Eighteen inches is a monumental distance to an assistant basketball coach. Taking two steps to the left may not seem like much to most people, but the significance is a destination. It's the end of a journey and the jump from assistant to head coach.
Will Martin was named Missouri Western's head men's basketball coach in March 2020 after two seasons as an assistant. On Thursday, he'll make his first 18-inch pilgrimage to the front of the Griffons' bench.
"I legitimately feel like this is my purpose and passion," Martin told NCAA.com. "It's not about X's and O's or winning games, but more so it's the ability to make an impact on kids' lives. The thing that I'm most excited about moving 18 inches is that your impact expands so much."
(Editor's note: This article was updated to note Martin and his team — which includes several former UK players on the coaching staff — were to scrimmage Kentucky in Rupp Arena ahead of the 2022-23 season. Here he is on the DII Nation Podcast.)
The ongoing pandemic figures to make this college basketball season — Martin's first at the helm of a program — a year unlike any other. And though it's difficult to plan for every possible circumstance, the blueprint is clear at MWSU: Stay connected as a cohesive unit and follow the team's mantra to "expect the unexpected."
That mantra appears fitting for Martin, whose path to coaching could also be considered unconventional. To be precise, that road began as a student manager some 600-plus miles from MWSU.
Martin was a first-year manager at Kentucky in 2009 when he got his first taste of a career in basketball, working with the Wildcats' new head coach — John Calipari. Martin spent all four undergraduate years in the program, experiencing three Elite Eights, two Final Fours and a 2012 NCAA championship win with the future Hall of Fame coach becoming his first mentor in the sport. More than a decade after Martin stepped foot onto the UK campus, Calipari still recalls the potential he first saw in his former pupil.
"Will has a bright future ahead of him in our profession. When he was with us as a manager, you could see the drive, you could see the work ethic and you could see the way he connected with our players," Calipari told NCAA.com. "If there’s one thing I hope Will took away from his time here, it’s that when you put players first — when they’re at the forefront of everything you do — everything else works itself out.
"With the way Will built relationships with our guys, I’m confident that’s going to be the foundation of his coaching career."
Being a player's coach is one of the biggest lessons Martin takes from Calipari. He's emphasized the importance of positively impacting his team and expressed confidence in the entirety of his roster on multiple occasions. And just to be clear, the Griffons have one of the deeper lineups in their league after finishing fourth in the MIAA a year ago.
First team All-MIAA guard Tyrell Carroll and reigning MIAA Freshman of the Year forward Will Eames are back, giving Martin a pair of cornerstones to build around. Including those two, MWSU returns six of its top eight scorers in addition to three seniors — the kind of depth that makes a team tough to beat.
Missouri Western opens its 2020-21 season against Rogers State on Thursday, Nov. 19. While it's tempting to think big as the Griffons begin a new era, it might be even more fulfilling to take in the journey a step ... better yet, 18 inches at a time.