Seventy miles northwest of College Park, tucked just inside the state of Maryland, south of its border with Pennsylvania, is a program chasing a different flavor of college basketball success.
Two seasons removed from a berth in the NCAA tournament and coming off a year of .500 basketball, Mount St. Mary’s isn’t a national title contender like Maryland is, popping up on Final Four prediction lists across the country.
It is the favorite in the Northeastern Conference this season, built in the way that successful mid-major teams are often built, on the foundation of two all-conference players -- senior Gregory Graves and junior BK Ashe -- and a mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen upon whom the program has placed a developmental emphasis.
They are led by their coach, Jamion Christian, whose upbeat personality fits the up-tempo style that his team plays. Now coaching at his alma mater, the former Virginia Commonwealth assistant who served under now-Texas coach Shaka Smart in Richmond calls himself the “Composer of Mayhem” in his short Twitter biography, a reference to the name given to the program’s patented playing style that features pressure defense and three-point shooting.
He peppers in an occasional coaching cliché when you speak with him, but these somehow don’t feel stale. His answers are full and thorough, yet accessible. For that reason, his words demonstrate why a player of the caliber he recruits would want to sign his name on the dotted line to play for him.
And his team opens its season on Friday against No. 3 Maryland at XFINITY Center in College Park. It’s the next step in Christian’s long-term plan for sustainability -- build a program from the inside, display that program to a national television audience, win the conference, and play in March.
Graduate your players. Repeat.
“We’re striving to become a great mid-major program,” Christian told CSN in an interview on Thursday evening.
“I think every mid-major program out there is looking at Gonzaga and seeing what they’ve done over the last 20 years and it’s amazing. It’s really remarkable. How can we do that?”
Mount St. Mary’s plays a brutal schedule to begin the year, with Maryland only being the start. The Mountaineers then go on the road to Ohio State before facing Washington and No. 9 Gonzaga. All of those games come in an eight-day stretch.
“First two weeks of the season, we’re going to know more about our team than anyone else in the country,” Christian told CSN. “That’s a major value to us.
“Maybe have a loss. Maybe have an embarrassing loss, but maybe have a great win. To get to the highest level, to play at the highest stages, you have to be willing to take a chance.”
On a personal level, Christian is familiar with this Maryland team.
As an assistant at VCU, he watched Terrapins sophomore Melo Trimble on the recruiting circuit.
He offered sophomore wing Jared Nickens a scholarship not only at VCU, but at Mount St. Mary’s as well with long-shot hopes that a player capable of being a sixth man in his freshman season at a Big Ten school would be sold on the idea of being a potential Conference Player of the Year-type talent in the NEC.
Catching one fish like that can change a program at a place like Mount St. Mary's. Such is life on the mid-major recruiting trail.
It's not just those two players, obviously, either. Christian also knows about the depth and the talent and the different ways that the Terrapins can beat you on a given night. But the value of playing the nation’s No. 3 team -- coached by a man, Mark Turgeon, who he deeply respects -- goes beyond that.
“If we play the way we’re capable of, we can play with anyone and that’s what we’ve got to work to get our program to,” he told CSN.
“That’s what everyone’s asking for. Hey, let’s be in the game the last four minutes and then you got a ball game. We’ve got to figure it out. Turgeon will be ripping his jacket off and be all fired up, then we know we’re where we need to be at.”