Bob Johnson, Courtesy Emory & Henry Athletics

From Emory & Henry to the Big Dance: The man behind college basketball’s unlikeliest coaching tree

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For six months after he took his first head coaching job, Bob Johnson lived in a haunted old gym.

There, on the Emory & Henry campus, 700 miles away from his wife and two children, at a tiny school in a tinier town tucked away in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, surrounded by dairy farms and lonely roads, the Vietnam veteran and son of a former four-star Army general launched a coaching career that would last three decades and produce as many current Division I head coaches as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, two of whom will hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

He never left that school, the one that never had a basketball history to speak of when he arrived, the one that had 13 straight losing seasons when he started spending his nights with the spirit of a confederate soldier.

Johnson died at Emory & Henry, two years after he retired and two days before his 63rd birthday, leaving a legacy that stretches far beyond his little corner of Appalachia and the confines of what we call family.


Jamion Christian of Mount St. Mary’s (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Jamion Christian is the baby of the Emory & Henry family.

He won’t turn 35 until after this year’s Final Four and looks more like one of his players than a head coach that is taking Mount St. Mary’s to the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years.

Christian got his start at Emory & Henry the day after he graduated from the Mount. At 22 years old, less than a month after finishing his career as a Division I basketball player, Christian’s parents were helping him unpack in the apartment he was moving into on campus. Johnson, his 57-year old boss with two knee replacements and a couple wins over cancer already on his résumé, appeared at the top of the stairs with Christian’s mattress on his back.

That’s who Johnson was. He was demanding as all hell, but he was never going to ask his staff or his players to do something he wouldn’t do himself. There was the time he didn’t think his team was doing medicine ball slides hard enough, so he grabbed the 25-pound ball, held it above his head and threw 20 minutes on the clock, forcing his team to watch as he bettered college athletes two decades his junior.

He was also the toughest son of a gun in every room he walked into. Mike Young, who has spent the last 15 seasons as the head coach at Wofford, drove from Spartanburg, S.C., to Bristol, Va., when Johnson’s first bout with cancer forced him to have a kidney removed. Young was in Johnson’s hospital room when Marcy, his nurse, came in to check on him and let him know there was a buzzer he was allowed to press if he needed anything.

“Marcy,” Johnson said, “there’s not another thing I need tonight. But tomorrow, after my surgery, I might be uncomfortable, and I’m going to hit this buzzer and I am going to expect you to be there immediately. If you’re not, Marcy, I’m going to throw this f—ing phone through that window over there.”

They all had a good laugh at that, Marcy included.

“But she was there,” Young said, “when he rang that buzzer.”

Johnson was back at practice five days later, which only added to the mystique of his persona. He loved regaling whomever would listen with stories of his time in Vietnam. One day, when he was at lunch with his assistant, current Radford Athletic Director Robert Lineburg, he told the tale of how he could kill a man six different ways with a spoon. That story got out, and for the rest of his tenure at Emory & Henry, students would hide their spoons whenever Johnson walked through the cafeteria.

But as tough as he was, the people that knew Johnson best knew there was so much more to him. He was a former U.S. Army Ranger that survived a year of heavy combat in the jungles of southeast Asia. He coached hard and his teams played harder. He was an intimidating presence, until you got to know him.

Nathan Davis is now the head coach at Bucknell, taking the Bison to this year’s NCAA tournament in just his second season running a Division I program. Before he took a job as an assistant at Emory & Henry he was an all-conference player at ODAC rival Randolph-Macon. Before a critical league game against Emory & Henry, Davis was walking off the court and heading into his locker room with a teammate when he was hit in the back with a balled up piece of paper.

It had been thrown by Bob Johnson.

“Come here,” Johnson said. “You two look too sick to play today.”

“It was surreal. Who does that?” Davis recalled in an interview last month. “It was so random and funny. At the time, everyone knew he’s a Vietnam veteran, he’s intense, his teams play so hard. He’s an intimidating figure, and an hour before the game he’s doing this? It’s pretty funny. We were like ‘Who is this guy?’ It was a side to him not a lot of people knew he had.”

Johnson had a way of connecting with people from all walks of life. From the cafeteria workers to the janitors to the maintenance men, he knew the name of everyone on campus. He never walked into the lunch room through the front door. He’d come in the back, swapping stories and handing out t-shirts and asking the cooks about their kids.

“He just really appreciated everybody who contributed,” Sherry Johnson said. “He taught that to these kids. They left knowing they need to respect everybody.”


Nathan Davis of Bucknell (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Bob and Sherry Johnson were friendly in high school. They went on a few dates, she visited him at West Point and, after he was kicked out, at Dickinson, but nothing serious ever developed between them until Bob came home from Vietnam.

“I ran into him at a party,” Sherry said, still chuckling at the story five decades later. “He drank all my date’s scotch then he took me home. And that was the beginning of our dating relationship.”

Bob’s father was Harold K. Johnson, a survivor of the Bataan Death March who would go on to become a four-star general and, from 1964-68, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. That was enough to get Bob into West Point. As the story goes, he was cut from the basketball team by Bob Knight for throwing a behind-the-back pass and, not too long after, kicked out of school after refusing to rat out a friend that had been accused of cheating.

He would finish up his college degree at Dickinson before heading off to Vietnam, where he became a U.S. Army Ranger and a platoon leader in the 101st airborne infantry division. Seven times during his tour of duty, he was in a helicopter that was shot down, those landings so violent that the toll on his knees cut his time in the service was cut short.

He would return to Northern Virginia, and, after marrying Sherry in 1973, he spent four years coaching at Boy’s Clubs and high schools in Washington, D.C. Eventually, he landed a spot as an assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He spent three years there, and two weeks before the start of the 1980 season, he got word that he had been tabbed to take over the Emory & Henry program.

“I have good news and bad news,” Sherry recalls her husband saying. “The good news is I’m taking you back to Virginia. The bad news is you’re six hours from Mommy.”

The Johnsons had two kids by that point. They couldn’t afford two mortgages, so Sherry stayed back in New York with the kids while Bob moved to Emory, Virginia, to begin his career and find a house the family could afford all while living in an abandoned gym, spending more time chasing off ghosts than chasing around his children.

“Martin Brock was the name of the old gym and there were supposed to be ghosts in there,” Sherry said, chuckling. “It was an experience for him.”

“Eventually, he found a house and so when the kids and I came down, we moved in and he got out of the gym. He lived there for a good six months.”


Mike Young of the Wofford Terriers (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Mike Young was the first.

When Johnson accepted the Emory & Henry head coaching job in 1980, it was, as Young described it, “the worst job in America.” The school hadn’t posted a winning season in 13 years and the program was hours and hours away from anywhere that could be considered a hotbed of high school talent.

“When he got down here nobody knew where the basketballs were,” Sherry said. “Literally. There was no history, no tradition, nothing.”

No hope either, it seemed.

“In the early 80s, the worst basketball in America was played in southwest Virginia,” Young said. “You had to get to Roanoke and east [to find players]. It was such a discount to get in-state kids, but Roanoke was two hours east. Then to get to Richmond or Northern Virginia, you’re passing by a lot of quality schools to get to good old Emory. You come off that exit off I-81 and there’s a big dairy farm. For a city guy, that’s not what you lie awake at night dreaming about as a college destination.”

That, however, was great news for Young, whose father had attended Emory & Henry.

“[Johnson] was in the market for bad players,” he said, “and I was a great fit.”

Young, who was a member of Johnson’s second recruiting class, became the first player to last four years with the hard-coaching Johnson, who rewarded him with a job as an assistant after graduation. That apprenticeship was the greatest initiation into the coaching ranks that a kid could ask for, in part because Young had to do everything.

He washed the practice gear, recruited, fundraised, connected with alumni, watched film, drew-up game-plans, made sure the vans were gassed up for road trips, found places they could afford to eat after games.

Everything.

Division III programs typically have just a single assistant coach, and at Emory & Henry, Young earned just $5,000 a year for the work.

“I absolutely loved it,” Young said.

Courtesy Emory & Henry Athletics

Not only did he learn how to run a basketball program, but Johnson ensured that Young learned as much as possible about basketball at the same time. At one point soon after Young was hired, Johnson shipped him off to Nashville for a week just to spend time with legendary Lipscomb head coach Don Meyer. He hung out in the offices, he sat in on practices, he even parked Meyer’s car during his daily lunch runs to Captain D’s. Jimmy Allen, Army’s head coach, was sent on that same trip. Nathan Davis, too.

After two seasons in the Emory & Henry program, Young left for Radford, where he spent a year under Oliver Purnell before becoming an assistant at Wofford. Young still hasn’t left. He spent 13 years as an assistant with the Terriers before becoming their head coach in 2002.

Two seasons were all you were afforded by Johnson. You entered the program, you gave him everything you had and he taught you everything he knows. Then he would send you on your way.

He did this at the detriment to his program. Continuity is key at any level, but particularly in Division III, where budgets are small, scholarships don’t exist and the athletes compete because of their love for the game and their loyalty to their teammates. Putting that much time and energy into molding a kid into a capable assistant coach is not an easy endeavor, not when the process begins anew every 24 months.

But that’s the way Johnson worked.

“There are a lot of head coaches that don’t want to let go of their assistants because they’ve just got to train somebody new,” Sherry said. “Bob’s outlook was you’ve got two years with me, after two years you need to go learn something from somebody else. He loved moving his assistants along.”

Seeing the people he developed, both coaches and players, thrive in their post-Emory & Henry career meant more to him than wins and losses, and he was as competitive as they come. One of the first tasks he required of his assistants was to call every one of his former assistants. He didn’t have the weight to get anyone a job, but he had a network that could be worked. Jimmy Allen, who just finished his first season as head coach at Army, played for Johnson for four years before becoming his assistant. When his two years were up, he went to Navy, where he helped get Davis on staff after Davis left Emory & Henry. Allen left Navy to join Young’s staff at Wofford when Young was named head coach.

Davis eventually left Navy and went to Colgate, where he spent one season working for Emmett Davis before taking over as the head coach at his alma mater. When Nathan Davis left, Emmett Davis hired another Emory & Henry product, Jon Coffman, the head coach of the Fort Wayne team that upset then-No. 3 Indiana in November.

Christian’s rise, however, is the most emblematic of Johnson’s steadfast refusal to allow his protégés to accept anything less than what they deserved. After leaving Emory & Henry, Christian got a job as an assistant at William & Mary, a job he got through Nathan Davis. After Christian’s first season at William & Mary, in 2007, Johnson decided that he would finally step down as Emory & Henry’s head coach. Christian, who was 25 years old at the time, interviewed for the job and was told that the position was his.

Until Johnson weighed in.

“I think you have bigger things ahead of you,” Johnson told Christian. “I’m not going to hire you.”

Christian believed him. He spent three more years at William & Mary before accepting a job as an assistant on Shaka Smart’s staff at VCU. Nine months later, Mount St. Mary’s was looking for a new head coach.

In 2012, at just 29 years old, Christian became one of the youngest head coaches in college basketball.


Jon Coffman of IPFW (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Bob Johnson wasn’t just a basketball coach. He had two different tenures as a football coach at Emory & Henry, he ran the athletic department and he was a professor at the university, teaching everything from Western Civilization to Great Books to Physical Education.

“He’s the most well-read man I’ve ever met,” Sherry said.

He made it a point with his players and his assistants to develop them as men, not just as coaches. “From Day One, we met as a team and coach is talking about how you act in the classroom, how you do things, how you carry yourself, how you treat people,” Allen said. “You’re not going to miss a class. It wasn’t about basketball. It was about you as a person.”

He challenged his coaches intellectually. It wasn’t uncommon for him to tell his assistant to drop whatever they were doing, read a 300 page book and meet him on his deck for beers that night to discuss it.

