Before each practice begins, the Fighting Scots men’s basketball team migrates toward the center of Randy Lambert Court to briefly cover their tasks at hand for that day. At this point in every practice, junior point guard Christian Ford enthusiastically exclaims to the team, “We are back!”
While Ford’s daily exclamation is accompanied by his well-known sense of humor, the phrase speaks volumes for the current stance of the program.
The 2012-13 season was a disappointing one for the Scots, who failed to finish over .500, ending the year 10-14 overall and 5-9 in USA South play.
This stood as their first losing record since the 1986-87 season, and only the fifth losing season in Coach Lambert’s 33 years as head coach of the Scots.
The team gave no excuses for their performance, and made it their mission to get the program back to its winning ways.
The players participated in vigorous summer workouts to improve their skills and pushed through a conditioning program in the spring that was far more intense than those in previous years.
Despite their hard work and mental preparation, the Scots opened the 2013-14 season with only one win in their first six games, sparking concern that they were heading down the same path as a year ago.
However, these thoughts were discredited by the determined Scots; they have fought through the adversity and won 15 of their last 17 games, placing them at 16-7 on the season.
Although a poor start was not ideal for the Scots, their struggles could not have come at a better time. They rose from their slump before conference play began, and they now lead the USA South with a 12-1 conference record after going on a 12-game winning streak that was snapped Sunday.
Coach Lambert attributed the turnaround to a combination of changes.
“The players have changed their approach to the game,” Lambert said. “[Last season] we weren’t competing in our practices, and it showed in the games. We weren’t playing to win.”
“We have overcome that mentality, and I hope we have learned from it,” he said.
Strategy also played a key role in the Scots’ turnaround.
“We changed from a bigger lineup to a smaller, more active lineup,” Lambert said. “It allowed us to match up better defensively with our opponents, and it improved our [offensive] motion.”
In addition to these adjustments, Lambert felt that several individuals have stepped up their play this season.
“Jaumonee Byrd has almost doubled his production from last season. Spencer Shoffner improved his overall game and has become one of our best defenders. Oscar Butler and Christian Ford become better leaders, and they seem to be more productive,” Lambert said. “Although it may not show in the statistical line, their adjustments as team players have made us a better overall team.”
Even though their leadership might not come through in the stat line, these player’s stats do still show their improvements this season, as all four are averaging double-digit scoring this year.
Byrd is averaging 18.8 ppg to go with 9.0 rpg; Shoffner is at 12.7 ppg and 4.3 rpg, while being a force on the defensive side of the ball by averaging one block per game; Butler is averaging 12.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 2.4 apg; and Ford sits at 10.4 ppg, 4.2 apg, while shooting an impressive 40.3% from behind the arc.
“The team has bought into what we are trying to accomplish. We work extremely hard in practice and it’s benefitting us,” Ford said about the team’s improvement. “We’ve really come together.”
Now in the back half of conference play, the Scots sit 2.5 games ahead of second-place Averett and are faced with a three-game conference road stretch that could potentially allow them to clinch first place for the regular season.
“It’s going to take a great effort from us all,” Ford said. “They are all winnable games, and it’s important that we win these games to continue to be in first place.”
If the Scots are able to maintain their lead, they will be given the privilege of hosting the USA South Conference Tournament. Home court advantage would be vital to the Scots, who are 9-1 on Randy Lambert Court this season.
“We play really well on our home floor. If the tournament is here, we’ll be really hard to beat,” Ford said.
Although the Fighting Scots struggled a year ago, the maturation of their mentality and team chemistry has given them the chance to do great things this season and in the following years.
Maryville College men’s basketball has regained its elite standing through this season’s accomplishments, and it is safe to say that the Scots are indeed back.