Randy Lambert has mastered the art of mixing the occasional barb with his brimstone in 30 seasons as Maryville College’s men’s basketball coach.
The trick in such an approach is knowing how far to take it, an exchange between Lambert and Maryville junior Ben Williamson on Tuesday serving as a perfect example.
Williamson collected an offensive rebound on three consecutive possessions during a late practice scrimmage. An exasperated Lambert first stopped practice and implored the Scots to do a better job of boxing out. Just as quickly, the Maryville coach lightened the mood, issuing a mock challenge to the chiseled, 6-foot-4, 205-pound Williamson that brought the house down.
“I wish I could get in there with you, big boy,” Lambert said. “I’d show you a thing or two.”
Afterward, Lambert confided it would have been a terrible mistake had he actually followed through.
“He would have hurt me,” he said. “There’s no doubt he would have hurt me. I’m smarter than that.”
Lambert’s reasoning for the bad cop/good cop ploy is no laughing matter, however.
The Scots, who open the season with Methodist University on Nov. 15 at Boydson Baird Gymnasium, return a team of shooters like few the school has ever known. Four players are back who averaged double figure scoring a year ago. Five Scots shot 40 percent or better from 3-point range last season. Two others were burying the deep shot at a 36 percent success rate or better.
“I’ll predict we’ll break our (single-game) 3-point record (of 17),” said Lambert said, prompting a quick retort from assistant coach Kendal Wallace.
“What about the season record?” he asked.
Lambert only smiled.
“We need to maintain our intensity level throughout a 40-minute game,” he said. “We need to concentrate on the little things and we have to develop a toughness.”
It’s easy to get a little soft and forget the every six of 10 3s that miss when you can shoot the ball like Maryville can. Defense and rebounding, particularly defensive rebounding, still win the close ones. With the goals this group of Scots has set for themselves - a first-ever trip to the Division III Final Four - Lambert is taking no chances.
“We’ve got to make sure we take (an opponent’s) offensive rebounding extremely seriously,” he said.
The varsity roster was trimmed to 15 players before the start of practice Tuesday, with those relegated to begin the season with the junior varsity leaving the gym. Lambert huddled those who remained at center court, pulling no punches with what was expected.
“Our benchmark is not 20 wins,” he said. “My benchmark is the Final Four, and I want players who want to get there.”
All-South junior Eryk Watson paced the Scots (20-7) with a 19.0 points per game average in ‘08-’09, the 6-3 shooting guard primed this season to become only second player in school history to secure an All-American selection. The Powder Springs, Ga., native made good on 46 percent of his 3s a year ago, suggesting opponents will likely double the silky Maryville playmaker this season.
If they do, sophomore guards Jordan Damron - 10.6 points, 41 percent from 3 - and Wes Lambert - 10.2 points, 41 percent - are potentially lethal deep gunners. Junior Dustin Brown, 36 percent from downtown, is another.
At the basket, Maryville can counter with 6-6 senior Greg Hernandez, who followed Watson on the scoring tables last season with 16.1 points per outing, adding 8.5 rebounds while hitting on 55 percent of his shots.
“We’ve got so many guys returning, and we’re adding so many pieces to the puzzle,” Hernandez said.
There’s little doubt it all starts with Watson, a realization of why the one-time Division I prospect chose Maryville in the first place.
A product of one of Georgia’s top high schools, the do-it-all swing man could easily have held out for offers from larger programs. Many of his advisors told him to do exactly that. In the end, Watson followed his heart.
“I wanted to be a part of a winning program,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of a team that just clicked. I wanted to play, and I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to be a part of something different.”
The are other options on a decidedly deep Maryville team, including senior Jared Laverdiere and sophomore Maverick Willett, impressive the first two weeks of practice as Maryville prepares for a series of headliner scrimmages. Freshman sharp shooter Ryan Click of Maryville High and 6-8 freshman Felix Torres of Villalba, Puerto Rico, by way of Miami, are also likely to be heard from.
Junior college transfer Brandon McGill has a scary smoothness about him.
“We have the shooters; we have the players; we have the talent,” Watson said. “This is our year, and nobody wants to see this much talent go to waste. Our goal this year is to go make history.”
It’s the exceedingly fit Williamson where the X factor lies for Maryville.
“He brings an athletic player to our team that we were lacking (last season),” Hernandez said. “Ben has a mentality of getting every rebound.”
The Bearden High School product left a big hole in the Scots plans a year ago when he was lost for the season with an ACL tear in July. His athleticism, shooting and rebounding were a noticeable missing element, not to mention his tenacity around the basket.
“The toughest part for me was how hard I’d prepared for my junior year and not being able to be there to help,” Williamson said.
Rehabilitating his inured knee at fierce pace, Williamson put on 15 pounds of lean muscle through a regimen of a better diet and a focused approach in the weight room. With him back in the lineup, Maryville becomes a team with few weak points.
“This is a great bunch of kids,” Lambert said, “maybe too good to a fault. All good players have a little bit of nastiness in them. I want them to model citizens off the floor. On the floor, I want them to be competitive. I want them to be warriors. I want them to be winners.”
Maryville’s lofty goals this season are far from wishful thinking, but it’s going to take more than a team that shoots well, Watson said. It’s going to take a team that can push itself, day in and day out.
“That’s when we’re going to come back and put that banner up,” Watson said. “It’s going to take an incredible, incredible amount of work.”