When Transylvania men’s basketball coach Brian Lane talked to friend and former boss Kyle Macy about the possibility of joining his staff this season, he did so thinking his rebuilding effort with the Pioneers was near complete.
You don’t ask a Kentucky basketball icon and ESPN analyst to flail along with you in Division III. You want him to help make the difference between a really good year and a great year.
“If you have an NBA player and an All-American and a college basketball legend there with practice every day, those guys notice,” Lane said. “And when he’s talking, he commands a lot of respect, and they listen.”
After the hiring announcement, Macy’s bosses at ESPN informed him that his contract prohibited being a paid staffer. But nothing prevented Macy from volunteering. Even though he can’t sit on the sideline during games, Macy decided to stay on.
“I have known Brian for a long time,” said Macy, who hired Lane as one of his assistants at Morehead State in 1999. “I also have seen what a great job he does coaching. I just appreciate the opportunity he offered me to work with his players and be around the game I love.”
The Pioneers return three starters from last season, including leading scorer and assist man Alex Jones, a 2016 second-team all-Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference selection. The 6-foot-3 senior out of St. Xavier averaged 16.4 points and 4.5 assists on a team that went 11-16 last year, but was 9-9 in the HCAC despite some key injuries. A tough early schedule put the Pioneers in a 2-9 hole, and the loss of standout freshman forward Bo Schuh to an ACL injury in January stunted their chances of making a run. They did anyway.
Jones doubled his scoring average in last year’s HCAC Tournament, pouring in 31 points in an upset of Hanover and 33 in a near-upset of eventual champion Mount St. Joseph in the semifinals.
“Alex is a guy that can certainly be an all-conference performer again, but he has the capability of being the player of the year if we’re able to win some games and do what we need to do teamwise,” Lane said.
It just feels like we have all the pieces this year. I think this team is really close. We have big guys. We have guards. We have depth. So I think we have a really good shot to win the conference this year and go beyond that.
Alex Jones, Transylvania senior guard
Transy hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013. That’s a streak the Pioneers want to break.
“It just feels like we have all the pieces this year,” Jones said. “I think this team is really close. We have big guys. We have guards. We have depth. So I think we have a really good shot to win the conference this year and go beyond that.”
Also returning is sophomore Cooper Theobald, a tenacious 6-1 point guard out of Covington Catholic who led the team in rebounding and set the conference record for made free throws in a season. Theobald’s Sweet Sixteen title-winning teammate, Schuh, continues to recover from his ACL injury, but coaches expect the 6-6 sophomore to be cleared for practice soon.
Kyle Gullett, 6-6 sophomore forward out of Johnson Central, also will start. Gullett transferred from Division I Southeast Missouri State, where he walked on and played in a number of games as a freshman. Lane said he’s one of the team’s better three-point shooters.
“Having that kind of threat around the perimeter is really going to help Cooper get to the rim (and) get Alex into some driving opportunities and some angles,” Lane said. “You can already see, even though he’s just joining us and this is his first year with us, that he is ready.”
Other key contributors include likely starters Robert Dence, a 6-6 junior out of Lexington Catholic, and Spencer McKinney, a 6-4 freshman and son of Danville Coach Ed McKinney, and likely reserves are Tristan Burgess, a 6-4 junior forward out of Boyd County; Gabe Schmitt, a 6-2 freshman guard from Trinity; and Grant Clarkson, a 6-0 freshman guard out of Collins.
Harrison Lane, the coach’s son and a standout at Lafayette last year, is among four freshmen expected to contribute. Harrison pulls double duty playing for his dad in golf and basketball.
“I have really enjoyed coaching Harrison on both teams. He got a late start because our fall golf season ended the day before the start of basketball practice,” the elder Lane said. “I think he likes his golf coach better than his basketball coach.”
Regardless, after three successive losing seasons, Lane thinks the Pioneers are ready to make huge strides on the court.
“I’m ecstatic that we’ve finally worked through some leaner years and, now, we’ve got a full roster,” Lane said. “I think we can be a team that right at the end of the year is knocking on the door of getting in the NCAA Tournament.”
Thomas More at Transylvania
When: 7 p.m.