Coffman graduated from Washington & Lee, a white-collar school in Northern Virginia and ODAC rival that Johnson not-so-affectionately referred to as “cake-eaters”, and spent two years at a money management firm in San Francisco before getting into coaching. He sent out 250 résumés and Johnson was one of three people to respond. Coffman traveled to Virginia for a two-day interview, the majority of which saw the pair “hanging out on his back deck in the mountains of Virginia,” Coffman said. “I can’t even count how many oil cans of Fosters we put down, talking everything from politics to education to his army background to basketball.”

Johnson didn’t want people on his staff that had no interest in the world outside of basketball.

“He challenged you to go find new ideas,” Allen said.

For Davis, it was Johnson’s ability to balance his personal and professional lives that stuck with him. Davis had never been around a coach that was married. He had never learned from someone that put everything he had into coaching while ensuring that he was a good father and a good husband at the same time.

“That was important, understanding that it was OK to balance your life and it was OK to have kids and to want to spend time with them,” Davis, who is married with a young son, said. “You could do this job and do those things, and that was very valuable to me. It’s something I carry as much as anything.”

Johnson had a way of pushing people without pushing them too far. He could lead without being suffocating. He inspired loyalty because the people in his program knew he would do everything he possibly could to help them. His door was always open, and when he didn’t have time, he made time. “He didn’t make you feel like he cared,” Allen said. “He showed you he cared.”

“It was,” Coffman said, “like getting a master’s in leadership.”


The Emory & Henry family dinner (courtesy Jon Coffman)

Bob Johnson died on Aug. 22nd, 2009, finally succumbing to the cancer that had riddled his body for so many years.

He never got a chance to see Young reach any of his four NCAA tournaments. He never got to see Christian become a head coach at 29 years old. He never got to see Coffman get hired at Fort Wayne three years after he was out of a job, debating whether or not it was worth it to continue in the coaching business. He never saw Nathan Davis thrive as the head coach at Bucknell, or Allen get hired by Army, the university that asked Johnson to leave four decades earlier.

But his family did.

Sherry and Johnson’s son, Casey, were in attendance when Allen’s Army team erased a 25-point deficit in the final 12 minutes at Navy. They went to UNC Greensboro a couple years back when Coffman’s team played there. Sherry still hosts parties at the house she and Johnson shared during Emory & Henry’s homecoming weekend. The group still gets together every year for an Emory & Henry dinner at the Final Four. Every one of the five Division I head coaches that Johnson spawned calls one of the five their best friend in the business, or their mentor in the business, or the most important person in the growth of their career.

And that is despite the fact that their time at Emory & Henry never overlapped.

Young was gone by the time Allen arrived on campus. Allen played against Nathan Davis and Jon Coffman, but he was off to Navy by the time Davis was hired. Coffman was hired to replace Davis. Christian entered the fray four years after Coffman left.

Johnson spent 27 years as a head coach. He won 374 games, he reached the NCAA tournament five times and the Sweet 16 twice. He had three players get named all-americans. The playing floor at Emory & Henry is named Bob Johnson Court. Since 2009, the ODAC memorialized his career by giving out the “Bob Johnson Coach of the Year” award.

But his legacy, the one that Johnson cared about more than anything else in his career, is the Emory & Henry family that he built, a family that extends beyond just those five coaches. Lineburg spent 10 seasons as an assistant at SMU before eventually becoming Radford’s AD. R.J. Spelsberg, who won a Virginia state title in 2016, is one of a myriad of successful high school coaches Johnson mentored.

“He would be so proud,” Sherry said. “All of his assistants would eat with us two times a week, three times a week. We live a mile from campus and they were just part of our family.”

“We still stay in touch and support these kids because they are part of our family.”

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Nebraska, Saint Mary’s land big upsets

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Thursday nights are slow in the college basketball world, but that doesn’t me we don’t have stuff to talk about.

Here are the three things you need to know about.

1. TIM MILES IS WELL ON HIS WAY TO SAVING HIS JOB

One of the most underdiscussed storylines of the college basketball season to date is that the coaches that entered the year on the hot seat are winning.

Clemson’s Brad Brownell might get back to the NCAA tournament. Bruce Pearl has made people at Auburn forget – briefly – about the internal investigation into the FBI allegations against the program. Even Jim Christian looks like he’s going to force BC to give him more time.

But Tim Miles might be the best example of this. After a flurry of transfers in the offseason and a change in athletic director, things looked pretty bleak for Miles. But he now has his Nebraska team sitting in a position where they are at least in the conversation for the bubble at beating No. 23 Michigan at home by 20 points.

The Huskers are not quite there yet. Monday’s game at No. 22 Ohio State is huge because it is the last ranked team on Nebraska’s schedule.

But that’s a ways off.

As of now, Nebraska fans can enjoy the fact that they’re 14-7 on the season and 5-3 in the Big Ten.

2. SAINT MARY’S WON THE MOST IMPORTANT GAME OF THEIR SEASON

Jock Landale went off for 26 points, 12 boards and three assists as Saint Mary’s extended their winning streak to 13 games and put themselves in a position where making a run at an NCAA tournament bid looks likely.

Our Travis Hines has a column up on this game here.

3. VIRGINIA CONTINUES TO LOOK LIKE THE BEST TEAM IN THE ACC

The Wahoos went into Atlanta and beat down Georgia Tech, 64-48, on Thursday night.

The most impressive thing about this season for Virginia isn’t that they are winning these games or that they are playing great defense or whatever. It’s that all of these wins they are collecting are impressive.

Georgia Tech never looked like they were really in this one, and the Yellow Jackets have been playing better of late and were at home. They beat N.C. State by 17. They handled North Carolina fairly easily. They embarrassed Virginia Tech on the road.

Virginia is really, really good, and the truth is that they are probably a year away from being their best selves.

CBT Podcast: Wichita State’s a mess, Trae Young’s struggles, Jamion Christian on transfers

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Rob Dauster was joined on Friday by Jamion Christian, the head coach of Mount St. Mary’s, for an enlightening and honest discussion about college basketball and transfers. There is a push to get transfers to be allowed to be immediately eligible, a push that many believe will have drastic, negative effects on coaches like Jamion. The two talk for 30 minutes about the ramifications of changing the rules before Rob is joined by Reags from the Fundamentally Sound podcast to go over the what happened to Trae Young, what happened to Wichita State’s defense and the weekend’s biggest games.

OPEN: Jamion Christian interview

30:22: Trae Young’s offensive issues

44:50: Does Wichita State have the most pressing defensive worries?

52:45: Weekend preview and picks ATS

Craft Beer Of The Week: Stone Xocoveza

Hunter scores 17 points, No. 2 Virginia beats Ga Tech 64-48

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ATLANTA (AP) — Virginia got off to a sluggish start offensively.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, their defense never takes a night off.

De’Andre Hunter came off the bench to score 17 points and No. 2 Virginia turned in another defensive masterpiece Thursday, stretching its winning streak to nine in a row with a 64-48 victory over Georgia Tech.

The Cavaliers (17-1, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) limited Georgia Tech to 40.5 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers, leading to 16 points.

“The defense held us in there until we got a little rhythm and hit some shots,” coach Tony Bennett said. “We were stingy to score against. That always carries you on the road.”

Virginia snapped a four-game winning streak for the Yellow Jackets (10-8, 3-2).

After making the first basket of the game, Georgia Tech quickly got an idea of what kind of night it would be. The Jackets missed their next eight shots and turned it over four times before Josh Okogie finally broke a nearly eight-minute scoreless drought with a dunk off a backdoor pass.

Virginia shot just 40 percent in the first half but still led 28-19 at the break.

Georgia Tech never got any closer the rest of the way.

“They’re just a very disciplined team offensively and defensively,” Yellow Jackets center Ben Lammers said. “That makes it very difficult. You can’t make a mistake or you’ll pay for it.”

The last gasp for the home team essentially came in the closing seconds of the first half. It looked as though the Jackets would go to the locker room on a bit of a high after Curtis Haywood hit his second 3-pointer from far beyond the stripe, closing the gap to 24-19.

