DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—There should be a bold line drawn on Lamar’s schedule, separating what happened over the last six games from the previous 28.
That’s when Pat Knight blew up at his seniors—saying they were “stealing money being on scholarship.” At the time, it was seen as a desperate act by the coach of a team headed nowhere.
But then Lamar (23-11) won every game since, including the Southland Conference tournament title. Now it finds itself in the NCAA’s First Four, taking on Vermont (23-11) in a battle of No. 16 seeds at the University of Dayton on Wednesday night.
“Oh, yeah, I could have had a mutiny,” Knight conceded on Tuesday while previewing his team’s game. “That’s the thing.”
Instead, Knight’s harsh words—he also said he had the worst group of seniors he’d ever been around and that his players had problems “off the court, on the court, classroom, drugs”—seems to have brought them together.
A team of dysfunction has suddenly become one of unity.
“When he did what he did, we could have curled up in a ball in a corner and quit, but we never did,” said one of those seniors, guard Anthony Miles. “It kind of just forced us to come together stronger and show the world that we’ve got a really, really good team.”
No one could blame Vermont coach John Becker for looking at two sets of tapes on Lamar this week.
The Catamounts, winners of the America East tournament, are making their fifth appearance in the NCAA tournament. But about all anyone is talking about is Knight’s team and his angry diatribe.
“I think he understood his team. He understood that they needed some encouragement,” Becker said. “He understood he had tough kids on his team and that they would respond to that kind of public calling-out type of situation. In hindsight, it worked perfectly.”
Knight’s 8-minute screed after a 62-52 loss to Stephen F. Austin on Feb. 22 became a YouTube sensation. Several websites have called it the most colorful and brutally honest postgame session ever by a college coach.
Yet another one of those maligned seniors, Mike James, says he’s never watched a replay.
“I haven’t paid attention to it,” he said. “People call you, tell you stuff about it. But you’ve got to move on. It’s not part of the game. We’re here to play basketball. We’re not here to join in all that.”
The next morning after Knight’s blow-up, Miles came in and apologized on behalf of all the seniors. Since then, the Cardinals have been the very picture of brotherhood and hard work.
“You’ve got to give these guys credit,” said Knight, who added that his Hall of Fame coaching father Bobby told him he was glad the rant worked, but that he should never do it again. “I mean, I was on cruise control for the last six games. I didn’t have to coach, really. It was a joy to see these guys.”
For the record, Lamar starts four seniors and three of them average double figures with the other at 9.1 points a game. The Cardinals, making their sixth trip to the NCAA tournament but first since 2000, are a veteran bunch that likes to score in transition with a four-guard set.
The Catamounts prefer a slower pace and a halfcourt game.
“It’s definitely a battle of contrasting styles,” Vermont forward Luke Apfeld said. “The coaches have been stressing that we need to play Vermont basketball and do what’s made us successful and gotten us to the point we are at now—defense and rebounding and execution on offense.”
Vermont has shown a little unity itself, both in the past and this year.
The Catamounts are one of the nation’s best road teams, winning 11 times away from home this season and 33 games outside of their own Patrick Gym over the last three seasons.
They also authored one of the greatest upsets in the NCAA tournament, stunning fourth-seeded Syracuse 60-57 in overtime in the first round in 2005.
Becker laughed when asked if he would mention the Syracuse upset to his team.
“We’ll talk about it as much as you want,” he said. “It comes up quite a bit. It’s probably the greatest win in Vermont basketball history. So we love talking about that game. We’re really proud of that and hopefully we can get the program’s second NCAA victory (Wednesday) night.”
If they do, there probably won’t be an empty seat in Knight’s postgame news conference.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .