Clarksville native made the cut for the wildly-successful Rocky Top summer league in Knoxville. In a league chock full of Division I talent, including several players currently with the University of Tennessee, Bowers held his own.
“I think the summer league was good for his confidence,” Lambert said. “He really believes in himself. He looks at himself as the leader of this team.”
Bowers said he was initially apprehensive about applying for the league draft. Maryville had other players attend tryouts, with only the 6-foot-3 Bowers assigned to a team. When selected, Bowers said he decided just to go for it.
“Those were the best players in the country,” he said. “It couldn’t do anything but help me.”
Bowers has seen his scoring average climb from 10.6 points per game a year ago to a team-leading 15.9 in his final campaign, hitting on 48 percent of his shots. That Bowers was a different player was evident during fall practice, enabling Lambert to turn his attention to more pressing matters.
“My primary concern was the point guard position,” he said.
Mason was a terrific shooter. When he left after his junior year, along with him went his 13.3 points per game average.
Enter freshman Eryk Watson.
“We immediately looked at him as someone who could bring us some offense from the point guard position,” Lambert said.
Just how good is Watson?
“He’s electric for just a freshman,” Bowers said. “He’s provided a huge spark scoring and on defense.”
Maryville has been recruiting the Powder Springs, Ga., native — hard — for three years. Lambert first spotted him in a high school summer league at Georgia State following Watson’s freshman season at Kennesaw Mountain High.
“They had been following me longer than I thought,” Watson said.
Never hurts to get in early. Watson averaged 20 points per game and was Kennesaw’s leading rebounder in his senior season a year ago. A handful of scholarship schools came calling, but Lambert offered the chance to play right away, Watson said, with a catch.
A shooting guard in high school, the quicksilver 6-foot-1 guard would have to move to the point.
“When I first came here, I wanted to play,” Watson said, “and he (Lambert) told me that’s how I could get some minutes.”
The change is a work in progress.
“As a point guard, I see things differently,” Watson said. “In high school, it was just a free for all. I would just go down and create.”
Adjusting to Maryville’s patented motion offense took some getting used to as well.
“He (Lambert) threw in the offense the day before midnight madness,” Watson said. “It was ugly.”
Watson has come miles since then — at sprinter’s speed. All but unstoppable off the drive, he’s added the 3-point shot in his first year at Maryville, banging away at a 48 percent success rate. His 12.4 points per game trail only Bowers for the team lead.
There’s still much to learn.
“I still find myself making young decisions,” Watson said.
His bursts to the basket during fall practice enabled Lambert to cross another item off his list, though. Watson would get there, and quick.
“Our next concern was the center position,” Lambert said.
Golden had been only the second player in school history to be extended an All-American selection. Ellis, two years prior, had been the other. Replacing the super-athletic Golden in the post would fall to not one, but two players.
“Through the spring, we felt like (sophomore) Chris Orr was developing,” Lambert said. “He was showing glimpses of what we were looking for.
“(Sophomore) Greg Hernandez was the unknown during the summer. He went home to Miami, and we didn’t know how hard he would work.”
The 6-7 Orr and 6-6, 255-pound Hernandez have delivered, with Orr shooting a sizzling 62 percent from the field, his 10.3 points per game third best among Scots. Hernandez, scary fast for such a big man, is pumping in 6.1 points, hitting 54 percent of his shots.
With Bowers, Watson and Orr/Hernandez, Lambert had his “Big Three.” His Maryville teams have always had a go-to player with big-game skills, a point guard who can do more than just distribute and a post player who can punish opponents around the basket as its core.
By the end of preseason, it was coming together, but even Lambert admits to being surprised at how these no-name Scots ripped 17th ranked Averett University in the opener.
After watching Maryville dismantle the Cougars, 74-60, in Danville, Va., with Bowers going off for a game-high 32 points, Lambert remarked to an assistant: “Maybe we’re better than I thought.”
That would be seniors Jonathan Johnson and Quinn Bradley, along with a host of others, kicking it in.
“It helps when it comes from the top,” Lambert said.
Johnson, who’s beat back injury during his Maryville career, went off in Wednesday’s 95-77 rout of Rust College. His 14 points and four steals sparked a Maryville breakaway in the opening half.
For the season, the 6-3 former Governor is averaging 9.3 points per game — off the bench — adding a team-best 36 steals and four rebounds an outing. Throw in 5.8 points per game on 49 percent shooting from Blair, and the secret of Maryville’s success this season begins to come into focus.
Add sophomore Ben Williamson, 8.7 points per game, junior Andrew Shumate, 4.7, and sophomore Jared Laverdiere, and it’s crystal clear.
Williamson stroked Rust for a team-leading 25 points, going 5-of-9 from 3-point range with seven rebounds. Watson added 22, coming away with four steals.
Both came off the bench.
“We’re pretty deep,” Bradley said.
That, and constantly being reminded of how much they’d lost from the year before, motivated the seniors, he said.
Maryville had reached nine consecutive NCAA tournaments entering this season, winning 20-plus games in each of those years.
“We (the seniors) just got together and said, ‘We don’t want to break that streak,’” Bradley said.
In looking for a game which best indicates how good these Scots may be, one huge one stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Maryville has no fiercer rival — in any sport — than Carson-Newman College. The Eagles may compete in Division II, Maryville Division III, but it makes no difference. When they play each other, it’s on.
Maryville took this year’s clash, 87-80, earlier this season, marking the second time in as many seasons the Scots have knocked off the scholarship school. Maryville is prohibited by Division III bylaws from offering athletic scholarships.
The win last season, the first in many years, was something. The way the Scots handled the Eagles this season — without Golden, without Blair, without Mason — was nothing short of stunning.
Carson-Newman had to rally in the closing minutes to even make it close.
“It didn’t surprise me how we played,” Bowers said. “It did surprise me that we were up by 25 at halftime.”
It’s the intangibles — unselfish play, competitiveness, the willingness to be coached and accept a role — that’s been the difference this year, Lambert said.
“This bunch is just real easy to coach,” he said.
The winningest team in school history?
Prior to the season, few, including the coach, saw this coming.