Q&A with Mount St. Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mount St. Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian in his office.  The enthusiastic and well spoken Christian discussed his team, the incoming recruits and transfers he inherited, and his overall outlook of the Mount next season.  Below are the highlights of our half hour face-to-face discussion.

Ryan Peters:  The NEC recently saw a lot of turnover in the coaching ranks.  One of the new coaches hired, Bashir Mason, was featured in an article on ESPN.  In the feature, Mason admitted  he let out a yell and pounded his chest when he found out he got the Wagner job.  So I have to ask you coach, what was your reaction when you found out you were the next head coach at the Mount?  Did you do a little dance in celebration?
Jamion Christian: First of all, when I got the phone call from President Powell, I was just elated.  I remember sitting out on my penthouse rooftop deck in Richmond, and I was really excited.  But immediately when I hung the phone up, I told my wife and then I said, we need to get to work.  I probably spent about 5-10 minutes  enjoying it, and then I went immediately into thinking, what can I do to help our players get better from day one, and what kind of players do we need to bring in, and most importantly, what kind of staff was going to allow the Mount to get back to where we need to be doing in the right way.  So those things happened, and then I had to talk to (VCU) Coach (Shaka) Smart, and his advice and sincerity through this process was unbelievable, because all he wanted from day one was for me to do what was best for me and my family.

RP: You were hired in late March and forced to fill 3-4 scholarships for this roster immediately.  Was it difficult to go out and recruit right away with it being so close to the signing deadline?
JC: Well the recruiting part, knock on wood, was the easier part because I had been located here in the mid-Atlantic region my entire life and recruited DC, Maryland, Virginia, and Carolina.  Getting here and having some scholarships available, I had a very strong idea of what we needed and in my vision of how we wanted to play.  I always kept a very deep list (of recruits) for every school that I’ve been at.

RP: Shivaughn Wiggins was a player you had previously recruited as an assistant at VCU.  You talked in your press conference about implementing a fast, aggressive, up-tempo offense.  Why was Shivaughn the first player you signed with this offensive philosophy in mind?
JC: First of all, I love scoring guards.  I think anytime you’re going to play up-tempo basketball at the mid-major level, you need guards that can really score the ball, and have that mentality to score.  Shivaughn is so unique, because one year he averaged 7 assists per game as a junior, and the next year he averaged 25 (points per game) as a senior.  To find a guy with those types of talents, who can score the ball but is unselfish enough to make passes, that’s really exciting.  To find a guard of his caliber that late is really special.

RP: Do you expect Wiggins to compete for minutes right away with your other point guard, Josh Castellanos?
JC: I think Josh is going to have a tremendous year and I’m really excited to work with him. We run a very point guard friendly offense here because we play so up-tempo, so Josh is going to be extremely important.  He averaged a little over 4 assists per game last year; he’s going to have the ball in his hands a lot more this year.  We’re going to need him to continue to improve, as he’s done the first 4 months I’ve been here.  One of the things which was underrated was (Josh’s) ability to lead and organize our team.  For us to continue to be good, we need his leadership.

RP: Going back to the offense, in your press conference you used the words “extreme pace.”  What does that mean?  Will this offense try to emulate LIU, where you’re averaging 75-80 possessions a game?
JC: It’s really important to have guys playing with a ton of freedom –  to really work on offensive skills and get the ball up and down the floor quickly and to score as fast as you can.  LIU obviously does a tremendous job of scoring and not fouling, so they keep the clock rolling.  In general when I talk to my guys about it, I tell them I want to make fast look slow.  I want people saying, wow that team plays really fast.  If we can do that and implement our tempo and pace, the sky is the limit on where we can go.

RP: You brought in 3 freshmen big men for this roster.  Let’s start by talking about Gregory Graves.  Does he profile as a “5” for this roster?
JC: For us, he’ll be more of a “3” or a “4”, because he has great flashy ability to get to the rim, and he’s a high motor guy, who is really versatile.  I’m sure if you ask him to play the “5” he could do it, but I think for how we’re going to play, I like big wings that can defend.  I think (Graves) fits that mold of a “3” or “4” for us.

