THE MODERATOR: We’re joined by Coach Ray Harper and players, Greg Tucker, Erik Durham and Malcolm Drumwright. Coach, we’ll take comments from you.
COACH HARPER: First, we’re excited to be here and these kids have worked awfully hard all season long and picked 12 out of 12 teams in our league, so excited to be here. Looking forward to a huge challenge tomorrow afternoon against University of Louisville.
Q. For all three players, just some initial thoughts about Coach Harper. What has been his recipe for success for you guys to turn this thing around the way he has, and for you to be here now?
GREG TUCKER: I have to say just, you know, preparation, you know, working hard every day, coming ready to work, doing your job every day, doing whatever it takes to get ready.
MALCOLM DRUMWRIGHT: Just believing in us, telling us to come in and work hard every week and get better day by day.
ERIK DURHAM: I’d have to say patience. He says it’s a marathon instead of a sprint, so just be ready when that time came.
Q. All three of you, can you talk about, as guards, dealing with Louisville’s press and what the keys will be there?
GREG TUCKER: I think probably the most — the biggest thing probably just be patient with it, not try to force things up the court. Just hit the open man and be strong with the ball.
MALCOLM DRUMWRIGHT: Not do anything too complicated, stay poised and just don’t try to hit a home run.
ERIK DURHAM: Definitely stay calm. Don’t try to do too much you’re not used to doing, limit turnovers.
Q. For the players, how would you describe the way in which Coach Harper challenges you ever since he started with this program this year? We were talking a little bit earlier, sometimes he can be a little hard on you guys is what he says.
GREG TUCKER: He’s definitely been tough on us throughout the season, but it was all worth it. It prepared us for this moment and helped us to get to this moment. So I’d have to say he’s been tough on us, but it’s really been tough love, to be honest.
MALCOLM DRUMWRIGHT: Just tough love, just wanting us to be good and challenging us. Really just tough love.
ERIK DURHAM: Definitely tough love. After big wins, he’d be right there in the gym, getting after us. He’d let us know we got another one, so don’t get too high.
Q. Malcolm, can you talk about early in the year, with the new coach and his style, how long did it take you guys to get adjusted? Because it seems like you’re a different team than you were the first, maybe, month and a half.
MALCOLM DRUMWRIGHT: I would say we played well the first game, so I guess it probably took the whole summer to kind of understand things.
Q. Greg, 15s versus 2s have had success, four victories in the last five years. What gives you confidence you can join that group?
GREG TUCKER: Well, we’re confident in the way we prepare every day. We feel like we’re going to be prepared. We believe in each other. Everyone is in the locker room with us, we’re all going to believe. We are going to go out there and play the hardest to our ability.
Q. All three of you, this is a new experience for Jacksonville State and a new experience for you guys. Can you tell us what’s been the experience so far and what stood out to you about just the preparation for all this, the hype around this and getting here and everything?
GREG TUCKER: The only thing, like the preparation has really been the same. We still are going about things the same way. We’re still very intense about things. But as far as the other stuff, we’re not really getting into the hype. We’re staying grounded. We’re just trying to take it one day at a time at practices, just keep being better, keep doing our jobs.
MALCOLM DRUMWRIGHT: It’s exciting. We came here to play basketball, and that is what we’ll do.
ERIK DURHAM: It’s been amazing. But we don’t feel like we should be done yet. We’re going to keep working hard and maybe make that happen.
Q. You know, kind of reflecting on my first question, what have Coach Harper and the three players out there, what have you learned this year in terms of coach and player relationships and coaching styles?
COACH HARPER: Well, again, we’re an entirely new staff. All these guys, we — I thought the importance of playing some road games would help this basketball team. I was out of my mind when we played 15 of our first 16 on the road. But I just watched this team come together. Any team that had a chance to be a part of it, it’s about chemistry. It’s about playing together. It’s about being one. It’s not about being a bunch of individuals.
