Pouring into the root is a familiar phrase around the Longwood basketball program. The fourth-year coach Griff Aldrich and his staff remind the players to control what they can. Their focus, effort, attitude, competitiveness are pivotal, all pushing toward excellent execution on the court.
Ask the program’s veterans and they understand the metaphor - Pour the right ingredients into the root and the fruit will appear on the court as a result.
A text message Aldrich received from a rival coach last January revealed the program’s roots were strong even when the scoreboard and standings said otherwise. Longwood had just lost back-to-back games by margins of 11 and 22 points at Winthrop, which dominated the conference for the last two seasons and frankly was 10-15 points better than any of its competition.
Pat Kelsey, then Winthrop’s coach, sent Aldrich a text message as his team was en route breezing to another championship: Nobody has fought us like you guys did. You took us to another level.
Since dropping those two games less than 13 months ago, Longwood is 24-9 overall and 16-2 in the Big South. The Lancers are in command of the Big South’s North Division and one of only 15 Division I teams still undefeated (8-0) in conference games.
Prior to this season, Longwood had never cracked the top 200 of the KenPom ratings. After a 56-48 victory at UNC Asheville on Wednesday night, the Lancers have climbed to 150.
Their next victory will tie the program’s Division I record at 17 and also secure the program’s first winning conference mark since it joined the Big South in 2012.
Aldrich is on several text chains with friends from college and his days practicing law. They may be enjoying the Lancers run as much as he is, if not more. His wife texted him Wednesday and urged him to stay focused and remember why we’re doing this.
In a matter of months, Longwood has gone from plucky underdog to conference favorite. Expectations were high entering the season because DeShaun Wade, Justin Hill and Leslie Nkereuwem formed a talented returning nucleus and transfers Isaiah Wilkins and Jordan Perkins enhanced the team’s experience, scoring and depth. Built around defense a year ago, Longwood is more explosive offensively this season and a solid nine-man rotation has fueled their current nine-game winning streak.
Still, the process outweighs the results. Pour into the root.
“It’s fragile and can go all away whether you stay focused or not,” Aldrich said. “I’m doing my best to try and enjoy it.”
Aldrich’s personal journey is well documented. He was a successful corporate lawyer in Houston who founded and coached a strong AAU program on the side. A man of strong faith, in 2016 he felt a calling to pursue coaching fulltime. He walked away from the world of law and finance and took a low-paying position on the staff at UMBC, working for his good friend Ryan Odom.
“Being a Division I head coach was never in the cards, wasn’t even on my radar,” Aldrich said. “I just wanted to coach with my buddy. I was a serial climber in the corporate world, always thinking about what’s next but in this case it was never if this happens and then this happens, I’ll end up as a head coach at this level. It never crossed my mind.”
In 2018, the Retrievers became the first 16 seed to upset a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, stunning Virginia in Charlotte. A few weeks later, Aldrich was named head coach at Longwood.
He understood the value of experience on his bench and hired Marty McGillan, who played a role in successful programs at UNC Wilmington and Winthrop during two decades as an assistant coach.
“I was smart enough to know that I didn’t know what I was doing,” Aldrich said of hiring an assistant who is 10 years older.
“He’s an old school guy, when I get hot he responds appropriately. He’s been a significant supporter and advocate for me these four years, has an incredible blend of experience but has also giving me space to grow and encouragement to grow as a head coach.”
Behind the scenes, another wise, respected coach has contributed to the Lancers success. Aldrich played for Tony Shaver at Division III Hampden Sydney, serving as team captain his senior year and helping the program to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances. He also spent one season as Shaver’s graduate assistant before he began practicing law.
After leaving Hampden-Sydney, Shaver spent 16 years at William & Mary, departing as the program’s all-time winningest coach. His son, Austin, has been on Aldrich’s staff at Longwood the last three years. The elder Shaver is a frequent visitor for games and practices and his advice is welcome. Aldrich and Odom agree that he’s one of the best coaches they’ve been fortunate to have around.
“Tony has been a great sounding board,” Aldrich said. “Our second year here we were really struggling. We’d had a pretty good first year and surprised some people but the second year it was a trainwreck to start the season. I didn’t know which way was up. I was doing the same stuff and not having the same success. Coach Shaver gave me some great advice and support. We talked for 30-40 minutes last week and he often texts after games.”
At the end of last year, Aldrich sent Shaver an email asking for critical feedback.
“I called him and said you’re not going to hurt my feelings … tell me what you think.” Aldrich said. “His response was nothing I didn’t already know but things that I needed to improve on as a coach. It’s such a valuable resource.”
Aldrich said the last few years feel surreal. There’s nothing mystical about the Lancers formula for success though. It’s sustainable. They win the turnover battle, protect the glass, create a high rate of free throw attempts and make timely shots.
They’ve also been fortunate. Narrow wins at Presbyterian and Radford easily could have ended up as defeats. What’s encouraging to Aldrich is his team has plenty of room to improve. They’re playing outstanding stretches of basketball but rarely doing so for a full 40 minutes.
“They also understand that a bunch of these games could have turned out differently. Think our guys are mature enough to understand that but we’re just fighting to find that consistency. We’ve been fortunate that right now we’re coming out on top but we know to be the team that we want to be and the best version of ourselves, we have to be more consistent.”