RP: There isn’t much out there about Melvin Gregory, not even a highlight clip on Youtube.  All we really know about Gregory is he won in high school and he put up some big numbers doing so.  Talk about his game and how it will transition to D-I?
JC: What Melvin gives you is he can score the ball.  He learned the game playing 5 on 5, which is untraditional to how guys learn how to play the game now.  He can score the ball right-handed or left-handed, he has nice range – a really good outside shooter – and he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.  For us, he’ll probably be a “4” or “5”, because he doesn’t have the ball handling skills of the other guys.

RP: Christian Crockett comes from a high-profile high school program, but he went under-the-radar in high school.  Talk about his game.
JC: First of all, Christian brings a physicality, he’s built like a football player, but on our board he’s the most athletic guy in terms of finishing above the rim and defending.  He’s going to be a guy from a physicality standpoint that’ll have an opportunity to help us right away; unlike the other freshmen, he’s physically ready right now.  He may lack in some areas in terms of outside shooting, but his ability to get to the front of the rim is as good as anyone on our roster.

RP: Do you expect to red-shirt any of those guys?
JC: That’s a great question.  I think if you look at mid-major basketball and the teams that have been very good, those programs red-shirt guys and they’re always older, especially in the frontcourt.  I think the opportunity is there to red-shirt guys.  The tough thing is from now until the season begins, you don’t know which guys on our roster may get injured, you don’t know which guys haven’t progressed until the season begins.

RP: You have a couple of transfers that are eligible this season.  Sam Prescott led Marist in scoring a couple of seasons ago, but he didn’t do it very efficiently.  Will he be a valuable contributor in the backcourt?
JC: Sam’s an exciting player.  A lot of fans around the Mount had a chance to watch him play in the Blue/White game last year and they were really excited.  He has the ability to wow you, which I think is a big part of how we’re going to play, up-tempo, in your face.  He can do it all – he can defend, he can make passes, he can score the ball.  I think the biggest thing for his development is we need him to be a guy who can bring other guys with him.  He obviously didn’t have the opportunity to do that at Marist, so we challenge him everyday.  It’s not about being the best player here or the best player in the league, it’s about developing wins and a winning mentality.  Over the last 4 months, he’s done an outstanding job of winning, and that’s what I’m really proud of.

RP: Another transfer, Rachad Whack, could serve as a 3-point specialist off the bench for the Mount, but do you see more of a role for him?
JC: We’re going to shoot a ton of threes, so that’s going to fit Rashad well.  I’m really excited to get a chance to coach him, because I know the type of player that he can be.  And he just didn’t get a chance to do it at George Mason, because of the numbers game, but I think sometimes his ability to defend, his understanding of the game, and playing under a great head coach like (Jim) Larranaga, that’s only going to help our young team.  When you look at our team, you don’t have guys who have proven they can win.  Rashad has done that, he’s been there with some great teams, so the biggest thing he helps with on a daily basis is showing our guys what we have to do to be a champion.

RP: One player I really enjoyed watching last season was Julian Norfleet.  He transitioned his game from a pure shooter to a scorer, especially when Lamar Trice was dismissed from the team.  Are you expecting big things for Norfleet?
JC: I really feel like Julian is a little under the radar right now.  What he was able to do last year – what I saw when watching film – was a young guy coming into his own understanding what it takes to be really good in this league.  I think he’s under the radar which is great, because he’s been practicing with a chip on his shoulder.  I think the lack of media coverage has really helped him because he’s been really able to focus and he’s had one of the better summers.  This summer, in the month of June, he made over 18,000 threes and 15,000 (threes) in the month of July and that’s doing it at a high level and extreme pace.

