Lancers just happy to be competitive

Originally Published: December 23, 2004
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Mike Gillian has a plan to record history Monday night in Champaign.

If Longwood scores the first basket against top-ranked Illinois, he's going to stop the game.

"We're going to call timeout right away," Gillian said, discussing a possible highlight in what could be one of the season's most lopsided matchups. "I don't care what anyone says, I'm going to call the timeout and tell my guys that they won the first possession of the game. Maybe we'll win the next possession or another four-minute stretch. Who knows?"

The players are even keen to Gillian's idea of halting the game and making a spectacle of a potential 2-0 lead.

"We should take pictures of the scoreboard and walk out," freshman guard Kevin Schneider said. "It would be awesome if we were up 2-0 or 4-0. It would be like having a lead that we wouldn't forget."

Hey, Gillian can dream can't he? The former Jim Larranaga assistant at Bowling Green and George Mason is trying to do the impossible -- moving the former Division-II program from Farmville, Va., up to the D-I level by going around the country as fodder for some of the top teams.

The odds of the Lancers (1-13 after Thursday's loss at Northern Iowa) upsetting unbeaten Illinois aren't even on the charts. But that doesn't stop Gillian from daydreaming about the implausible occurring.

"I think about it all the time," Gillian said. "When you're sitting around, the thought comes into your mind and the reality sets in. But what if we shot like Villanova did against Georgetown (in the 1985 title game)? When Chaminade beat Virginia, that game never goes away. I don't know what the headline would be if it happened but it would never go away."

We should take pictures of the scoreboard and walk out. It would be awesome if we were up 2-0 or 4-0. It would be like having a lead that we wouldn't forget.
Longwood freshman guard Kevin Schneider

Longwood isn't Villanova.

Not even close.

Longwood is going about this transitional period the right way, though, building a program with a combined 13 freshmen and sophomores (as well as one junior) on their 14-man roster.

The Lancers are hoping one day to get into the Big South, which Gillian says is the perfect fit geographically and academically for the school. He said Longwood missed out on the chance to go D-I when its in-state brethren like William & Mary, VCU and George Mason did years ago.

"So, our school wants to improve the profile of the institution and the way to do that is through Division I athletics -- and since we don't have football, men's basketball can be the main vehicle," Gillian said.

The plan is to build a new arena to better the facilities. Gillian said the commitment is in place in Farmville for this program to be a success. He probably should give a call to Ronnie Arrow at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi to see how a program can go from a start-up situation to actually beating D-I programs. But that's a bit far ahead.

For now, Longwood is trying to stay competitive. The Lancers are in the midst of a brutal schedule, playing 12 games in December. After completing the first two rounds of the Las Vegas Classic at Northern Iowa and Illinois, they will play Cincinnati and Valparaiso in Las Vegas on Dec. 30 and 31. The Lancers were already at William & Mary, Howard, San Francisco, UC Davis and Old Dominion. The three home games in December were Hofstra, VMI and a rematch with Howard, when they earned their only win of the season.

As if the Illinois game is not enough, Longwood also will play at Wake Forest, on Feb. 23. Gillian said he thought the Demon Deacons might be playing the game later in the season as possible prep for a potential 1 vs. 16 game in the NCAA's first round. But Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said it was the only time the teams could get the game in. As scheduled, it will hardly serve a purpose that late in the ACC season for the Demon Deacons, who don't typically "buy" games outside the region.

At least Longwood is getting paid for that trip. That's not the case on Monday. The Lancers were a late addition to the six-team Classic as promoter Chris Spencer was trying to fill the field. Each team plays two games on a campus site then the six teams meet in Las Vegas for two games over two days. Longwood's two campus site games are at Northern Iowa and at Illinois. The Lancers will only receive travel money, according to Gillian.

Illini coach Bruce Weber isn't thrilled with the location of the matchup.

"We really begged Chris not to have this game at home, hoping to play them in Las Vegas," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "But he was short teams and had to have a set round-robin schedule."

Why didn't Weber want Longwood in Champaign? Well, he doesn't mind having the Lancers in for a quick prep for the players two days after Christmas to get "their legs back," and have the opportunity to play a number of guys for significant minutes.

But he also is thinking about the fans.

"It's hard to charge our fans 20-something dollars for it because you wish you had a name team coming in," Weber said. "We had a couple of games early like Delaware State and Florida A&M, but we try to avoid playing teams 250 and below (in the RPI) at home. Right now our fans are so excited that we're No. 1 that it might not matter since every game is a sellout. People are just happy to have the opportunity to see us play."

So how is Illinois going to prepare for Longwood? Will Weber really go over the Lancers during a traditional scouting session Monday afternoon?

Uh, no.

"We'll do individual stuff," said Weber, noting that the Illini needed to regain some of the aggressiveness that was missing in the tight win over Missouri on Wednesday in St. Louis  Illinois' first close game of the season.

Would the Illinois players even know about Longwood, where it is, what the nickname is or any of the players?

"No way, no way," Weber said.

That's not the case for the Lancers.

"I've seen them on TV a few times so everybody knows who they are," said Longwood sophomore Michael Jefferson.

Gillian isn't going to get too specific, either. He's not about to have someone on the scout team try and be Dee Brown, Deron Williams or Luther Head. He said he would speak in generalities.

"I'll give them an idea of what they're going to see, unlike when we played Howard [when] we were more about the guys on their team," Gillian said. "I'll just say this guy is super-fast, quick and is going to pressure the ball like crazy. I'll give them similar information but the reality is that the players [Illinois has] at every position and the guys coming off the bench are better than the ones we have starting."

Gillian hasn't had trouble getting games because everyone wants to draw the Lancers for a guarantee. But he has also landed some home games, with South Carolina State, Appalachian State, Northern Colorado, TAMU-CC, Missorui-Kansas City and Utah Valley State still coming to Farmville.

"Everyone keeps asking me if I'm discouraged -- and the answer is no because we're not getting blown out by 40 or 50," Gillian said, noting the Lancers' -16.9 scoring differential.

The Longwood program started in 1976. Its all-time record of 400-365 isn't too shabby and the program made four D-II NCAA Tournament appearances -- the last one coming in 2001 when the Lancers lost to Queens (N.C.) in the East Region semifinals.

So, why would a team schedule Longwood?

"They could be looking to pick up wins or it's part of an exempt tournament and we're not as much of a threat as say a Southern Illinois or a George Mason," Gillian said. "There is less risk in playing against us right now."

For now, Gillian coaches for each four-minute segment of the game, hoping to win at least one, or maybe just a possession.

On Monday night in Champaign against No. 1 Illinois, he's just looking to win the first one.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com