The 1990-91 Maryville College men’s basketball team went 22-5 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. A year later, the Scots were in the Elite Eight.
In the 18 seasons since, Maryville has failed to record at least a 20-win season only three times, reaching the national tournament in each of the last 12 years.
Both of those marks are under assault as the Scots (5-6) ready to resume the season at a holiday tournament at Otterbein College beginning Dec. 28.
“I can’t tell you the last time we were below .500 at the Christmas break,” Maryville coach Randy Lambert said. “We’ve had some tough breaks with injuries. I guess the thing that’s most promising to me is the way we played in our last game.”
Maryville poured it on in impressive fashion in a 74-60 pasting of Guilford College last Saturday at Boydson Baird Gymnasium. Sporting News preseason All-American Eryk Watson led the way with 23 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range. Junior Maverick Willett was 5-of-6 from the field en route to 14 points. Fellow junior Milton Stanley tossed in 12, adding seven rebounds, with senior Dustin Brown adding 10 points, including a pair of threes.
Maryville was up, 41-19, on the Quakers at halftime, indicative of a solid performance all around. There simply haven’t been enough such nights for Maryville so far this season, a series of losses before the Scots even took the floor for the opener with Centre a month ago bearing a lot of the responsibility.
Senior Ben Williamson was lost for the year with an ACL tear over the summer. Junior point guard Jordan Damron decided to give up the sport to concentrate on school. Junior swingman Wes Lambert was shut down for the year before the season’s first game with a knee injury.
Each was a starter a year ago. The loss of their offensive production, along with the chemistry they’d developed in two seasons together, would prove telling in each of Maryville’s six losses. What Maryville lost on the other end of the floor has been more substantial, Lambert said.
“Our biggest problem up to this point has been our defense,” he said. “We were giving up 82 points per game going into Guilford.”
Lambert turns to a 103-99 loss at Emory University in late November to illustrate his point. The Scots led 55-43 at the half, only to be overrun by a 60-point surge from the Eagles the second 20 minutes.
“We just have not been very good defensively,” he said. “We’re giving up way too much penetration and what I call easy baskets.”
It’s translated into some painful losses for the Scots, with five of the six defeats coming by four points or less.
“We could very easily be 10-1 right now or undefeated,” Lambert said.
Through it all, Watson, a sweet-shooting, 6-foot-3 senior guard, has kept firing away. The Powder Springs, Ga., native is delivering an impressive statistical line of 23.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, all while hitting on 48 percent of his 3-pointers. His 25 assists rank only behind point guard Cory Cheek’s 31 for the team lead. Watson’s team-best 22 steals lead Stanley by four.
“Offensively, I’m very satisfied,” Lambert said. “I know we’ll get 20-plus points per game from Eryk. Right now, he’s seventh in country in scoring, and I’m very satisfied with his play.”
Slowly but surely, Willett (10.8 points) and Stanley (10.7) are becoming “the Big Three” nucleus Lambert teams at Maryville have become known for through the years. Donald Rucker has been a huge lift with 7.3 rebounds per game, the 6-5 junior returning to the Scots after a year away from basketball to focus on academics.
Lambert said he’s hopeful supporting firepower from Cheek, seniors Dustin Brown and Brandon McGill will help the Scots turn to the conference schedule after the holidays a confident team.
“To this team’s credit, they’ve been very accepting of criticism and continued to work to improve our play,” he said.
This season’s pre-conference schedule has been tough on program that won so much the last decade.
“And that schedule hasn’t allowed that,” Lambert said. “I set that schedule up with the thought in mind of having four starters returning from a 20-win team.”
Like last Saturday, there are encouraging signs the Scots are ready to mount a charge. As for the losses of Williamson, Damron and his son, Wes, Lambert said, Maryville can do nothing to change at this point.
“As a coach, you try not to look back and say, ‘What if?,’ but, obviously, it’s come to mind,” Lambert said. “All you can do is work with what you’ve got and try to get better, and we have.”
After the Otterbein tournament, the Scots visit Greensboro College on Jan. 2 before returning home to host Berry College on Jan. 10 at 7:30 p.m.