RP: One of the fan favorites on this team is Kelvin Parker, probably because of his story as a walk-on who burst onto the scene last season.  It seems like his athletic profile fits your system perfectly.  Do you agree?
JC: Kelvin is such an unassuming scorer, which is great.  When you put him out on the floor with Julian or Sam, they will demand double teams and then Kelvin could be a silent killer.  Watching his games last year, he was just that.  He has a great level of athleticism.  He’s a guy who has really learned over the last 4 months….we’ve really spent of lot of time with him on speeding his shot, sprinting off to get open shots, and he’s had an outstanding summer shooting the ball.

RP: Will Parker have a bigger offensive role with this team?
JC: Well, how we are going to play is going to demand that our wings can score the ball.  So whether we’ll call a lot of plays for him or Julian or Sam, that’s to be determined, but for the most part, we’ve going to preach our guys to get paint touches and really share with our guys on the outside, and I’m really hoping (Parker) could be one of the those guys.

RP: This sounds like a deep lineup – are you looking to play 9-10 guys throughout the course of the game?
JC: At least.  Ideally to me, 10 or 11 is where I’d like to be at.  I just think through the course of the year – it’s a long year – having more guys that can help and I feel like we have a really deep roster of talented guys….I think that’ll be a huge strength for our team.

RP: Is making the NEC playoffs a fair goal this season?
JC: Definitely.  You have to make it into the playoffs to have a chance to play in March.  For any team in the country, that’s where you want to be at.  You want an opportunity to play and once you get into the tournament, anything can happen.  And that’s the beautiful thing about college basketball, once you get there the best teams at the time have a chance to go dancing.

RP: Finally, what can the Mount fans expect from the team this season?  What is your message to them?
JC: I think (the fans) are going to be really excited about our group.  That’s the biggest thing, we want to bring the fun back.  We’re going to be a fast pace team and they haven’t seen that in 60 years (laughs) and that’s going to be different.  I want them to rally behind our guys because they’re a group that’s hungry to win.  They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do for the last 4 months in terms of improving, in terms of becoming better citizens, and just in terms of becoming better basketball players and paying the price everyday.  There’s nothing more I want to see out of our fan base than for them to support these guys, whether we start out 10-0 or 0-10, to have them here will mean a lot for our group.  We have a great fan base that understands the history of the Mount and they understand how good we can be.

Jamion Christian and the 2012 recruiting class offers Mount St. Mary’s a fresh start

Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers:  8-21 (6-10 NEC), Failed to Qualify for the NEC Tournament

Players Lost:
G Lamar Trice (dismissed from team) – 2 games, 10 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, 3.5 spg
PF Danny Thompson – 7.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.2 spg, 1.3 bpg
G Chad Holley (transfer) – 3.3 ppg, 0.9 rpg, 0.9 ap
F Jacolby Wells – 2.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 0.6 bpg

Incoming Players:
Shivaughn Wiggins, 5’10″ PG – North Mecklenberg High (NC)
Christian Crockett, 6’6″ PF – Travis High (TX)
Melvin Gregory, 6’8″ PF/C – Lancaster High (VA)
Gregory Graves, 6’7″ PF/C – Potomac Falls High (VA)

This past season was quite forgettable for the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers.  For the first time in 7 seasons, the Mount finished with a losing record in the NEC, puncuating a new low for a normally proud program.  Head coach Robert Burke resigned at the end of the season, and with his resignation, brought some much needed hope among the Mount faithful.

Former Mount player and captain Jamion Christian, just shy of his 30th birthday, was hired to lead the rebuilding process.  And from day one, Christian made it clear that he plans to implement an up-and-down, fast paced tempo.  It’s an offensive approach that couldn’t be more different from Burke’s half-court philosophy, when the Mount averaged a meager 60.5 points and 65 possessions per game in the past 2 seasons.