But Hunter got free in the corner and knocked down a trey with 0.1 seconds left in the half, turning it into a four-point play when Abdoulaye Gueye foolishly went for the block and sent the Virginia player sprawling to the court .

The free throw gave the Cavaliers their biggest lead of the opening period.

“That’s definitely not the way you want to end a half,” Lammers said. “We were on a little bit of a roll. It’s definitely a bit of a downer for our team. I think it helped their momentum.”

Virginia steadily pulled away over the final 20 minutes, dominating the inside for a 44-20 edge on points in the paint. Ty Jerome added 12 points, while Devon Hall and Kyle Guy had 11 apiece.

Tadric Jackson led Georgia Tech with 14 points. No one else was in double figures.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers held an opponent under 50 points for the eighth time this season. They came into the night allowing the fewest points of any Division I team, and actually improved on their 52.9 average. That helped to cover for a tough night from 3-point range on which the Cavs connected on just 3 of 13 attempts.

Georgia Tech: Okogie, averaging 18.8 points per game, struggled to get open and finished with just nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. But coach Josh Pastner is especially concerned about Lammers, who attempted only five shots, made one and finished with four points. “We’ve got to get more out of him offensively,” Pastner said. “When you’re not scoring, it sucks the life out of you.”

WILKINS STEPS UP

The Cavaliers switched things up a bit against Lammers, turning to Isaiah Wilkins to handle the bulk of the defensive duties.

When the teams met last season , 6-foot-10 Jack Salt limited Lammers to seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.

This time, it was the 6-foot-7 Wilkins — the stepson of former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins — making life miserable for Georgia Tech’s big man.

“He played to his personality,” Bennett said. “He’s such a giver. He thinks help. He thinks cover for teammates. He knows how to anticipate. If you can find that, it’s worth its weight in gold for a defensive player.”

PACKED PAVILION

It was an especially disappointing performance for the Yellow Jackets, considering it came before their first sellout of the season at 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion.

UP NEXT

Virginia: Plays its second straight ACC road game at Wake Forest on Sunday.

Georgia Tech: Faces a short turnaround before traveling to Chapel Hill on Saturday for another game against a ranked opponent, No. 15 North Carolina.

Palmer scores 19, leads Huskers in 72-52 rout of Michigan

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — James Palmer Jr. scored 19 points, Isaiah Roby had a career-high 14 and Nebraska beat No. 23 Michigan 72-52 on Thursday night for its first win over the Wolverines since joining the Big Ten.

Nebraska (14-7, 5-3), which needed Palmer’s 3-pointer to beat last-place Illinois 64-63 on Monday, led 32-21 at the half and never let Michigan get closer than 10 points in the last 17 minutes.

Michigan (16-5, 5-3), which had won nine of its last 10, suffered its most lopsided loss of the season and had a season-low for points. Charles Matthews had 15 points for the Wolverines, who shot 37.5 percent from the floor and a season-low 22.2 percent (4 of 18) on 3-pointers.

The Wolverines had come in 8-0 against the Huskers since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011-12, and they had won 10 straight in the series.

In the final regular-season game last year, Michigan won 93-57 in Lincoln, the Huskers’ most lopsided home loss in program history. Michigan set the arena record for points by an opponent and matched the arena record with 14 made 13-pointers in that game.

Nebraska was in total control this time.

The Huskers played strong defense on the perimeter and forced nine of Michigan’s 12 turnovers the first 20 minutes. Roby, Duby Okeke and Jordy Tshimanga rendered Moritz Wagner a non-factor.

Wagner, who scored 27 points last Saturday against Michigan State and had reached double figures in all but two games, missed his only shot of the half. He finished with a season-low two points, his only basket coming on a dunk early in the second half.

Roby had two dunks and another basket during an 18-4 run that turned Nebraska’s 12-10 deficit into a 28-16 lead. The Wolverines went scoreless for more than 6 minutes and without a field goal for 7½ as the Huskers broke things open. The Wolverines missed 14 of their last 16 shots of the half.

The Huskers built the lead to 21 with less than 5 minutes to play.

