On New Year’s Day, at approximately 11:00am, standing at center court in the Dedmon Center, the home court of the Radford Highlanders men’s basketball team, I proclaimed to our circle that 2018 was going to be the year of the Highlander! It was my attempt to proclaim it, and put it out into the universe for all to accept and start to believe in its possibility. It was something I had been feeling for some time, and now it was crunch time: the time to put plans and dreams into action.
The story of how things unfolded over the next 75 days, actually began Tuesday, October 24, 2017 in Charlotte, NC at the Big South Conference Media Day. Our team was picked to finish 7th by the coaches and media in the league’s annual preseason polls. Driving back to Radford with my wife and Ed Polite, Jr., we reflected on the poll and on the fact that Ed was voted 2nd team all-league. Ed said it was definitely motivation for him and for our team because we knew we were better than that. In all honesty, the voters didn’t really know our team and that’s okay. We had picked up a few pieces that we knew would help, but people outside of our circle would have no clue about. Plus, last year we had Carlik Jones sitting out for academic reasons. He practiced with us for the 2nd half of the previous season, and we knew he would be a big help. As the season began, we were confident we could be good, and set out to prove it to everyone outside of our circle.
In our season opener, we narrowly edged a very good and well-coached Division II team, Georgia Southwestern, before heading to Columbus, OH to take on mighty Ohio State. Ohio State had fired their head coach over the summer and hired an old Big South colleague, Chris Holtmann, from Butler to be their head coach. Holtmann is a terrific coach, but not much was expected from Ohio State, with many saying this was going to be a major down year for them. We knew, however, that it was going to be a major challenge for us because we were unproven and inexperienced. Also we were playing on the road in a hostile environment against a Power 5 school that was much bigger at every position. Our players played well; very well and showed a hint of what could be for this team. Carlik Jones, playing in front of nearly 100 friends and family members, scored 19 points, including the last 10 points for us to make the game respectable (Holtmann called a timeout late during our comeback to berate his team). From there, knew we could compete with anyone. We followed that game up with a convincing win vs. East Carolina, a member of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), which is composed of teams such as Wichita State, Cincinnati and UConn to name a few. We then beat JMU, a local rival, against whom we had had very little success over the years, which gave us a little credibility with our administration and fans. During the early stretch we lost to Vanderbilt, in a building where it is very tough to win for opposing teams. In that game, we were in position to win with 5 minutes to go when our inexperience and lack of poise contributed to our collapse. Regardless of how it looked to outsiders, this stretch of games helped us to believe we could be as good as we thought we could be.
We then participated in a tournament, The Las Vegas Invitational, where we played 4 teams (San Francisco, Nevada, North Carolina A & T, and UC Davis), all of which eventually won 20 games. We won the neutral site championship on Saturday, December 23. It was our first taste of a championship environment, and our players stepped up to the challenge. This was another sign of things to come, because we challenged them with flying across country and playing stiff competition against teams that closely resembled the type of teams we would have to beat in order to win our league; teams like UNC Asheville, Winthrop, Gardner Webb, Campbell and Liberty. Our league, the Big South Conference, is very underrated and has many good team, coaches and players. We now felt, going into Christmas break, that we had what it took to compete for the conference championship in March.
As we returned from break, and began preparing for the start of conference play on December 30th, adversity was poking its head out from under the covers. Our depth, we told the team before the season, was either going to be a weakness or a strength, depending on how all the players accepted their roles and bought into our plan. Several players had a very hard time accepting these roles, and their dissatisfaction threatened to derail our plans. That along with immaturity issues and poor personal behavior decisions continually kept us from playing to our full potential. In spite of all of that, we started the league 4-0 with wins over the defending league champs, Winthrop; the preseason favorites, UNC Asheville; and a close road win over an underrated Charleston Southern team in their home gym, the “Buc Dome,” an extremely tough place to win. At the halfway point of the league schedule we were in sole possession of 1st place with a 7-2 league record. From there, things got interesting. We won close games and lost close games. A heart-breaking loss at the buzzer vs. Campbell was followed by a game-winning buzzer beater by Carlik Jones over High Point on the road in overtime. Then we lost our homecoming alumni game vs. Charleston Southern in front of a big home crowd by 3. This was a game that brought out a lot of doubters in our administration and our fan base because Charleston Southern was in last place at the time. However, we as coaches knew they were a much better team than that based on our first game vs. them. They would finish the league 7-2, but everyone began to believe our 7-2 start was a fluke. Then came a thorough whipping at Winthrop, and a 3-game losing streak. That eliminated the rest of the true non-believers from our bandwagon, and allowed us to really lock in on our circle again.
