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Q&A; with Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian

Mount St. Mary’s was a bit of an unknown heading into the 2012-13 season, but that won't be the case this winter. Fresh off an 18-14 campaign that included a run to the Northeast Conference championship game, Jamion Christian’s second Mount team appears primed for a big year.

The Mountaineers return their top five scorers in senior guard Sam Prescott, senior guard Rashad Whack, senior guard Julian Norfleet, sophomore guard Shivaughn Wiggins and senior forward Kristijan Krajina. Junior forward Aaron Brown, sophomore center Taylor Danaher, sophomore forward Gregory Graves and redshirt freshman forward Melvin Gregory also return to the Mount.

Four players transferred after last season – Josh Castellanos (who graduated and will play at Gardner Webb), Christian Crockett, Xavier Owens and Kelvin Parker – but Christian has brought in five newcomers to take their places: Byron Ashe, a 6-foot guard from D.C.; Charles Glover, a 6-foot-1 guard from Bowie; Will Miller, a 6-foot-6 forward from Dallas; Khalid Nwandu, a 6-foot-3 guard from York, Pa.; and Chris Martin, a 6-foot junior guard transfer from Marshall.

Christian spoke to The Sun this week about his veterans, newcomers and more heading into the 2013-14 season.

How much different has this offseason been for you compared to last year, when you had just landed the job?

I think the most important thing is guys understand what I value on a daily basis. That makes it a lot easier to coach certain things. Guys understand how we like to practice and what makes me tick, what makes me upset. Because of that, it’s not as many daily battles. It’s much easier to get the chance to help mentor them and coach basketball.

You’re returning your top five scorers and have four seniors on this roster. What have you seen this summer from that core group of returners?

Well, it’s kind of interesting. Sam Prescott has been out for the duration of the summer. He’s recovering from an injury. So is Rashad Whack. So those guys have been out, and our workouts haven’t looked the same without their explosive scoring. But it has allowed Julian [Norfleet] to really step into a leadership role on our team. He’s done an outstanding job. He’s always been a hard worker, and that’s been true this summer as well. Our guys understand now that we’ve been able to have the success we had a year ago not just because of how we play the game, but really because of how hard we practice as well. They’ve done a great job of that.

What have you seen and heard from Wiggins and Krajina this summer?

Shivaughn, his bench is up 25 pounds from the beginning of summer. He continues to get stronger. His vertical leap is probably up three inches as well. I think he’s become a better athlete. It’s exciting. He’s a guy who can dominate the game on the defensive end because of how he can pressure the ball. He’s really concentrating on just getting stronger and maintaining his fitness throughout the course of the year. He’s done a good job of that. He’s also working on his outside shooting, which has been a real improvement from last year. He’s had a very good summer.

Kristijan Krajina, first of all, is probably the most enthusiastic guy we’ve had. We’ve really worked to give him a more versatile arsenal and really talked to him about the mental side of things. He has a chance to play overseas. Being from Croatia, he’ll probably play 10, 15 years after graduating from here. It’s just mainly giving him the mindset to help him understand that a year from now, he’ll be playing for another team and doing things that are going to be completely different. We’re doing everything we can to prepare him for that after graduation.

Will Prescott and Whack be back for the start of the season?

I definitely expect them back – Prescott in a couple weeks and Rashad back in September. This summer has been all about how we play in practice, and really giving [other players] a chance to understand how to do those things. Obviously with them on the floor, they’re great competitors and talented players that are fun to be around on a daily basis. But we’ve got some young kids here, like Khalid Nwandu from York and Charles Glover from Bowie and Byron Ashe from D.C. and Will Miller from Texas and Chris Martin, who transferred here from Marshall. Without [Prescott and Whack], it’s allowed younger players to get more repetitions. They’ve been able to get a lot more confidence and learn the game at a faster rate than if they were sitting behind those guys. I think it will really help our team to be much stronger. We like to play 10 or 11 guys. Now they’ll get the chance to get an opportunity and really help us. They’re much further along than they would have been with Whack and Prescott healthy.

Brown, Danaher, Graves and Gregory are also back. Of that group, which do you see making a big jump?

Taylor Danaher is actually up about 15 pounds. Strength is so important to him. Being a 7-footer, he rebounded the ball effectively but got worn down just because he was 202 pounds. So he’s really worked hard this summer trying to gain weight and get stronger, and he’s done just that. I think he’s going to have a really good year and a really good career at the Mount. He’s a tremendously hard worker. …  I’m expecting him to take a step. Without Raven Barber, we’re going to need him to. He’s put himself in a position to really help our team this year.

Greg ended last year on a pretty good hot streak. I really think he can do that again this year. This summer he’s worked on his game and his body. The most important thing for him is, he’s so gifted physically, but learning how to play hard and what that really meant. When he does that, he’s a guy who can come in and change a game with his effort. We’re expecting him to come in with that mindset from Day 1. I believe he will. He’s done that throughout summer workouts. He definitely gives us something we don’t have.

On the flip side, with so much returning production and a new group coming in, you had four transfers from last year’s roster. What can you say about them?

The best thing is, we’ve worked really hard to establish a culture of how we like to do things and how we like to work on a daily basis. We have that mindset of how to do things on and off the floor – a standard we set. We do set a standard for what we want to be on and off the floor. I think it’s good for both parties. They’re going to have a chance to go on and have great careers and be around standards they believe are important. At the Mount, as coaches we set the standard for our teams and ask our players to live up and work towards them. Having those guys depart and knowing we have a core group of guys that are really able to meet the standard [gives me confidence in our program] having success moving forward.

What are you expecting from your four freshmen (and one transfer) this year?

I expect them to bring a level of athleticism and depth to our roster. I expect them to work hard every day to push our group forward. I love their talent. How we play, we’re always talking about mayhem. How we play is hard for newcomers to adjust to quickly. Offensively, it seems great, but by the time we get to games, we play with so much freedom, but it’s hard to do it every day in practice. I really believe if you’re going to be great, you have to push yourself every day. That’s really hard because some days are harder than others. We have to get the most out of our worst days. The young guys don’t really know until they get here. There’s no games until November, so they have a long road of practice ahead of them. We’re going to be focused on improving every day in practice. If they do that, I really hope we start to see the fruits of our labor in the potential they have. Each of those guys are long, athletic and can score the ball. They give us a different complexion than the roster had a year ago. Potential is nothing unless you produce. We just have to do a great job to help them understand college basketball and help our guys move forward in practice.

Last year some would probably say your team overachieved. This year, you’ll be one of the NEC favorites. What’s the mood around the team facing those kinds of expectations?

We’re always an enthusiastic bunch. We preach a lot about family. Our guys love being around one another. It’s never been an issue with our group. That has continued to help us. We’re still the hunted. The reality is, we haven’t accomplished anything yet. The expectations set for our team a year ago [by others] weren’t our expectations. Everybody in our locker room believed we were capable of winning. We don’t have other people seeing our day-to-day improvements. The best thing our group last year was able to do was just understand how important each day was to improve. I think we’ll continue to do that on a daily basis. When you do that, special things happen. Never once has a guy worked so hard and it didn’t work out. It always works out if you lay it on the line every day. We’ve done that this summer at the Mount. We’ll do that again this fall and let the chips fall where they may. We have an all-star enthusiasm level. After our first season together, I’m excited about the enthusiasm.

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