Mike Maker said he never looks at his wife in the stands during a game, but he made an exception on the seventh game of the season.
The first-year head coach of the Red Foxes had already seen two of his team’s star players, senior T.J. Curry and sophomore Khallid Hart, miss time to injuries. On Dec. 4, he watched as senior Chavaughn Lewis — who will finish his career statistically among some of the best players in school history — laid out on the opposite end of the floor, tending to his left ankle after driving to the basket.
“I looked at her right after that happened,” the 49 year-old first year head coach of the Red Foxes said. “I gathered the team around and just tried to rally them as best I could, went to Chavaughn and made sure he was okay. Then I look at my wife and gave her a look that said, ‘You have to be kidding me,’ with an adjective in there.”
Three players, who combined for seven seasons of playing experience for Marist prior to the season were out of commission, making the program’s uphill climb even more difficult.
“Its been challenging to say the least,” Maker said. “I’m human, I have my own feelings, but I’m the leader of the basketball program. It’s my responsibility to make sure that we represent Marist on and off the court in a first class manner, regardless of those challenges.”
“It’ll test your will and your spirit. My confidence as a coach has never wavered, not one bit.”
Maker, who compiled an .821 winning percentage as the head coach at Williams prior to taking the Marist job, relished the challenge of taking an “underdog program.” He knows the program’s historic flaw — the school has yet to visit Monday night at the MAAC tournament — and is excited to take on the task of being the coach that gets them there.
The Red Foxes have been waiting for what seems like the entire season to get everyone back and healthy. Maker compared the last week to November, which was the last time the group was able to play.
“We haven’t been able to really install what we want to do because we haven’t had the pieces necessary to do that,” Maker said. “No one is going to feel sorry for you and its been challenging, I’m not going to tell you it hasn’t been and frustrating. Yet I’m optimistic, that if we continue to progress at the rate we’re doing right now, that we hope to be the team that no one wants to play in March right.”
Marist now faces long, if not impossible odds, to reach one of the conference’s top five seeds. Maker compared the challenge, especially with injuries, to his team at Williams four seasons ago; however, in that case he had already established his program and style.
Previously an assistant to head coaches such as Dana Altman and John Beilein, among others, Maker planned to build his two-guard system offense around Hart, the 6’2″ MAAC Rookie of the Year, and Lewis, who made second team All-MAAC last season. To say the growth of his program has been stunted in year one, due to some untimely falls, would be an understatement.
“I can tell you that this week was the first time we put in any specials offensively for our best players,” Maker said prior to their weekend of games against Siena and Fairfield. “The first time because we haven’t been able to do that and we barely know our vanilla package, if you will.”
Last season, Maker’s Ephs lost their second game of the season in the second week of January. The season before, his team lost their second game on Jan. 23. Prolonged losing and struggles like Marist has had will test you, especially for a coach like Maker who is so used to winning.
“It’s a long list, the thing you learn a lot about who’s really with you when things aren’t going right,” Maker said. “I’m the same coach I was. I’m the same coach this year that I was last year at Williams when we played for the national championship.”
He looks to his wife Erica, who he said has been his “best supporter.” She coached cross country at Williams when the two were at the Division III school.
“I’ve had my moments, like I said behind closed doors where it hasn’t been pretty, but when you have a supportive spouse and that spouse happens to be in the same profession you’re in, not the same sport, but the same profession it’s helpful,” Maker said. “The best advice I got from anybody was from her. It was like, ‘Listen, honey this is when they need you the most, all eyes are on you,’ and ‘Yes face.’ Coach Beilein used to talk about the yes face all the time is positive energy and yes I can, not no I can’t and no matter what the circumstances are.”
Maker brushed off any notion that he might be in over his head. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself and throughout the long season he has seen the resolve of from his players. Plus his 26 seasons of experience and success at Williams show that his system can work, given time.
“We won an awful lot at Williams, but I never took that success for granted,” Maker said. “I never thought it was easy right but there’s a difference between being successful and winning.”
“I was brought up by a tough marine, man. Lock and load right, if they get tough, you just work harder. You just keep working. I feel good about what we’re trying to do and the direction we’re heading.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.