We still talk about it to this day. We don’t point fingers. We take responsibility. We all make mistakes, and we own up to them.
Again, as a coach, you can talk about it, you can teach it, you can preach it. But, ultimately, it’s up to these young men to whether they accept it or they don’t.
They accepted what we were trying to instill in them. And I think because of them, not anything us as a staff, but these guys, we’re still playing today. They’ll be remembered forever. They’re the first team to ever take Jacksonville State to the NCAA division one tournament, and you always want to leave some type of legacy, and you are going to leave some type of legacy. These guys here, especially our two seniors, have left a mark on this program that will never be forgotten.
THE MODERATOR: Greg, do you want to talk about relationship with coach?
GREG TUCKER: I just wanted to say that, you know, when he first got here, we had a talk, a long talk. He told me what he expected of me. Once everything kind of got rolling, we just we kind of just meshed and gelled together. He talks about keeping the team, keep everyone together as a brotherhood. That’s what we did. That’s helped us get to this point.
MALCOLM DRUMWRIGHT: I love him. Just going to be honest with you, he’s tough on you and I appreciate that. I just love him as a coach.
ERIK DURHAM: You know, I love all three of these dudes right here. We had to learn how to buy in for coach, for all three of us. And it worked out for the best for us. He’s been a blessing to my life and to this team.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll continue with questions for coach.
Q. Talk about being the first year, what did you feel like when you got there, like what you saw. You had some experience, but you knew it was going to be a big transition, kind of the process early in the coaching for you there.
COACH HARPER: Well, again, we watched them early, and we knew there was a lot of work to be done and in a lot of different areas. I give Greg a lot of credit for allowing us to get a strength coach there in July. It totally changed what we were doing.
Malcolm, for example, is 160 pounds. And by the end of the summer, he was 184, and he was muscled up. So there were a lot of things that needed to be done, but that was a necessity.
They needed to understand — I’m not saying they didn’t work in the past. It’s not that. But to get to the level we are today, you have to take it to another level with your work ethic, and it can’t be do it one day and not do it the next. It’s got to be constant.
That was the most difficult thing, to get those guys — we’d have one good practice and then a not so good practice. And I kept telling them, it’s why we haven’t won more than two in a row all season, guys, because you can’t string them together. I watched them over the last month really get better. Their work ethic got better. Their buy-in got better. Because of it, we were playing pretty well down the stretch.
Q. Ray, can you talk about how you’ve sold them on possibly being the ninth 15 to beat a 2?
COACH HARPER: Honestly, we really haven’t talked about it a lot. We talked about what we need to do — we don’t talk about wins and losses. We really don’t. We haven’t from day one. I was watching TV last night, and Belmont beat Georgia. And I told people, Belmont’s a really good basketball team. It’s going to make some noise in the N.I.T. I think they should have been an at-large team, but never even got in consideration. They were 15-1 in the league, won 25 or 26 games. So why aren’t they playing? I don’t know.
But we didn’t talk about beating Belmont. We talked about the process, do your job. The winning, losing takes care of itself. If you get caught up in, oh, we’re going to lose this game, or oh, what do I have to do to win this game — no. What do you have to do in this defensive possession to be in the right position.
And that’s who we are. I firmly believe, when you get caught up in the final outcome, I’ve had teams lose games that I was more proud of them than teams that won games because they played the game the right way.
You come up on the short end in this business sometimes. It happens. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure. And irregardless of — as long as we play the game the right way, we play hard and we play together, I’ll take my chances every night.
Q. When you were at Western, you got to see Louisville three times. Thoughts, initial impressions, what makes them so difficult and how are some of the ways, without giving away trade secrets, about how you try to fight that?
COACH HARPER: First and foremost, the guy calling timeouts is going to make it difficult. He’s as good as it gets in this game at Louisville. When you watch what he’s done, not just at Louisville, but every stop, he adjusts to every team.
