Mount St. Mary's certainly looked the part of a rebuilding program as it limped to a 2-6 start in Northeast Conference play this year.
Coming off an 8-21 season a year ago, the slow start in NEC play this winter seemed predictable to just about everyone other than first-year coach Jamion Christian, who issued his team a challenge after a 76-68 loss at Robert Morris on Jan. 26.
"We set a goal … to be the best [NEC] team the last 10 regular-season games," Christian said Monday. "We finished that 10-game stretch 9-1, so obviously that helps your confidence grow."
That confidence carried over to the postseason, where the Mountaineers have pulled two straight upsets in the NEC tournament. The fifth-seeded Mount (18-13) will travel to third-seeded LIU-Brooklyn (19-13) Tuesday night with the conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth on the line.
In hindsight, Christian's 10-game challenge seems like the turning point in Mount St. Mary's season. But the transformation from NEC doormat to NCAA contender truly began last spring, when Christian — a former Mount captain — returned to his alma mater after the school dismissed Robert Burke.
Unsurprisingly, the transition to Christian's up-tempo offensive system took some getting used to for players more familiar with Burke's Princeton-influenced style. But Christian was unwavering in his approach — on the court and in the locker room.
"I think we just really started to trust Coach Christian and everything he was preaching," said junior guard Julian Norfleet, who averages 10.8 points. "Guys just decided to be unselfish. Once we started, everyone began to buy in more and more [and] have more trust.
"Usually before the games the past few years, everyone was serious. I guess you could say we were kind of tight. Now we're all so close. Before the game, we're having fun and know we have each others' back. The mood is a little bit lightened and loose before the game."
Mount St. Mary's is averaging 69.8 points this season, up from 60.3 during the 2011-12 campaign. Christian's up-tempo, four-guard offense has been especially beneficial to Norfleet, fellow junior guards Rashad Whack (14 points per game) and Sam Prescott (10.8 ppg), and freshman guard Shivaughn Wiggins (9.6 ppg), the NEC Rookie of the Year.
Whack, a George Mason transfer, had a feeling that he and Prescott, a Marist transfer who also sat out last season, would make a significant difference for the Mount.
"Honestly, I did expect," to win this year, Whack said. "With this team that we have, and me and Sam being able to play this year, I definitely thought we'd add more to the team. I definitely expected to [compete for the NEC] championship and hopefully go to the [NCAA] tournament in my last two years. This is something I definitely expected. I'm happy we're playing this game, and hopefully can go further from there."
Mount St. Mary's split the season series with LIU-Brooklyn, dropping an 86-72 road decision Jan. 12, but bouncing back with an 83-71 victory Feb. 21 in Emmitsburg. The Mountaineers, who have already knocked off fourth-seeded Bryant and top-seeded Robert Morris, face a Blackbirds squad looking for its third consecutive NEC tournament championship.
"They're a great offensive team," Christian said. "They have the conference player of the year (Silver Spring native Jamal Olasewere) and one of the best young coaches (Jack Perri). They've got a great thing going there. They're looking for the three-peat, and you know they'll be ready to play. But it's hard. Everyone is ready to fight for every inch. They've got a great offensive game. The defense has to keep them off the offensive glass."
If the Mountaineers win their 10th straight game Tuesday night, they will be the first five seed to win the NEC tournament. And more importantly, a win would give the Mount its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008. Whack thinks this team is up for the challenge.
"Every road game is tough with the crowd chanting. I feel like as a team, we feed off that. It's kind of like fuel to our fire," he said. "It's going to be crazy, definitely in the championship game. They're looking for their third in a row. But we expect it. We're going there and won't let it be a distraction the entire game."