Mount St. Mary's coach Jamion Christian says mid-major teams are defined by what they do in the postseason.
Using that definition, his Mountaineers were a tremendous success in his first two seasons, reaching the Northeast Conference tournament title game in 2013 and then winning the NEC tourney last season.
The Mountaineers, who open another postseason run tonight at 7 with a home NEC quarterfinal game against St. Francis (Pa.), are 5-1 in the NEC tournament under Christian.
So what's the secret? What does Christian do at this time of year to get his team playing its best basketball?
"We just keep everything the same," Christian said. "Our focus all year long is on falling in love with our team. It's on game planning and playing to our strengths. Because of that, when we get to tournament play, we're just very consistent. I think the other thing we do [is] we don't beat ourselves. We play together, we play unselfishly, we play a style of play that's very difficult to prepare for in a short prep."
That has been the case under Christian. Two years ago, the Mount won at Bryant and at Robert Morris, both wins being considered upsets, before finally falling at LIU Brooklyn after leading in the first half. Last season, the Mountaineers earned one home game and beat St. Francis Brooklyn before going back on the road and upsetting Wagner and then Robert Morris in relatively easy fashion.
That quarterfinal win over St. Francis Brooklyn was anything but easy, however. The Mountaineers trailed by 19 points midway through the second half and they were still down by 11 wiith under two minutes to go before a furious rally produced a 72-71 win that provided the momentum that took them all the way to the NCAA tournament.
"That was obviously a great stride for our program because it showed we're never out of a fight," Christian said.
While several of the key figures from that run graduated, the Mount returns six players, icluding Byron Ashe and Gregory Graves, both of whom were named third-team all-NEC on Tuesday, who played in that game. And that doesn't even include sixth-year center Kristijan Krajina, who missed that game with an injury but has played in the NEC tournament under three different coaching staffs at MSM.
"The guys that are in this locker room now, we've got a ton of experience," Christian said. "Other than the guys on our roster, there's only one other guy [in the NEC] that has a championship ring [LIU's Jerell Martin]. We've got a ton of experience. We're used to being in this moment."
Ashe averaged 21 points per game over the final five games of the regular season. the 6-foot-2 sophomore guard has been getting to the rim and to the line while also converting from long range. He is 16 of 33 (48.5 percent) on 3-pointers over that stretch.
Ashe, who struggled and was held out of two games early in the season, was asked after the team's regular-season finale if he now considers himself the Mount's "go-to guy."
"I would say so," he said. "I just try to prepare to do whatever coach wants me to do. He tells me to score, I do that. He tells me we need to get a stop and defend, I can do that, rebound, whatever he asks of me. And I try to do it every night."
Christian likes balanced scoring, but he also has liked having someone he can count on when his team needs a basket.
"That obviously helps. It's great that he fills that role," the coach said. "He has the ability to do some things that we need. It's not just making the 3. When our guards rebound the ball, we can really push in transition. Little things like that that go into being 'the guy,' [and] make you elite. Look at his efficiency numbers. Eleven shots, 19 points [on Saturday]. That's hard to find in this league. He's learned how to play it efficiently."
Mount St. Mary's is 10-2 all-time at home in the NEC tournament. The fourth-seeded Mountaineers and fifth-seeded Red Flash split a pair during the regular season with both teams winning at home, the Mount cruising to a 52-40 win in January and falling 63-60 last week in Loretto, Pa. Before that loss, the Mount had won nine in a row and 17 of 18 against St. Francis (Pa.).
The Mountaineers finished the regular season at 15-14, going 11-7 in NEC play. But Christian says he isn't concerned about the somewhat underwhelming record. After all, three of those league losses were in overtime, another was by two points and another by three. The Mount enters the postseason having won four of five.
"I feel great about our group. I've loved it from Day One. We have 14 losses on the season, but that's not indicative of how good this team has been," he said. "The thing you measure about this team isn't their record, but you measure their growth from start to finish. The teams that grow the most, from the beginning of conference play to the end, have the opportunity to win it. And that's what it's all about."