After a close 70-67 loss to Hofstra ended William and Mary’s Colonial Athletic Association play back in March, the Tribe has been practicing and training for what could be one of the best-ever seasons for the squad. The premier program for the College tips off its season this weekend at Kaplan Arena.
As head coach Tony Shaver put it, the key to this season will be chemistry. With the loss of the team’s emotional and defensive leader on the court Terry Tarpey ’16, as well as core big man Sean Sheldon ’16, a larger portion of the team will be relied on to play a role in the coming months.
“To me, [chemistry is] the most important thing we do,” Shaver said. “I don’t think a team is ever going to be as successful as it can be if they don’t really play well together and like each other.”
To me, [chemistry is] the most important thing we do,” Shaver said. “I don’t think a team is ever going to be as successful as it can be if they don’t really play well together and like each other.”
From the outside, the squad appears to have some of the greatest chemistry of any college athletic program, allowing it to be effective on and off the court. Shaver said that potential for chemistry is something the staff looks at while recruiting to keep the club tight-knit each season.
Filling the roles of last year’s seniors, senior guards Daniel Dixon and Omar Prewitt — along with junior guard David Cohn — are this year’s captains. While Prewitt led the team in scoring last year, all three players provide expertise and experience on both sides of the ball. Dixon and Prewitt, who are the first seniors since the 1950-1951 season to have seen three straight 20-win seasons, provide a more stoic and experienced mechanic to the team, while Cohn provides the emotion that Tarpey carried previously.
“He is the fireplug, he’s the spark plug, he’s the one guy that really plays with emotion on his shoulder,” Shaver said of Cohn. “It’s not hard to figure out how David feels and you need that as a part of your ball club.”
He is the fireplug, he’s the spark plug, he’s the one guy that really plays with emotion on his shoulder,” Shaver said of Cohn. “It’s not hard to figure out how David feels and you need that as a part of your ball club.”
While the veteran starters have clear-cut expectations, bench players from last season such as junior guards Greg Malinowski, Connor Burchfield, Oliver Tot and junior forward Jack Whitman will also face elevated expectations. In practice, Shaver said that Prewitt and Dixon have been leaned on less due to a better team passing game to spread the points around. A reduced reliance on a few stars has allowed the younger players to hone their skills and learn the game before being thrust into game action, which Shaver hopes will benefit the Tribe later.
“I think it’s a season though, I’ve said this a lot of times, I said this when we had Marcus Thornton, to really really be good,” Shaver said. “I think it’s possible that Omar’s scoring is a little lower than last year, I think Daniel’s scoring’s a little lower than last year, because that means we’re getting everybody involved.”
Strong contributions from reserves last season give Shaver confidence in the preseason. Specifically, Malinowski delivered a career-high 23 points to lead the team against Hofstra in the CAA Quarterfinals against James Madison and Burchfield maintained his rank as the top three-point shooter in the NCAA for much of last season.
“It’s what gives you confidence about the season,” Shaver said. “When you lose a guy like Terry you’ve got a guy like Greg in waiting, so to speak. For two years he’s sort of served an apprenticeship under Terry. You’ve got guys like Jack Whitman ready to play, we hope. Connor Burchfield had great moments for us as a sophomore, so that’s what you need. To be consistently good, you’ve got to have guys that are growing and getting better and ready to play.”
To be consistently good, you’ve got to have guys that are growing and getting better and ready to play,” Shaver said.
New recruits have also added depth to the squad, with the freshmen duo of forward Nathan Knight and guard Justin Pierce looking to fight for playing time with the upperclassmen.
Despite the added depth, the preseason hasn’t been smooth sailing for the College. Several injuries as well as the indefinite suspension of sophomore forward Hunter Seacat took away valuable training time.
“It’s been a difficult preseason, if I’m completely open with you, and it’s because of injuries,” Shaver said. “We’ve had the most disruptive preseason that I’ve had in a long time as a coach. Injuries and guys not in the lineup, a lot of them in the same position, so it’s been not as fluid as we’d have liked.”
The most significant injury mentioned by Shaver was Malinowski. The “apprentice of Tarpey” suffered a concussion in mid-July and has only recently been able to practice. When healthy, he will likely make a transition to a starting role. For now, the staff will play the waiting game.
Conversely, Dixon is healthy for the first preseason of his career, which should help the Tribe start strong. That strong start will be necessary due to the strong teams the College faces, as the non-conference lineup includes road matchups at nationally-ranked programs such as Louisville, Rhode Island and consensus No. 1 Duke.
“I don’t think it’s any question, we’re playing the toughest non-conference schedule we’ve faced,” Shaver said. “That schedule, how we handle it is very important. We won’t win all those games, but during a stretch like that if you can be successful and have some success it will build confidence and better prepare us for CAA play. But it also can cripple you if you’re not playing well. It’s a great challenge for our guys.”
I don’t think it’s any question, we’re playing the toughest non-conference schedule we’ve faced,” Shaver said. “That schedule, how we handle it is very important. We won’t win all those games, but during a stretch like that if you can be successful and have some success it will build confidence and better prepare us for CAA play.”
Shaver went on to say he thinks the CAA has risen to the challenge of teams in Power 5 conferences such as the Atlantic Coast Conference (which is home to Duke and Louisville), making the schedule harder to make and presenting tougher challenges for the Tribe.
“One of the things we face as a program right now is that our players have had enough success … that it’s very hard for us to schedule right now,” Shaver said. “A lot of mid-level ACC teams we’re having a hard time getting on our schedule, so it’s one of the reasons we’re looking at what we’re looking at.”
With the non-conference schedule definitely appearing like it will present a challenge, it will be good for preparation of the CAA slate that starts in January. As the ninth-best conference in NCAA basketball in 2015-16, the CAA is a force that can beat non-conference foes, but also will be fierce and cutthroat in league play. The College was picked to finish third in the conference behind reigning champs North Carolina-Wilmington and Towson. As it stands, the Tribe remains one of fewer than 10 teams to have never reached the NCAA tournament. That could very well change this year with a domination of the conference slate and another 20-plus win season. Depth, chemistry and strong veteran leadership all mean the Tribe will pose a real threat if it stays healthy.
The College’s 29-game regular season tips off against Bridgewater at Kaplan Arena this Saturday at 2 p.m. Last season, the Tribe ranked No. 2 in attendance in the CAA. Shaver suggested that the atmosphere of Kaplan Arena has helped the team and he hopes that it continues to do so in a bigger way this year.
When there’s a big game [in Kaplan Arena], there’s an atmosphere that’s difficult for our opponents and supportive for us, it’s a big difference between winning and losing ball games,” Shaver said.
“[The energy] is awesome,” Shaver said. “It’s something a lot of people have been working on for a lot of years. I think success is the biggest reason for it, but I can’t stress enough to students, … to fans in general, what that change in atmosphere has meant to our program. We don’t win 20 games three years in a row without it, we just don’t. When there’s a big game [in Kaplan Arena], there’s an atmosphere that’s difficult for our opponents and supportive for us, it’s a big difference between winning and losing ball games … I just can’t tell students how much we appreciate what they do, and I want people to feel a part of our program. I want people who come to the game to feel like they’re a part of this thing.”