Men’s basketball: Tribe rising

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February 24, 2010

12:50 AM

_On Jan. 31, William and Mary won its 15th game of the season, a 54-51 home victory over Drexel. The win marked the third time in the past four years the Tribe reached the 15-win plateau, a feat not accomplished since the 1980 to 1983 seasons._

_At Old Dominion or Virginia Commonwealth, 15 wins in three of the past four years means very little. At the College, one of only five original members of division-I basketball to have never made the NCAA tournament, it means a lot._

_Over the next two weeks, The Flat Hat will examine the rise of William and Mary basketball and the consequences that go with it. Part one details the Tribe’s recruiting class for next season and the success of the coaching staff. Part two examines issues facing the Tribe as they hope to become an elite program in the CAA._

***

Don’t call it a golden class.

Call it talented, maybe the most talented recruiting class Tony Shaver has brought to William and Mary. Call it prestigious, call it ground-breaking, call the product of two-and-a-half years of hard work.

Just stop calling it a golden class. And, while you’re at it, stop attributing that title to Shaver.

“That ‘golden class’ didn’t come out of my mouth, I can tell you that,” Shaver said. “There is not one coach on our staff that has ever talked about this being a golden class. I don’t know who created that.”

For the first time in a long time, Tribe fans have high expectations for their basketball program.
If the Tribe’s current season was not evidence enough, the class of Julian Boatner, Brandon Britt, Fred Heldring and Tim Rusthoven represents another irrefutable step that the Tribe men’s basketball program is moving in the right direction. All four are talented, all four fit into Shaver’s offensive system and all four represent the fruits of a recruiting strategy put into place two years ago with the hiring of assistant coaches Jamion Christian, Jonathan Holmes and Ben Wilkins.

***

*“They outworked everyone”*

Success breeds change, and in the summer of 2008 Tribe basketball was going through its first major changes since Tony Shaver took over in 2003.

Dee Vick, a player under Shaver at Hampden-Sydney and an assistant on his staff since 2003, was hired as the head coach at Hampton-Sydney. Antwon Jackson, Shaver’s top recruiter, also left Williamsburg to become an assistant at UMass.

Needing two assistant coaches with recruiting experience, Shaver hired Jonathan Holmes and Jamion Christian. Christian had two years of experience coaching at the Division-I level at Bucknell while Holmes had not coached above the Division-II level. Together, along with lone holdover Ben Wilkins, they would combine to form the Tribe’s recruiting strategy on the fly, despite their late start.

Shaver and his staff would divide the country into three sections. Holmes, a former runner-up Indiana Mr. Basketball, would recruit the Midwest. Wilkins would focus on the Northeast. Christian, a star at New Kent High School in Virginia, would recruit in the Washington, D.C. and Virginia area, with Texas thrown in for good measure.

Holmes had perhaps the best connections early on. His father, J.R. Holmes, was the head coach at Bloomington South in Indiana, a perennial powerhouse in the state. He also had a Final Four ring from North Carolina and connections to the some of the better AAU programs in Indiana and Ohio.

Almost overnight, the Tribe began establishing a presence in the Midwest.

“Quite honestly, I think Jonathan Holmes has had a lot to do with that,” Criss Beyers, the director of the Indiana Elite AAU program said. “He played high school ball here and was part of a good AAU program. He played at North Carolina and the respect for what he’s done at William and Mary, the respect for what his father has done as well, when he walks into a gym, he gets a little more attention and respect.”

As Holmes hit the Midwest, Christian began scouting the east coast. Lacking an expensive budget, Christian would drive everywhere from Maryland to the Carolinas, often looking to make contact with coaches as much as players.

In accordance with NCAA rules, no head coach or assistant may attend AAU events for prospective players except for a 20-day period in July. Thus an onus was placed on Christian, and the rest of Tribe staff, to attend as many high school games, open gyms and individual wokouts as possible.

“He made himself very visible,” Cade Lemke, director of the East Coast Fusion AAU program said. “Jamion, Coach Holmes, Coach Shaver would make sure players would see them wearing the Tribe logo, watching games, making sure the kid knew they were there.”

If they couldn’t be there in person, the coaches would send hand-written notes, often daily, to potential prospects. Every lead turned into a phone call, every phone call turned into a return phone call the next day, with a hand-written note often appearing soon afterword.

They worked long hours, arriving early to make phone calls or watch tape on potential prospects. Holmes’ daughter Lillian was born in December 2008. The Tribe suffered a seven-game losing streak that January. Yet there they were, one of the youngest coaching staffs in the league, working day-in and day-out to make that one extra phone call, to write one more letter.

“I remember I would come in, in the morning, and Holmes would be there, handwriting notes,” Dave Kontaxis, former director of Basketball Operations at the College, said. “Jamion would be there calling people and Ben, I’m surprised he doesn’t live there.”

Their efforts did not go unnoticed.