Tshimanga, who missed the last two games for personal reasons, entered the game in the middle of the first half. The first time he touched the ball, he passed to Roby for a dunk.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Though the Wolverines have owned Nebraska, Pinnacle Bank Arena is a tough place to play, and they might have been out of gas after an emotional win over Michigan State and having to rally to beat Maryland 68-67 on Monday.

Nebraska: This was a crucial win for a team that has hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. Michigan came into the game No. 30 in the RPI; no other opponent Nebraska has beaten is in the top 50. Another big opportunity comes Monday when the Huskers visit Ohio State (No. 18 RPI).

UP NEXT

Michigan hosts Rutgers on Sunday.

Nebraska visits No. 22 Ohio State on Monday.

St. Mary’s gets critical NCAA tourney resume win over No. 13 Gonzaga

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No one should probably get too worked about about one game in mid-January.

First of all, it’s one game. Forty minutes of small sample size randomness that could very well mean next to nothing.

Second, there is still nearly two months of regular season to play. What seems important now very well could fade to irrelevance come mid-March. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to attach much meaning to one game between two teams well ahead of when the stakes are actually clear.

Unless you’re St. Mary’s and you’re at Gonzaga.

Then, you can get hyped.

The Gaels finally delivered a resume-boosting win this season by dispatching the 13th-ranked Bulldogs, 74-71, in Spokane to invigorate a season that seemed destined to end with plenty of wins but few – if any – that really mattered.

Yeah, it’s one game. Yeah, it’s mid-January. Yeah, a lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday to render this moot. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But make no mistake about it, St. Mary’s beating Gonzaga at The Kennell is a monumental victory for Randy Bennett’s team when the Gaels lacked even a notable one before it.

St. Mary’s non-conference schedule has become a tired topic, but it is absolutely why they find themselves in such a high-stake game just a couple weeks after New Year’s. It’s also perhaps maybe less their fault than ever. Bennett can’t be faulted for Cal being awful and Dayton being down. Those should be solid wins. But they aren’t. Then there’s the loss to Washington State. That should have been an opportunity for a good win. Instead it’s become a blight on their resume with the Cougars unable to compete in the anemic Pac 12.The one true chance for a meaningful win came against Georgia, and the Bulldogs nipped them in OT.

Beyond that, there’s a lot of wins on the resume for the Gaels, but not a lot of substance. Beating up a couple times each the likes of Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Santa Clara doesn’t exactly move the needle.

That’s what made Thursday night so incredibly critical for St. Mary’s, and, if we’re being honest, for college basketball. The Gaels are absolutely one of the 68 best teams in the country. Conservatively, I’d say somewhere around the top 30. The NCAA tournament simply would have been worse off without them.

They showed why against Gonzaga.

The Bulldogs looked poised to pull away on numerous occasions, leading by as many as nine in the second half, but the Gaels wouldn’t let them gain comfortable separation. There was always an answer.

At least there was always Jock Landale.

The 6-foot-11 senior brought his All-American stuff to Spokane, going for 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting while also posting 12 rebounds and three assists. There’s not much flash to Landale’s game, but his fundamentals do the work for him. He established great position early and just went to work, abusing Gonzaga’s frontline time and again.

Landale is one of the most efficient offensive players in the country while simultaneously being one of its better rebounders. That’s a dude who in his senior year needs to be in the NCAA tournament. I won’t hear arguments to the contrary.

This win doesn’t guarantee a spot for the Gaels, obviously. They can’t afford a major slip-up, and another win against the Zags would go a long way, but it at least puts them in a tenable position with more than six weeks until March.

It’s the cruel reality of life in the WCC. Whether it would have won or lost Thursday night, St. Mary’s clearly established itself as a peer to Gonzaga, a team whom no one wonders about its NCAA tournament viability. St. Mary’s is right there with them. If they would have lost, it may not have mattered. The W-L, the RPI and the resume just wouldn’t have enough evidence to support what was so readily apparent to anyone watching.

They did win, though.

Sure, it’s still only one game. Sure, it’s still early. Sure, plenty can still go wrong.

Sure beats the alternative, though.