In order to implement a run-and-gun system, however, Christian needed a dynamic playmaking point guard who is comfortable directing his team on the run.  So within a few weeks of his hiring, Christian signed a player he recruited while at VCU, Shivaughn Wiggins.  The 5-foot-10 point guard, although short in stature, makes up for it with his quickness, tight handle, and on-the-court leadership.  Wiggins is a heady point guard that plays unselfishly and commits himself on both ends of the floor.  In his senior season at North Mecklenberg, he averaged a school record 25.1 points per game after setting a school record the previous season in assists per game.  Talk about a player who’ll do anything – and do it quite well – to help his team win.

In the short-term, Wiggins should play significant minutes even with Josh Castellanos and Julian Norfleet locked in as the Mount’s starting backcourt.  Last season, the Mount shot a pathetic 31.7% from behind the arc, so Wiggins should have an opportunity to show off his range and help push his teammates in transition.

Next up are two potential impact power forwards, Gregory Graves and Melvin Gregory, who should both temper the loss of big man Danny Thompson.  Graves, a Burke recruit, plays with a center’s mentality and profiles more as a “4” or “5” on the floor, given his ability to score down low.  He certainly isn’t afraid of contact and can finish around the rim in traffic.  Despite his center tendencies, Graves can and will run the floor, a trait that should endear him to Christian and his offensive philosophy.  Graves will need to work on his perimeter game to access his full potential, but his physicality and nose for the basketball should help him contribute right away.

Gregory is more of an unknown, since I can’t find a second of Youtube footage on him and he was lightly recruited.  Nevertheless, a quick glance at his high school stats should ratchet up some excitement for Mount fans.  As a senior, Gregory averaged 20 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 blocks per game to help lead his team to a state championship.  While serving as Lancaster High’s big man, Gregory also exhibited a solid perimeter game, with the ability to knock down the outside jumper.  He’ll need to add muscle to his wiry frame, and when he does, his versatility and athleticism should compliment Graves’ game very well.  It’s easy to envision Graves and Gregory as the frontcourt of the future.

Rounding out the four man recruiting class is Texas native, Christian Crockett.  The 6-foot-6 Crockett was a key contributor (leading his team in rebounding) on a highly successful high school program.  Being part of winning program certainly has its value, but it’s tough to determine how successful Crockett will be at the next level.

Lastly, there are 3 players who sat out last season that are eligible to play this season.  The most important of the bunch is junior transfer, Sam Prescott.  2 seasons ago, Prescott led a 6 win Marist team in scoring at 11.4 ppg. It was hardly an efficient effort – Prescott had a pedestrian EFG% of 44.5% to go along with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.4.  Nonetheless, the 6-foot-3 shooting guard was moderately recruited out of high school, so there’s certainly some talent there.  A move from the MAAC to the NEC should benefit Prescott, and make him a valuable member of the Mount’s backcourt rotation.

The other 2 players shouldn’t garner as big of a role, with George Mason transfer Rashad Whack serving as a three-point specialist off the bench and red-shirt freshman Taylor Danaher as a big body off the bench.  Danaher is currently listed as 7-foot-0, 210 pounds, which as you could have guessed, is ridiculously skinny by college basketball standards.  For the Mount’s sake, I hope Danaher spent his red-shirt season doing the following four things – practicing hard, eating, lifting weights, and eating some more.

What a difference a year makes.  Last season, Robert Burke’s collection of scholarship freshmen (not including walk-on Kelvin Parker) hardly produced for the Mount.  This season, Christian’s 2012 recruiting class already has more projected upside and promise to out-produce Burke’s recruits, yet in fairness we’ll need to see this group play actual games.  Christian’s inaugural season running the sideline is the first step toward bringing Mount St. Mary’s back to respectability, to the level that Milan Brown had achieved before he left the program for Holy Cross.  Given Christian’s enthusiasm and impressive work ethic thus far, Mount fans will have more to cheer for at Knott Arena this season.  They can now cheer for their future, because it’s a lot brighter then it was a year ago.

Ryan Peters covers Northeast Conference men’s basketball on Big Apple Buckets and Pioneer Pride.  You can follow Ryan on Twitter @pioneer_pride