He may be an all-zone team one year, then all of a sudden, he’s a pressing team. Now he’s a half court. He can figure things out like no one else. I’d love to have the opportunity to sit and talk to him at some point about how he does it.
And then you cannot simulate in practice how hard his kids play, and that’s a credit to him. We played them three times in my previous stop, and it’s just how hard they play and how competitive they are.
Tomorrow, what we’re going to have to do is we’re going to have to rebound the ball, and we’re going to have to take care of the ball. And we’re going to have to throw in some shots too. Hopefully we can throw in a lot a long-range 3s. That would be nice.
Q. Ray, you mentioned that you and Rick Pitino have gone against each other before when you were at Western Kentucky. Do you guys have relationship, or is it just shaking hands before and after games?
COACH HARPER: We have some really mutual friends. We used to text a little bit. And Rick has been — would text me. They had a kid leave the program a few years ago, wanted to know if we had any interest in him transferring.
We’re friendly. But are we friends that talk on a daily basis? No. But Bradley who sets on his bench is from Louisville. I’ve known Father Bradley forever. He has some friends in Owensboro, Kentucky. That’s about it.
Q. Following up on the point you made earlier about Pitino’s adaptability and, played all man against Notre Dame, plays a lot of zone, what do you expect going in?
COACH HARPER: The unexpected. I mean, help me. I don’t know. Someone said that we play four, five different defenses. He’s seen some that I don’t even know we do. I didn’t know we played that many. I asked one of my assistants, are we really playing this many zones and this?
So I don’t know. I tell you what I expect, I expect a team that’s going to come right after us, right from the get-go, right from that opening tip. They’re going to try to set the tone. They’re going to be the bully, and we’ll see if we allow them to bully us.
Q. Ray, what did you think Sunday when you saw with your history, being from the state of Kentucky and the coaching against Coach Pitino, what did you think when you saw that pop up on the screens?
COACH HARPER: That we better get busy and get prepared for some pressure. Yeah, he’ll have his guys ready. The good thing was we had finished our tournament the previous Saturday. We gave our guy as couple days off. And we spent two full days working against nothing but pressure. I just felt like we were going to see someone early that would do that, whether it was Louisville or West Virginia or whomever.
So we worked a lot against that. So, hopefully, that gave us a couple extra days’ head start.
Q. To follow up on that, overall, how would you think your team copes with pressure?
COACH HARPER: With pressure, they’ve been okay. At times, they’ve been really good. And we haven’t had a lot of teams that just come after us for 40 minutes like Louisville’s going to. I think our lead is more man-to-man, half court type teams. We had a couple teams try to press us, and we handled it pretty well and got out of it. So we’ll see.
Q. Coach, this has been talked about, the first time ever Jacksonville State being here. You’ve been here today. Does that help, the fact that you’ve got experience with the tournament?
COACH HARPER: I will not score one bucket tomorrow. So probably not. But at the same time, this is huge for our program, as you know. You’ve been around the program for a long time. When I got there, I said you’ve got to walk before you can run.
Well, we’re up jogging. Hopefully, this can spring board this program to not where we win a championship every year and we’re playing in the NCAA tournament every year, but where we have a chance.
Because, like I said earlier, there’s times where you play your tails off and you just come up short. And, unfortunately, it happens. And that’s why I said I think Belmont should have been given consideration to be in an at-large team this year. If you look at the N.I.T. right now, Oakland went on the road and beat Clemson. Belmont goes on the road and beats Georgia.
The one common is all those teams are going on the road. They don’t get home games. And I’m sure Belmont would have loved to have played Tennessee and Vanderbilt at home. But they’re not going to do it. So until they fix the way they pick the 68 teams, it’s hurting the guys — Illinois State, I feel bad for Dan and that team. I know him. I think they should be in the tournament.
Maybe they’ll figure out a way to award some of the teams that win 26 and 27 games over the course of the season. I think it would make for a better tournament.