Posing with men's basketball coach Shaheen Holloway, Marc Mitchell (left) takes a winning pedigree from Division III FDU-Florham with him to Saint Peter's, who seeks a jolt to its women's basketball program. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)
Given the situation, it may as well be twenty time zones.
FDU-Florham, in Madison, is home to one of the most successful Division III women’s basketball programs this past decade. Saint Peter’s is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The most recent winning season at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference school occurred in 2007-08, when the Peacocks won 19 games.
Last month, Pat Coyle resigned after five years at the helm, on the heels of a campaign that saw Saint Peter’s win just four games overall, only one in MAAC play. Several days following Coyle’s resignation, athletic director Bryan Felt turned to Marc Mitchell, presenting the prospect of yet another challenge, one that critics fear is near impossible, but a challenge the seasoned mentor accepts with a palpable excitement.
Mitchell turned around a down-on-its-luck program at FDU-Florham. During his nine-year tenure, he posted a 187-67 record, also capturing six straight Middle Atlantic Conference Freedom titles and making six consecutive NCAA Division III Tournament appearances. The highlight of that run occurred in 2014 when the Devils went 33-0, winning the Division III National Championship. Attaining the heights of a Division I coach was the long-range goal for Mitchell, a New Jersey lifer who began his career in the high school ranks at the place in which he resides today, Elizabeth.
“We need to change the culture,” Mitchell said. “We had to do that at FDU, and that is an initial consideration here at Saint Peter’s. This is a place that has not had a tradition.”
Mitchell was politely reminded of the 1980s and 1990s, when Saint Peter’s virtually ruled the MAAC, and immediately proved to be well-versed in his new employer's history.
“Mike Granelli,” was his response.
Mitchell showed a knowledge and true appreciation of the women’s game by mentioning Granelli, the architect and keeper of that great Saint Peter’s run. The new coach’s point in saying Saint Peter’s was devoid of tradition was that in the minds of many observers -- and certainly 18-year-old recruits -- what happened two decades back is ancient, if even realized.
Culture is a word frequently used is discussing the difference between pretenders and contenders, but what really constitutes a successful culture?
“It’s having everyone on the same page,” Mitchell observed. “It starts with the head coach, the entire staff, all the players, everyone associated with the program, a vision (of) where we are and where we want to be.” Mitchell’s philosophy from culture to results on the court sounds simple, yet it is very effective.
“Work hard,” he said, “and everything will take care of itself.”
Looking over his roster and watching some tape, Mitchell already has ideas. He calls Zoe Pero, a MAAC All-Rookie selection her freshman year and a junior this upcoming season, his pillar, someone he can build around and go to. The coach also likes what he sees in 5-foot-10 sophomore Dajiah Martin. Another sophomore, D’Aviyon Magazine is a versatile guard who can play either on or off the ball, depending on the situation. Junior Sammy Lochner returns with backcourt experience, but was a turnover machine this past season.
“Unacceptable,” Mitchell said of Lochner's ball handling. On the other side of the token, however, Mitchell realizes Lochner is a veteran, and can contribute providing her turnovers are significantly reduced.
Coaching in New Jersey, Mitchell was able to follow the MAAC closely. He knows the women’s game thoroughly on all levels and is well aware of what is ahead regarding his new conference.
“Quinnipiac has ruled the last few seasons,” he said. “Marist did before that and is still strong. Beyond that, there are a number of teams competing for the next spots.”
In simple terms, challenging the top two is a stretch at the moment, but upward mobility is something that can be quickly achieved.
Last season, Saint Peter's was at the bottom of the MAAC in offensive efficiency and second-to-last on the defensive end. In terms of style, Mitchell makes no bones about wanting to present an uptempo attack on both ends. Defense will be a priority, with that end featuring pressure, half or full-court variety. Offensively, Saint Peter's, under Mitchell’s watch, will get out more in transition. A year ago, the Peacocks played at a 68 possessions-per-game pace, a deliberate to moderate tempo. Expect that to chance significantly. It is a style he employs, and realizes its attractiveness to prospective recruits.
Mitchell has wasted no time during his first few weeks in Jersey City. A new staff is in place. As noted, he has evaluated the returnees and the recruiting trail is being negotiated in earnest. Personable, Mitchell is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm exuding confidence.
“It is an exciting time here,” he gushed. “It’s going to be an exciting year. Please come down and see us.”