“They outworked everyone,” Paul Ferguson, Rusthoven’s Head Coach at Wheaton Academy in Illinois, said. “They took more time to build relationships. The coaching staff was very relationship oriented. Jamion, Ben, John and Coach Shaver, throughout the process they spent a lot of time selling the head coach on the program.”

***

*“I’m going to take it”*

Of the four players in the 2010 class, Julian Boatner was perhaps the most natural fit for the Tribe.

Boatner attends to Bloomington North, the rival of Holmes’ alma mater Bloomington South and high school of NBA stars Jared Jeffries and Sean May. After a sophomore season in which he deferred to the players around him, Boatner emerged as a prospect after a junior season spent leading his team in scoring with 21 ppg.

The Tribe had already established a presence in the region, having just lost out on Eric Fromm, a 6’9” power forward from Bloomington South who eventually committed to Butler because he felt that William and Mary was too far from home. The coaching staff liked Boatner but did not want to get burned again by a player not wanting to leave home.

“I remember walking through the grocery store and getting a call from Coach Holmes and he said ‘We almost got another kid to commit but he said he was worried about going away from home,’” Andy Hodson, head coach at Bloomington North, said. “He was worried but I was like, it doesn’t matter.”

Boatner, as Hodson already knew, was hooked.

“They contacted me more than other colleges,” Boatner said. “They wrote me the most letters, by far the most, and they called. They made me feel like I was wanted, which was a big part of my decision.”

Shaver even made a visit out to Indiana to watch Boatner go through an individual workout at 6:30 in the morning before class. The individual workout is often an empty gesture. The coach usually knows whether he likes the player before the workout and the player often is going up against an inferior teammate, rendering one-on-one play meaningless.

William and Mary does not always send its coaches out on planes. And head coaches do not always wake up early in the morning to see point guards who played freshmen basketball their first year in high school.

So the gesture of Shaver standing there in the Bloomington gym at 6:30 in the morning was hardly empty to Boatner. It was everything.

“It was really big, having a head coach come at 6:30 in the morning to watch a kid play one-on-one, to go through individual workouts,” Hodson said. “Most schools will just send an assistant, that’s a big thing having a head coach there.”

Shaver would eventually offer Boatner a scholarship, making the official offer on a Monday with a stipulation that he had to know by that Wednesday whether Boatner intended to commit to William and Mary.

“They really put the full-court press on to get him. I talked to Julian that Monday and he was like, I don’t know yet, let’s wait,” Hodson said. “Then he calls me back later that night and he says, ‘I’m going to take it.’”

A 6’2” guard, Boatner played both the point and shooting guard position in high school. Not the most athletic guard by his own admission, Boatner feels as comfortable pulling up for his own shot as he is running a team.

On his official visit, Shaver and the coaching staff showed Boatner where they thought he fit in the Tribe offense and explained their goals for the next four years.

“They see me as a combo guard, running on the wing on and off the ball,” Boatner said. “My goal for all four years is to sell out Kaplan, and winning helps bring out fans. Coach Shaver told me he wanted a CAA championship and to make the NCAA tournament.

“My goals aren’t any different.”

***

*“We would talk basketball but not just basketball”*

It would be understandable if Fred Heldring and Tim Rusthoven are linked together right now in the minds of Tribe fans. Both are from the Chicago area. Both had offers from elite academic schools and both are post players who can make plays facing the basket.

“He and I are pretty similar because we’re both 6’8”, 6’9”. I kind of like getting out of the post once in a while and, from what I’ve seen of Tim briefly over the years, from his AAU team, he likes playing out of the post too,” Heldring said. “It should be fun playing together.”

Heldring, a 6’9” forward from New Trier High School, was rated the number one player in the Tribe’s class by ESPN.com Scouts Inc., a service that rated the Tribe’s class as the best in the CAA based on the early signing period.

Out of all the recruits, Heldring comes to William and Mary with perhaps the best pedigree. New Trier has been ranked in the top 15 of Chicago high school basketball for most of this season. Heldring’s AAU program, Rising Stars, is one of the best in the country.

On those teams, Heldring did the little things that helped prepare him for Shaver’s Princeton-style offense.

“I think it fits me pretty well because I think my biggest strength as a player is my passing,” Heldring said. “On the AAU circuit, I didn’t score at all; all I did was pass and set screens. I played on a pretty solid AAU team, with a lot of solid players, so I had a chance to do a lot of the little things.”

Like Boatner, Holmes first recruited Heldring before receiving the go-ahead from Shaver to offer a scholarship. And like Boatner, Heldring received a personal visit from a Tribe coach, as Holmes attended a pair of his open gyms.

However, Heldring received more attention throughout the recruiting process, especially from Ivy League schools, making Holmes and the Tribe’s efforts all the more impressive.

