Carroll County Times

Men's Basketball: Mount St. Mary's has struggled early with thin roster

Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian gives instructions to his team during the first half of a game against Michigan State Nov. 29 in East Lansing, Mich.

Even with a full complement of 13 healthy scholarship players, Mount St. Mary's would've been in trouble against then-No. 1 Michigan State early in the season. With only about half that number, it was no contest, a 98-65 loss that was a part of a 4-9 non-conference season for MSM.

The Mountaineers won nine consecutive games to reach the Northeast Conference championship game last season and, with only one senior, figured to be the team to beat in the NEC in 2013-14.

But seven players (six on scholarship) left the program after last season, leaving the Mount thin. The team began the season with 10 scholarship players, lost freshman Charles Glover to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, lost senior starter Kristijan Krajina to a season-ending injury before the end of November, and, because of other, less-serious ailments, have gone into several games - including the one in East Lansing, Mich., against the top-ranked Spartans - with only seven players who came to the Mount on scholarship available. (Technically, junior Aaron Brown was given a scholarship this season, but he was a walk-on his first two years and thus will not be referred to as a "scholarship" player.)

Despite a big win at Norfolk State last Friday, the Mountaineers go into Thursday's conference opener at Fairleigh Dickinson five games under .500. Only three teams in the NEC have a worse record.

The Mountaineers likely would've been more competitive thus far if they still had last year's NEC Rookie of the Year Shivaughn Wiggins as well as a few of the other players who left. Instead, they've been going with a rotation that has frequently included walk-ons. Former team manager Liam McManimon has played in 10 games.

But MSM coach Jamion Christian hasn't used the defections of Wiggins, fellow sometime starters Josh Castellanos, Xavier Owens and Kelvin Parker, or one-and-done players Christian Crockett and Melvin Gregory, as an excuse. (Walk-on Aaron DeVan, who is not counted in NCAA transfer statistics, is now playing at Division III Messiah).

When speaking about the situation at length for the first time last month, Christian made it clear that he is concerned about the long-term health of the program and he has a clear idea of the type of players he needs for the Mount to reach the goals he has set.

"Those guys weren't part of our culture," Christian said. "They weren't the kind of guys that you could rely on every day to do the right things on a daily basis. I haven't really commented on that stuff, but that's the reality of it."

Christian said he wasn't talking about Castellanos, who graduated from the Mount with one year of eligibility remaining and is now playing at Gardner-Webb as a graduate student.

Wiggins, whom Christian often referred to as the best "on-ball" defender in the NEC, is at Coastal Carolina one year after being a key part of the Mount's late-season run, sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules. A healthy Wiggins was held out of a pair of games last season for undisclosed reasons.

Parker, who transferred to Millersville, and Owens, who wasn't even dressing for games by the NEC tourney last March, clearly weren't happy about their minutes at times last season. Crockett, who played in only two games for MSM, went the junior college route (Odessa), while Gregory, who never played a game for MSM, is now at Division II Richard Bland.

"The reality of it was, they just didn't fit in with our team culture," Christian said. "I'd go to bat with the guys we have in our locker room right now no matter what, whether it's seven guys, five guys, four guys, I'll go to bat with them every day. Because they do everything they're supposed to do on a daily basis. They do a great job in school, they come to practice every day, they work hard, there are no problems on campus."

Prior to the season, Christian said the player movement was simply emblematic of the times in Division I basketball.

"I think the sad part is that's what you see in college basketball circles," he said.

Indeed, some 500 D-I players, or about 13 percent of all rosters, left their teams after last season. Roughly 40 percent of incoming freshman will not stick around long enough to become seniors. Society has become more and more about instant gratification and more and more players are not content to sit on the bench when they believe more playing time can be had elsewhere.

Christian theorized that much of the movement is caused by coaching changes, of which Mount fans are quite familiar. Milan Brown left for Holy Cross in 2010 after a successful seven-year run. His successor, Robert Burke, didn't make it through two years.

So while only one player transferred out during Brown's final two years, seven players left or were booted off the team in the time between Burke's first season and Christian's first game. Then, half the roster turned over after last year's 18-win season.

"We just had a deal where we had three head coaches in basically three years," Christian said in October. "And so you're having different personalities, and each one of us is very different in how we believe we should run our program. So you get a mix of those guys and it's not always a great mix. My definition of a good kid [and] your definition of a good kid are different."

To be sure, the Mount also benefits from the fact that college basketball players are more frequently leaving for what they see as a better situation. Two of the Mount's three leading scorers began their careers elsewhere. Rashad Whack started at George Mason and Sam Prescott at Marist.

Both have flourished on the court during their two years in Emmitsburg. Additionally, Chris Martin is practicing but sitting out the season after transferring in from Marshall and will be eligible to play next year. And former Butler player Andrew Smeathers, reportedly, will also be playing for the Mount a year from now.

The Mount is far from the only team in the NEC to lose players. A comparison of 2012-13 rosters to 2013-14 rosters shows that 28 of 107 players eligible to return to their teams did not do so. (This does not differentiate walk-ons from scholarship players.)

No team lost as many players from year to year as the Mount, however. Sacred Heart and St. Francis (Pa.), both in rebuilding mode, lost five each. The other seven NEC schools lost only one or two. In fact, the five teams with better current records than MSM lost a combined eight players - or one more than the Mount by itself.

Christian doesn't look at this as a trend at his school, however, viewing it more like a necessary, one-time thinning of the ranks to get the type of players he wants in his program.

"I think we're going to really stabilize the ship right now," he said in the preseason, noting that he tries to recruit people who can not only play basketball but that the community will be proud of. "We've got a great group here to stabilize [the situation]. I'm going to be here. I've got five years left on my deal. We're committed to being here and building this thing up the right way."