Florida Southern entered the 2015-2016 men’s basketball season as the defending DII National Champions. Coming off the heels of a 36-1 season, one would imagine they would be sitting atop the DII world.
Linc Darner — the architect who head coached the Moccasins to eight consecutive NCAA Playoff appearances behind a 218-72 record culminating in last season’s title — is gone to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Five starters from last year’s championship run have graduated. Just six months after raising the championship trophy, the Mocs are practically a brand new team.
Enter coach Michael Donnelly. Donnelly is no stranger to DII basketball. He has spent his entire coaching career in DII, most recently coming of a five-year stint in the Northeast 10, compiling a 97-48 record with Southern Connecticut State and making it to the third round in the DII tournament last season.
He now has the daunting challenge of taking the defending champs from a preseason that saw them unranked back to the NCAA Playoffs. He knew it would be no easy task, but one he was more than happy to take on.
“From a professional standpoint it was a no-brainer,” Donnelly said. “I get to try to continue the winning tradition down here. That’s what was so exciting about the opportunity to take over a National Championship program. That doesn’t happen too often.
“There are high, high expectations and rightfully so. It’s a program that has consistently been one of the best, if not the best program at the DII men’s basketball level.”
With an entirely new starting rotation and a brand new coaching staff including Mike Makubika — Donnelly’s top assistant for the past six seasons — and Tyler Kelly — a member of last year’s championship starting five — Donnelly wasted little time getting this team back into the swing of things. Their first two opponents of the year? The reigning DI National Champion Duke Blue Devils and the perennial March Madness-bound Syracuse Orange.
“When you grow up and you have dreams of playing college basketball, that’s what you dream about,” Donnelly said. “You dream about playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Carrier Dome. It was like a dream come true for these guys because they got to do that. The results weren’t what we were striving for, but it was an experience they will tell their kids about.
“From a coaching standpoint, it doesn’t really get better than having to compete against Coach K and Coach Boeheim. I learned a lot just by having the opportunity by being on the floor and competing against both those teams. There’s a reason both those coaches have had such success over the years.”
The Mocs became the second DII men’s basketball champion in as many years to not be ranked in the NABC Preseason Poll, and it was the first time that FSC was left off the polls to start a season in three years. They were projected to finish third in their own conference.
“We really haven’t talked about the rankings too much,” Donnelly said. “The returners are very in tune that we are not ranked. I know they’ve discussed it amongst themselves and are using it as a motivating factor. If I was a player coming off a national championship season, I would use it as a motivating factor, too.
“But this is an entirely different team with eight new guys and a brand new coaching staff as well, so it’s not fair to compare the two teams. We’re just trying to keep it as simple as possible right now and take it one day at a time.”
After the tenuous road trip up north for the two exhibition bouts against Coach K and coach Boeheim, the Mocs headed to West Alabama for the SSC/GSC Challenge to open the regular season. It did not go as they hoped.
FSC lost its first two games of the season, first falling 90-78 to West Alabama and then 77-63 to Delta State.
“It’s very humbling to lose,” Donnelley said. “Not only were they not used to losing and starting 0-2, but my assistant coaches and myself weren’t used to it as well. That’s how I approached it: we can’t point the finger, we can’t blame each other. We’re all not used to this, so let’s figure out how to get better.”
They would have to figure it out quickly. The Mocs would open their Sunshine State Conference schedule four nights later. The first two teams on the schedule were no easy opponents. First up was then-No. 24 ranked Barry — projected to win the SSC — followed by a match with Lynn University — projected to finish second — on their home court.
The Barry game was a special night. After four games on the road that didn’t see any victories, the Mocs returned home. That night, they would raise their championship banner and hand out rings while the Mocs' loyal welcomed them back to Jenkins Field House.
“We did a ton of traveling, so to be able to finally play in front of our loyal fan base and to do it on the night that we recognize last year’s national championship team — that really inspired us,” Donnelly said. “The starting five were all here and we had those guys talk to the team before the game. That really inspired us, as well. They talked about what this program was all about, what made them so successful as a group. I could see an inner confidence in the guys when we took the court that night.”
The Mocs would battle back and forth in the early part of the first half, but they took the lead with nine minutes left in the first half and would never trail again. Barry made it close right at the end, tying it with seconds left, but senior Dylan Travis would sink two free throws to seal the deal. FSC came through with a big upset for their much needed first win of the season.
“We hung on to beat a really good team and you could see the confidence carry over to the next game,” Donnelly said. “Winning will do that. Guys get on the same page, accepting roles and we then played our best game of the year at Lynn on their court. We have a long ways to go, but we needed those wins to boost our confidence.”
Leading the way for the Mocs is the DII Player of the Month of November, Dylan Travis. Travis transferred to FSC from Iowa Central Community College prior to last season and became a key role player for the championship squad, averaging 11.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. This year, he has taken it to star level.
“I knew Dylan was a very good player,” Donnelly said, “but you can only take so much from watching on film. Film doesn't show what a player is going to bring in terms of leadership, work ethic, desire… those intangibles that make a player great. That’s what Dylan has. He really wants to be good, and he’s one of the toughest kids I have ever coached. Not only is he doing everything for us offensively, he leads us in assists with 26 and with 23.5 points a game scoring, but he’s also averaging 7 rebounds a game.
“What goes unnoticed is that he’s responsible to guard the best perimeter player. We’re putting him on the best on-ball guard that we are facing. That’s really what I impressed about with Dylan, he’s leading by example on both ends of the floor.”
Dominique Williams has also been asked to take on a larger role than he has ever had. Williams is the only four-year full-time player on the squad. As Donnelly explained, he’s been through it all. He started two games as a freshman, then saw his games and minutes increase as a sophomore bench player before putting together his best season as a key reserve for the national champs. His best season until this year, that is, as he is averaging 18.5 games in his first year as a starter.
“It’s nice to see him reap the benefits of all the hard work,” Donnelly said. “He can score so many different ways. He is a really good three point shooter with range, but he is really good inside the arc. He can post up and he has a mid-range game, so he is a versatile piece for us offensively.”
The Mocs reeled off four wins in a row before suffering their first conference loss this past Wednesday. They are primed to compete and seem to be coming together to make a run at yet another SSC title. The two big wins against enormous division foes has this team heading back to the familiar territory of winning. And coach Donnelly is excited to be a part of it.
“I spent my entire coaching career at the DII level,” Donnelly said. “I had never coached against any of the teams in this conference, but we all knew what type of league it was and the respect it has. Seeing it first hand, it’s exactly what I thought it was. Great basketball — there are a lot of Division I transfers which says a lot about the talent of this conference — and the coaches, highly respected coaches. I thought the Northeast-10 was a great conference, but this conference is as good as any in the country.”