First-year Marist coach Mike Maker took the Colonel Jessup approach when asked if making the transition from Division III to Division I was harder than he thought.
“You ever been to Williams, son?”
“Ever seen a high-level Division III game in person?
Well, he didn’t exactly say that (and he certainly didn’t call me “son”). But having gone 147-32 in six seasons at Williams, including three Final Fours, two appearances in the national title games, and any other number of accolades, you can see why the question might not be his favorite, especially having endured more than half the amount of defeats he had at Williams in just a little over half a season at Marist (currently 1-17).
“There’s no challenge. I spent more time at Division I than Division III, so there is a lot of expectations at Williams,” Maker said. “There’s nothing Division III about Williams. I respect the question, but I’m a little edgy about it only because if you haven’t seen our Williams teams play, we had a program that had rich tradition, high expectations, and there was more pressure at Williams than there is at Marist. Coaching is coaching. I would say the jump would be harder if I never went to Williams, and I went directly from Creighton (where he was an assistant) with Coach (Dana) Altman to Marist. Those six years at Williams were invaluable for me to become a head coach here.”
Maker knew the road was going to be rocky from the moment he was hired. Jeff Bower – who was only at Marist for one season – didn’t leave until June of 2014 to become general manager of the Detroit Pistons. So when Maker finally took the job on June 17, he didn’t have much time change much before practice started in October.
This season was going to be rough, as Maker tried to instill his culture in a program that hasn’t had a winning season in seven years and is now on its third coach in as many years. But Maker was in a bit of a bind because he didn’t have a roster that he needed to start completely over with, led by Chavaughn Lewis, who was coming off a second-team All-MAAC season, defending MAAC Rookie of the Year Khallid Hart and senior point guard T.J. Curry.
But after a close loss to Bucknell in the season opener, the Red Foxes lost Curry to a hand injury. In the next contest (a loss to Army), Hart injured his foot. Then after a win over Fresno State where Lewis took almost half of Marist’s shots from the field (21 of 44), he hurt his ankle early in a game against Monmouth.
Marist’s injury bug had turned into an epidemic, and it looked like an unfortunate lost first season for Maker and Marist.
But Lewis, who has led the Red Foxes in scoring in each of his first three seasons, missed only three more games. Alas, as MAAC play resumed this month, he was still firing as much as he could, at one point ranking third nationally in number of his team’s shots attempted, putting up 23 of 56 against Canisius and 20 of 52 against Quinnipiac, both fairly lopsided defeats.
“The competitor that I am, I put a lot of pressure on myself to carry the team, and it makes it difficult, but overall we’re staying positive,” Lewis said. “Coach is doing a great job keeping us together and making sure we still have our eyes on the prize. It’s been rough, though, I have no excuses for you. But you can’t fight fate, this is obviously meant to be and eventually we’ll come around.”
And while the record can be tough to look at, in a one-bid conference like the MAAC, fate may help out Marist yet. Hart returned, albeit rusty, in that Quinnipiac game two weeks ago, and last Friday, Curry was given the go-ahead to return to the court, just about the time some other MAAC teams had their own injury problems (Fairfield – Amadou Sidibe, Siena – multiple players, Iona – Isaiah Williams).
Marist led for the first 35 minutes in the return match with Quinnipiac in Poughkeepsie on Sunday before falling 72-71 when Zaid Hearst scored late and Marist couldn’t answer in multiple attempts, including Eric Truog making a free throw he was trying to miss intentionally in the dying seconds. Apparently, fate hasn’t quite gotten the message to let the Red Foxes off the hook quite yet.
“If you look at our team, we return three starters from a team that won 12 games last season, but two of them have been out (Hart and Curry), and the third (Lewis) missed five (three) games, too,” Maker said after the Fairfield loss. “We haven’t lost our spirit, but we’re not winning the intangible battles. Sydney (Johnson) has an expectation of how you play and how you carry yourself. We have wonderful young men, but we’re still learning the demands that our staff puts on a basketball team. We have great kids, but we need to change that. We just have to keep grinding.”
Marist’s KenPom numbers should be taken with the proverbial dose of salt because of injuries, but they’re not pretty to look at. Only one team in the country has a worse offensive rebounding rate (19.4%) and that has been paired with a 327th turnover rate (22.9%) and 273rd eFG% rank (46.0%). Even just taking MAAC play, Marist is dead last in offensive efficiency by a fairly wide margin.
At 0-8 in conference, no matter how much they turn things around, Marist is almost certainly headed for a Thursday night first round start in Albany for the MAAC tournament. But with 12 games left and four of the next five against Niagara (twice), Siena, and Fairfield, it’s almost certain that the zero in the win column won’t remain for long.
“It’s almost like we lost a couple of months, it’s almost like November for our staff,” Maker said. “I don’t know about our team. I think it’s going to take until February to get our legs under us, our wind, our rhythm, things like that.”
Maker appears to have a long-term plan for what he will do at Marist and given his track record elsewhere, there is plenty of reason for optimism for the Marist faithful long-term. However, for Curry, Lewis, and Manny Thomas – the three seniors that are in the regular rotation – there is no long-term plan, this is it.
Or maybe long-term just depends on the eye of the beholder.
“The way I look at it is, I’m not rushing. I’m not in a rush,” Curry said. “I feel like this is more of a building stage. Rome wasn’t built in a day, we use that expression a lot. Having Khallid and I come back, obviously everyone has to get used to us again, it’s not like we were there. I know without a doubt we’re going to be fine in the long run.”