During this time, I wrestled with my faith like never before! God was challenging me on a fundamental part of who I have been all my life. He said to me, “You place winning before me.” Now, this was a major dilemma for me. I have always bragged about how I want to beat you at whatever we play, basketball, cards, ping pong. You name it, I viewed it as a sense of pride to try to win at everything I did. Now God was saying to me that winning should never be more important to me than him. I wrestled with this for about 10 days. I even shared it with a few close friends. Then one night while lying in bed on a road trip, I gave up, and submitted myself to him. It was about 3:00am and I found myself crying like a baby and saying over and over, “I surrender. I’m all yours. Do with me what you will. I submit to you.” My dad had shared a scripture with me a couple years back that he said was the turning point in his life and his faith. It was Matthew 6:33. This team, like several teams before, was a team comprised of many individuals who were believers. But now I felt empowered to lead more boldly. God had revealed himself to me, now he wanted to use me to reveal himself to others through me. So, I let him. We didn’t lose another game until we lost in the NCAA tournament to #1 Villanova. I never stressed winning or losing again the rest of the season, and we thoroughly enjoyed each other and the journey the rest of the way. It was magical.
During the course of the season, our staff decided that we were going to squeeze our players hard with our approach to work, practice and competing every day, no matter what. We were prepared to lose some if necessary, but to grow better and stronger with the ones who were bought in. We loved them, challenged them and disciplined them, and they grew stronger. It had worked the previous year down the stretch, and it worked again. We finished as the second seed and went into the tournament on a 4-game winning streak. Each of the 3 games were wars. The Longwood game came down to the last 2 minutes, as did the Winthrop game. The Liberty game was tied with 13 seconds left allowing Carlik to be the hero. Throughout the tournament, I coached at peace, never worrying about the outcome once. There is a picture of me calmly walking down the sidelines to shake Liberty’s coach’s hand after “The Shot” where some people compared my response to that of Jay Wright’s response after Villanova beat North Carolina in the national championship game 2 seasons ago. I know this: that the peace of my lord and savior, Jesus Christ, was in me because I put no other God before the almighty God, especially winning.
The NCAA tournament was a cherry on top, and winning vs. LIU Brooklyn set records as the first NCAA tournament win in Radford history and most wins (23) by a Radford men’s basketball team in Division I. I’m happy that our players and this team has made history and left a lasting legacy here at this great University. But what I’m most happy about is that these guys will be forever linked as champions for the rest of their lives. They deserve it because of who they are as people, and how they worked and bought in this season. To the victors go the spoils.
Finally, I want to thank all the players, coaches and managers who have worked with me to build this program to this championship point over my 7 years here. People like Brandon Holcomb, Chris Hawkins, Kion Brown, Aaron Marshall, Javonte Green, Tyler Cadd, Kyle Gonzalez, Kyle Noreen, Kyle Getter, Jalen Carethers, JD Byers, Danny Mitchell, Garrett Kelly, RJ Price, and Rashun Davis just to name a few. And to my current staff: Ron Jirsa, David Boyden, Donny Lind, Junard Hartley and Jaren Marino, without whom this season would not have happened, thank you!
God bless and Go Highlanders!!!
– Michael Jones
About Coach Mike Jones:
Mike Jones has completed 7 season as Head Men’s Basketball Coach at Radford University. Jones has had many successful seasons since arriving at Radford but the 2017-18 season is by far his most accomplished season both individually and as a program. In 2018, he won the Big South Championship Title and was named Coach of the Year on two occasions (Big South Conference and NABC District 3). In addition to that, he made his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach, led Radford to their first win ever in the NCAA Tournament, and finished the season with 23 wins, which set a school record.
Jones has made an positive impact on many lives throughout his coaching career and this season seemed to be no exceptions because of the way he led and motivated his team to ultimate victory when most people counted them out. When the odds seemed to be stacked against his team, they persevered through it all, making this one of the greatest single season performance breakthroughs Radford has ever seen.