“William and Mary sent Coach Holmes out twice to see my open gym. I don’t remember other teams doing that, and the other schools recruiting me were Harvard, Cornell and Yale, so their athletic budgets aren’t that different,” Heldring said.

What set the Tribe apart was the relationship Heldring had with Holmes. The phone calls, the handwritten notes, the interest in Heldring’s life — all were factors in Heldring’s decision to commit to William and Mary.

“He sent a lot of hand written letters and everything. The biggest thing he did was take the time to call and talk about myself,” Heldring said of Holmes. “He was genuinely concerned with what was going on with New Trier and me. We would talk basketball, but not just basketball.”

***

*“They care about you as a person”*

Like Heldring, Rusthoven is a 6’8” forward from the midwest who can score facing the basket. Like Heldring, Rusthoven’s Wheaton Academy has been ranked among the top 15 teams in Chicago high school basketball this season.

Unlike Heldring though, Rusthoven’s versatility lends him the ability to play anywhere on the court – and could make him the surprise of the 2010 recruiting class.

“They said they liked me because they saw me as a versatile big guy,” Rusthoven said. “They saw me as versatile enough to dribble, shoot and fit into the Princeton offense. They showed me tape and showed me how I could play anywhere from the four position to the two.”

Having been recruited primarily by Holmes, Rusthoven was actually offered a scholarship before meeting Shaver in person, having only talked to him over the phone. Rusthoven was all set to make an unofficial visit to Williamsburg to meet Shaver for the first time when he got the news that his grandmother had died.

“Right before we were supposed to leave my grandmother passed away. At the time, other schools were saying if I didn’t commit, they were going to go onto someone else,” Rusthoven said. “[William and Mary] initially said they wanted to have a decision by this time but Coach Shaver extended the timeframe to give me more time to make the decision.”

A couple of the schools recruiting Rusthoven maintained their deadline, saying that if he did not decide soon that they would withdraw their scholarship offers. Rusthoven, who had been recruited by Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Iowa, decided to wait with his family, leaving the decision up to Shaver as to whether to extend the deadline on Rusthoven’s scholarship.

Shaver, who had still yet to meet Rusthoven in person, decided to extend the deadline.

“I think it’s the personal touch. We try to do it the right way,” Shaver said. “As a guy who has lost grandparents and family members, that is the most important thing in their life right there and I think Tim is very close to his family, so we wanted them to be a family without pressure from us.”

It was a touch appreciated by Rusthoven and his family.

“He was real down to earth,” Rusthoven said of Shaver. “The little things are important to the William and Mary coaching staff. You know they are not there for business only, but that they care about you as a person.”

***

*“I want to make an impact locally and nationally”*

Brandon Britt might be the outlier of the 2010 recruiting class. Instead of hailing from the Midwest, he’s a local kid from Chesapeake, Va. Instead of initially being recruited by Holmes, he was first contacted by Jamion Christian. And, as of last Friday, he has still yet to speak to the other members of his class over the phone or in person.

He also is perhaps the best athlete in the class, an athlete who doesn’t usually end up at William and Mary. Instead of being recruited by Ivy League schools, Northwestern or Vanderbilt, Britt drew interest from Pitt, Clemson and Oklahoma.

Such interest has made some Tribe fans nervous, wondering whether Britt will decommit or transfer like former Tribe guard Calvin Baker, now at Virginia. For those fans, Britt’s message is clear – he’s not going anywhere.

“I’m solid man, my commitment is solid. I talk to coach Christian a lot, I think we talked two days ago,” Britt said. “We also text all the time. We text after every win, and with Coach Shaver it’s the same way, we talk all the time.”

Britt also wants to stay close to home so that his father has a chance to see him play. Britt’s father had battled illness recently and although he has gotten better since, Britt still wants to remain close to his tight-knit family.

The Tribe coaching staff has made an emphasis on recruiting kids from strong families the last couple of years, selling the school to both the parent and recruit.

“Brandon, we’re very fortunate to get him. Very talented, a kid with a lot of leadership qualities, we’re very happy to have him,” Christian said. “His relationship with Coach Shaver is so strong. Brandon is a kid with a tremendously strong family, which I think helps us.”

Offensively, Britt’s quickness already has Shaver and the coaching staff dreaming up ways to get the ball in his hands.

“He definitely said he will let me use my speed, let me use ball screens and spread the floor and let me attack,” Britt said. “They said I have a chance to play right away if I do the right things. I hope to get in the starting rotation. I am going to work hard to get in the starting rotation. I want to win the CAA and I want to make an impact locally and nationally.”

Like the rest of the 2010 recruiting class though, Britt has no reservations about the ‘golden class’ label some have put on him and his future teammates.

“I hate hype like that, people should really wait until they see people,” Britt said. “I just want to come in here and be a part of something special. Coach Shaver is great, the coaching staff is great, and guys like Kitts and McDowell are already really good.

“We just want to come in here and keep it going.”

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