**** Editor’s note – Did you miss Episode 1 of the Point Forward podcast with Mark Zanetto? Insight from UNCG’s Wes Miller, High Point’s Tubby Smith and more. You can find the podcast here
Lexington is a sea of blue.
Im sitting at the hotel bar in downtown Lexington. Everyone, even those who don’t live close to campus, are here in town for the game. The couple to my left, in full Kentucky regalia says, “We’re playing some team, Greensboro something” I couldn’t hold my tongue. I interjected, “UNCG, and you guys are in for a fight” They laughed in a way an older brother laughs at his younger sibling.
On Saturday, for about 32 minutes of a 40-minute game, 21,753 Kentucky fans were familiar with the sounds of Silence. The UNCG contingent had about 100 friends and families screaming and yelling while the big blue nation squirmed in their seats. Cascades of boos at tough calls, cries to the Kentucky bench for “Somebody stop that guy!” referring to Francis Alonso, as he torched the Cats for 19 first half points. After the Saturday afternoon game, I can all but guarantee that Kentucky fans know who UNCG is now.
But wait, just one second….
Before one can understand the magnitude of UNCG’s ascension in the basketball hierarchy, one must first look back at it’s past.
Scott Hartzell was the first ever division one recruit signed by the Spartans. In his comments to me, the promise in those days, was to come in as freshman and get as much playing time as you could possibly handle.
Hartzell was a tremendous player, 1 of 3 men who has their jerseys retired in the rafters of the Greensboro Coliseum. He led from the jump, averaging 13.4 points per game as a freshman. He’s still the only freshman Spartan to lead his team in scoring. He was the leader the team needed at a time of transition, and a team that went to the NCAA tournament his senior year, nearly upsetting Cincinnati in the first round.
Scott is still humble about his playing days, but he highlighted the differences of his very successful time under former UNCG coach Mike Dement and the current Spartans who are led by Wes Miller.
“Well first I think that it’s a combination of things. In those days you had an athletic department that felt we (UNCG) could thrive as a university if all the sports were equally distributed financially.” Hartzell continued “With Wes and this administration they’ve made a concerted effort to support the Men’s basketball program and allow them grow and consequently the other programs have seen the success of that vision.”
Hartzell asserts that the strategy has clearly pay dividends. He would be correct. It’s never been a better time to be a Spartan athletically or academically. Enrollment is up, Baseball and Softball are winning championships and the Women’s Soccer team is coming off a tough 1st round loss in the NCAA tournament to South Carolina.
“What Wes has that helps with the growth of the program is support and couple that with his competitive fire plus his ability to recruit North Carolina kids and it’s a proven combination.”
Coincidently at the time of this conversation Coach Miller was at it again adding to his already impressive 2019 recruiting class signing Dericko Williams to a national letter of intent. UNCG was chosen over the likes of Arkansas and Houston, high major schools or as Coach Miller likes to say, “BCS schools”. It’s a major victory for Miller and his squad showing once again that they can compete for recruits even up against bigger schools. He’ll join Greensboro natives Keyshaun and Kobe Langley, and Shamar Wright another athletic wing from California, to an already talented Spartan team.
Fast Forward a bit to the class that would lay the roots down necessary for a growth program like UNCG. The 2013 Spartans Diante Baldwin and Jordy Kuiper were a part of the most successful run in program history.
“Coach Wes laid the foundation down for us to come in and work hard every day. Go hard every day, and now it’s just seeing the hard work we put in and taking things to the next level” Baldwin continued.” Now the games aren’t easier but when you see UNCG is playing you know exactly what you’re going to get because we helped create that identity Coach Wes doesn’t have to go back to the drawing board, they play hard and play together.”
It was also the little things that helped sell the players on the Wes Miller vision. “I’ve never met a coach in my life that would actually work you out on his own, I could call Coach Miller at any time and he’d make it work.” Diante Baldwin was a 4-time letter winner under Miller, who commonly references Baldwin as one of his pillars since he took over the program 8 years ago. It’s easy to understand why, Diante is the first Spartan player to have over 1000 points 400 rebounds and 400 assists. The Greensboro native is now playing professionally in Finland.
