With History on Its Side, William & Mary is No Pushover

Posted by Ray Curren on January 14th, 2016

There’s really no way to avoid history when you attend the College of William & Mary. It’s the second-oldest school in the nation (behind Harvard) and the picturesque buildings and statues are sure to jog your memory of that fact if you had temporary amnesia. The official school bookstore is a couple of blocks from campus and looks like any other you might encounter in your travels except that it also is in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg, a replica of the 17th- and 18th-century Virginia capital and a “living history museum.” A short jog from campus would bring you to Yorktown, where British general Charles Cornwallis committed the first egregiously unsportsmanlike act on American soil, failing to shake George Washington’s hand after being defeated to end the Revolutionary War in 1781 (instead, he sent his second in command to surrender). A few miles in the other direction is Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement in North America.

The most famous player to ever come out of William & Mary? Probably the super talented Marcus Thornton. (AP)

The most famous player to ever come out of William & Mary? Probably the super talented Marcus Thornton. (AP)

Basketball history in Williamsburg, though? Well that’s defined by what you won’t find on campus anywhere — an NCAA Tournament banner. If you know your basketball history (or have been paying attention when it has been mentioned), you know that William & Mary is among the Cursed Five (along with Army, St. Francis — Brooklyn, The Citadel, and Northwestern), the quintet of schools that have never appeared in an NCAA Tournament since it began in 1939. It’s a particularly sore subject in Williamsburg because the Tribe have been very close in the last two seasons, losing a pair of heartbreakers in the CAA title game. Two seasons ago, William & Mary held a six-point lead with 90 seconds left against Delaware and, even after relinquishing it, Tribe star Marcus Thornton’s last-second shot to win appeared headed for its intended target, only to have history, physics, and karma combine to keep it out. Last March, the regular season CAA champion Tribe was beaten by Northeastern, and at least got a small consolation prize of an NIT bid. However, none of that removes W&M from the ignominious list, even if it marked the first time in seven decades that William & Mary tallied back-to-back 20-win seasons.

Thornton has graduated (and is now playing professionally in Australia) and the Tribe was subsequently picked fourth in the CAA preseason poll (behind Hofstra, James Madison and defending champion Northeastern), but William & Mary is not ready to return to obscurity quite yet. Tony Shaver is in his 13th season at the helm and returns the other four starters, including senior Terry Tarpey, a first-team preseason CAA pick, who is the definition of a box score filler. He logged the only triple-double in the long history of W&M hoops and will likely finish his career among the top 10 in school history in blocks and steals, and among the top 15 in rebounds. Tarpey is also the reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year. He has struggled a bit this season with his expanded role as a team captain — for example, Tarpey missed 18 of his first 20 three-pointers — but has played extremely well in his team’s last three games, all wins (over Charleston, Drexel and Northeastern).

“There’s definitely more urgency this season, especially because I’m a captain,” Tarpey said last week. “Being a senior, it’s my last go, so I want to win as many games as possible. I always want to do what’s best for the team.” Shaver added: “I welcomed Terry Tarpey back tonight to be honest with you. He looked like the Terry of old tonight. I’m really proud of him. He didn’t have a great game against Towson, but he wasn’t the only one. I think sometimes as a senior you can press and try to do too many things. Terry needs to play the role he’s so good at: our emotional leader, fireplug, rebounder, defender, can score, too.” Tarpey is flanked by 6’7” junior Omar Prewitt, who has struggled with increased attention from opposing defenses, especially from the outside. But he managed to score 26 points against Charleston without hitting a three followed up by 23 against Northeastern, and is currently the second-leading scorer in the CAA at 17.7 points per game.

Like Thornton before him, junior guard Daniel Dixon does not have the most attractive shooting stroke, but it hasn’t stopped him from ranking fourth in the CAA in three-point percentage (42.5%), while sophomore point guard David Cohn has slowly improved after missing last season with an injury. He currently sports a 2.9-to-1 assist to turnover ratio, and after struggling mightily from the field to start the season, has made 15 of his last 26 shots. Rounding out the geographically diverse starting lineup is 6’9” senior center Sean Sheldon from Traverse City, Michigan. (Connecticut, Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois are also represented). Sheldon does not shoot much, but when he does, those shots tend to go in (64.6% from the field last season and 59.7% this season). One of the Tribe’s biggest strengths is its shooting, as they currently rank 25th nationally in eFG% (54.9%) and 22nd in two-point shooting (54.9%).

Tony Shaver, now in his 13th year at W&M, once again has his squad right in the mix. (AP)

Tony Shaver, now in his 13th year at W&M, once again has his squad right in the mix. (AP)

William & Mary (11-4, 3-1 CAA) sent a message that it may be just fine without Thornton in its season opener, winning at NC State. But the Tribe was humbled in its conference opener, losing at home to Towson, before rebounding with the trio of wins. One big obstacle they will face in the next couple of months is a loaded CAA this season. The conference is currently ranked ninth in KenPom (ahead of the Mountain West and WCC, among others), its highest ever, and this is a league that boasts two recent Final Four teams: George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. In 2011 (a season in which William & Mary went 10-22, 4-14 CAA), the league received three NCAA bids despite being ranked 12th by KenPom. It’s not likely to become a multi-bid league this year, because W&M — currently with its highest ever KenPom mark of 83rd — is beyond at-large range.

That won’t, however, make it any easier for the Tribe to navigate the next couple of months. “We knew the conference was going to be really good this season. A lot of teams are bringing back almost all their starters,” Tarpey said. “That excited our team because we’re going to play against a lot of good teams and we can show just how good we are. I think the first half tonight was a testament to that. If we play like that the rest of the season, we’re not going to lose too many.” Shaver added: “It’s going to be a fight for the next 14 games. It’s going to be a battle. You look at the standings out of a 10-team league, the top eight had at least eight wins already before conference play started. It’s amazing when you look at that. We just have to be ready to play every night.”

In the end, as William & Mary knows all too well, its eventual fate will likely come down to a few late winter days in Baltimore. Win three games in three days, and its name will permanently be removed from the Cursed Five. But there is still the better part of two months until they get there. “I think it’s definitely a little bit of a drive for us,” Prewitt said. “It’s in the back of our heads, but I try not to think about it too much. I wasn’t a part of the past teams that were real close. That’s so far down the road from right now, though. We just have to think about the next game right now.” Shaver, for one, believes it’s not just a glorified lottery come March, even though almost any team in the CAA will be capable of capturing the title. Northeastern will be heard from, but — even without Thornton — the lessons learned in the past should serve the William & Mary well as the season heads toward its dramatic conclusion. “The great teams find a way to be their best at the end,” Shaver said. “It’s one day at a time, one game at a time.” After all, history is supposed to be written by the victors, isn’t it?

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