FARMVILLE, Va. — Mike Gillian operated in a different dimension of college basketball for the better part of a decade.
Next week, the Longwood coach and the rest of his school’s athletic department finally will be on the same plane as nearly everyone else.
The Lancers formally join the Big South on Sunday, a move announced in January. It marks the end of a trek through the wilderness of Division I independence that began with the first steps of reclassification in 2003.
Gone will be the trips to the far-flung outposts marking the fringes of major college basketball. The hopelessness of knowing any season possesses a certain expiration date sometime in late in February will vanish. The recruiting disadvantages of playing without a league melt away.
Instead, the Virginia public school roughly an 80-minute drive south of Charlottesville and southwest of Richmond is making a jump every bit as big as moving up from Division II in the first place.
“The reality is we were existing in this parallel universe,” Gillian said over lunch recently at Perini’s Pizza, less than two miles from his campus office. “We’ve jumped out of it. Now we have to jump in and compete at as close to a level as possible as quickly as possible.”
That goes for the rest of Longwood’s department, which always was a natural geographic fit for the Big South but found itself waiting for an invitation in part because of the absence of football. That left basketball as the flagship sport at a school with a women-only enrollment until 1976, and it is the team most likely to generate attention as part of a conference.
“We have a lot of people saying ‘We’ll be on TV next year there.’ There’s a lot of excitement about what can happen next year,” athletic director Troy Austin said. “I’m excited for it. As a department, we’re looking at what we need to do to best position ourselves coming out of the next few years to really make some hay.”
Growth in the country
Some locales fail to live up to their names. Farmville, Va., isn’t one of them.
It is nestled in a rural area and not especially close to much. But the town itself is growing, fueled largely by a campus teeming with construction projects.
“When you hear of Farmville, it’s just the name,” former Longwood star Antwan Carter said. “Where am I going? I know I’m going in the country. But when you get here, it’s where you want to be. If you come to college to work hard in a sport or to focus on your schoolwork, this is the place to be. There’s not too many distractions like some of those big schools. If you want to work and come to work, you’ll succeed here.”
Few thrived more than Carter, a 6-foot-6 center who capped his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer (1,886) and second-leading rebounder (1,008, behind only 17-year NBA veteran Jerome Kersey) last winter. The nomadic Lancers visited 26 states during his career.
Neither he nor his teammates experienced a conference tournament and the hope of an NCAA tournament bid that came with it.
“Each year you went into it you played, you knew the schedule, you knew how you were approaching it, you knew the games, you tried to get better toward the end of the year,” Gillian said. “Would it have been great to have all that and have that opportunity? Absolutely. But you didn’t worry about that because you knew it was not possible.”
Instead, Gillian (a former assistant at George Mason under Jim Larranaga) set to work entrenching himself in the community after his hire in 2003. Carter said a five-minute walk on campus with the coach could easily turn into a 30- or 40-minute trek because of the people Gillian could stop and talk with.
He wasn’t kidding. During a drive through town and the outskirts of campus, Gillian repeatedly pointed out people he’d come to know over nine years. Those relationships matter. So, too, does Gillian’s eagerness to construct the Lancers into a program capable of earning championships.
“When I first came, it was not the proverbial glass half-full analogy,” Gillian said. “There was a glass there that didn’t have anything in it and was waiting to be filled up. … The optimists will say the glass is half-full. When you put it in front of them with nothing in it, they’re going to say it’s empty. Not too many people say it’s waiting to be filled.”
Erasing the big question
For years, Gillian crafted answers to the inevitable topic certain to come up when he visited with other coaches at the Final Four and prospective players on the recruiting trail.
The absence of a conference affiliation was Longwood’s obvious impediment. Gillian and school officials were told in December the wait finally was over. An announcement came five weeks later, but the basketball team was let in on the secret early while celebrating a Jan. 7 victory.
“That was one of the first questions I had my freshman year: What’s the future look like? Is there any hope of getting in a conference?’” senior guard Stephen Shockley said. “When Mr. Austin first came in and told us, everyone was jumping around and hugging each other and high-fiving. It was awesome just knowing we have a championship to play for next year.”
There still was a season to finish, and a senior class that wouldn’t enjoy the benefits of playing in a league. As a group, they were as happy as anyone in the program, though it didn’t erase all of the sting of their careers ending without a postseason experience.
“It’s hard because you’re back in school and everyone’s like ‘Y’all didn’t make it to the tournament.’ I’m like ‘We never had a chance’” Carter said. “It [stinks] saying that, especially when I go back home to Florida. They’ll ask how we did and if we made the tournament. It’s easier to say no than to say we never had a chance to play for it. Now, I just feel fortunate the guys here have an opportunity.”
Conference membership means Gillian has 16 games in January, February and early March locked in rather than an annual scramble to find someone to step out of league play. It includes annual home-and-home series with in-state opponents Liberty, Radford and VMI. It ensures the Lancers’ first conference tournament appearance since 2003.
It also means a difference of expectations, though Austin acknowledged it will still take time to build. Longwood may not be a title contender, but it heads into the year with a boost despite last season’s 10-21 mark.
“It’s different when you’re playing your brother versus pickup in the neighborhood because you see your brother every day,” Austin said. “He starts to know your moves. He starts to understand what’s going to happen. They become a little more comfortable in your environment so you lose a few of the advantages you have.”
The benefits, though, are far greater now that Longwood can leave its postseason-free basketball parallel universe behind and Gillian can more readily sell his optimistic view of his program.
“Now, we’ve got it about half-way full and have finally got to the point we’ve been waiting for, to get into the Big South,” Gillian said. “It’s not the pull to go do something else. It’s a pull to make this as good as it can be.”