The City of Greensboro also has seen its identity grow in the 8 years of the Wes Miller era. Gone is the derogatory nickname “Greensboring”. Now to go along with its basketball program with new found name recognition are new downtown attractions like Lebauer Park and the soon to be state of the art Tanger Center. Craft Beer Breweries have exploded in the downtown Greensboro scene, with small businesses like Joymongers, Little Brother and Preyer jumping into the fray most recently. So just as one hand washes the other, Greensboro and its school’s growth seems hardly coincidental.
Jordy Kuiper agreed with the growth of the city and the toughness that is mirrored by its hometown basketball program. “In my 5 years every challenge the city faced or UNCG faced they have always handled it with the best interest of the community in mind and for the betterment of the city and its citizens” Jordy was not your typical student athlete, the 6ft 9 inch Dutchman was a pillar of exactly the type of player that Wes Miller was looking for when he layed out his vision of a defense first basketball team at their first meeting prior to the 2013 season.
“I was able to sit down with him, He was able to lay out the best image for his basketball culture. A defense first environment with student athletes committed to building a culture all the while by giving back to the community and UNCG. A group of 4- or 5-year guys building an identity” Jordy was sold, “That meeting ignited the spark and I felt, man I’ve got to be a part of this, this is something really special”
All of it sounded great to Jordy, but just like anything in life, everything is easier said than done. “I was fired up and ready to go but the hardest part is to go out and accomplish the goal, especially early on there was a lot of doubt, we struggled early on, I’m sure coach felt like his job was on the line and in today’s society people are looking for results right away. Building something special takes time and I’ll be the first to say Miss Record and the Athletic Department did a good job of exhibiting patience and allowed the time that was needed for us to succeed.”
In a podcast sit down with Coach Miller weeks before the preseason began, I asked Wes to talk about what it’s like to create the identity and to find players willing to buy in to their specific roles. “The best example of our identity is Francis Alonso and not from what people would think. I think Francis has started every game for us since he’s been here and going into this season Francis hasn’t been promised a minute of playing time and more importantly, he knows that.” It’s that mentality that has helped Wes Miller gain a reputation as one of the best coaches in all of college basketball.
So here I am back in Lexington, Kentucky at famous Rupp Arena, behind enemy lines in a sea of blue wearing my blue and gold tie, getting the look from fans as if any color is blasphemous. Big Blue Nation is foaming at the mouth, equal parts fear and anxiety. It’s 55-50 UNCG after a layup by Mohammed Adulsalem, soon after that possession rising from the ashes Kentucky was finally up for the challenge the Spartans were proposing. Some of the fortunate calls UNCG was afforded in the first half had disappeared and with it so had their lead. Tired legs created windows for baseline dunks and wide-open threes. Kentucky pounced and went on a 28-6 run to end the game.
The margin of victory was 17 points, but for Hall of Fame Coach John Calipari he knew the type of team he was facing and the challenges they presented. “Wes has done an unbelievable job; their press has been great, and they deny and try to take you out of spaces you want to be. They also have guys who can guard, and it took us until deep in the second half to control the game, they were in control. The second thing is on offense they run great stuff, they are an NCAA tournament team, I told my guys they will be in the tournament, they have Veteran players , I told Alonso after the game, Man could you shoot it, he just smiled and honestly we needed this game against a team like this.”
With the foundation of the program set. A healthy respect to its former greats like Scott Hartzell, Kyle Hines and Ricky Hickman. To its most recent grads being an ear or shoulder for their current players. UNC Greensboro is creating an identity steeped in toughness and moving forward with a vision that echoes the city it inhabits. Wes closed out his press conference at Rupp, always gracious but with a look of disappointment, “Well you know, as I told them in the locker room, I’m proud of them but I expected to be proud of them. I mean, we have a group of kids that really compete, that like each other, they try to approach it right every day. I didn’t expect to feel any other way after the game. I think we must sure some things up if were serious about coming into an environment like this and not just competing for stretches but winning. I believe in my heart that we can. That this team can get to a place where we can do that, but as you saw tonight when things got difficult, we weren’t quite as good”
As the year goes on and his team continues to progress, I wouldn’t bet against Wes Miller and the Spartans.