The performance of players including JaShaun Smith ’20, a sociology major, has packed fans into Willett Hall. (Photo courtesy of Mike Kropf ’14)

When Longwood hired Griff Aldrich as head men’s basketball coach in March 2018, the head coach of the team Aldrich had worked with the previous two years had strong words to share.

“Longwood University hit it out of the park with the hiring of Griff Aldrich,” said Ryan Odom, head coach at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, who had employed Aldrich as director of recruiting and program development. The America East champion UMBC Retrievers punctuated Aldrich’s time there with a stunning upset of No. 1 seed Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

A year later, Odom’s words have proven to be more than just support for a longtime friend. In just one season, Aldrich and his coaching staff have engineered one of the most dramatic turnarounds in all of NCAA basketball, leading Longwood to a historic season that is among the program’s best since the Lancers made the jump to Division I 15 years ago.

At the end of the regular season, the Lancers had amassed 15 wins, reached their highest national ranking in D-I history and won five Big South games in a conference that is at its strongest historically from top to bottom. The program has embraced the hashtag #OnTheRise for a campaign highlighted by signature victories, recruiting wins and even an impressive fall semester GPA.

These successes have reinvigorated Longwood’s fan base, whose fervor is especially evident in Willett Hall, where the Lancers have routinely drawn near-sellout crowds and compiled a 9-5 home record. And excitement surrounding the program has extended off campus, earning coverage by newspapers and local TV networks, and drawing numerous sportswriters to campus, including nationally renowned author and Washington Post columnist John Feinstein.

Head coach Griff Aldrich’s first season has seen the men’s basketball program take a dramatic step forward.
Head coach Griff Aldrich’s first season has seen the men’s basketball program take a dramatic step forward.

Hand in hand with that newfound enthusiasm are the numbers that prove this year is one for the record books. Consider KenPom.com, a prominent basketball rankings service, which has Longwood at its highest ranking ever, rocketing up 25 spots from its all-time next-best mark and a stunning 65 places higher than the team’s finish in 2017-18.

Even more impressive is that Aldrich has achieved these results with a team comprised primarily of veteran players who have bought into the new vision. Only a handful of newcomers—notably point guards Seán Flood ’20, a business major, and Shabooty Phillips ’20, a sociology major, and shooting guard Jaylon Wilson ’20, a sociology major—have contributed to this year’s success.

There’s no magic bullet in Aldrich’s method. Yes, he and his staff have implemented an up-tempo, 3-point-focused offense that has capitalized on a crop of long, athletic shooters. Yes, Phillips has emerged as one of the Big South’s top guards. Yes, the Lancers broke the school record for 3-pointers and are among the Big South’s top-ranked defensive teams.

But the ingredients in Longwood’s breakthrough this year are not tied to any one player or any unbeatable scheme. The recipe rises above any one individual or play call—or even end-game result—and instead rests on a five-pillar foundation that Aldrich outlined before he even accepted the job: excellence, grit, humility, gratitude and service. “There are a lot of things you can’t control, but your effort, your grit and your toughness— that should never be second,” Aldrich said.

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