FAIRBORN — It is supposed to be an example of art imitating life — and maybe it soon will be — but last year it turned out to be the other way around.
Billy Donlon walked to the corner of his spacious office and took a framed picture — one of his prized possessions — off the wall for closer inspection as he told the story.
“On our team’s trip to Italy last year, we’re in Florence and there are all these street performers,” the Wright State basketball coach said. “And there’s this one woman kneeling on the ground. She’s wearing knee pads and she’s got spray paint bottles all around her.
“She starts working on this big piece of paper and you’re wondering what she’s making ... and then she came up with this.”
He beamed as he held out the picture of a wolf standing atop a rocky bluff, howling at moon.
“None of us could believe it,” he said. “Here we are in Italy and she basically painted our team mascot. We ended up buying four of them. President Hopkins got one, Bob Grant (athletic director) and Rob Cooper (baseball coach) each got one and I got this one framed.
“I just took it as a special sign.”
It was, though after last season the sign may have been linked not so much to the artwork as that artist in knee pads.
Last season — and in the month or so that followed — the program seemed to have been knocked to its knees.
After graduating four standouts from the year before and then playing the toughest schedule in school history – a campaign that included nonconference games against Ohio State, Florida, Cincinnati and Ohio University, all Sweet 16 or better teams — the Raiders stumbled to a 13-19 record.
Home attendance fell from 4,792 a game to 3,903.
Immediately after the season, the Raiders star, Julius Mays, who had one year of eligibility left, announced he would graduate in June and transfer to Kentucky for his final season.
Soon after that, much-used sophomore Vance Hall transferred to Bellarmine.
Coupled with the graduation losses of Johann Mpondo and Armond Battle, the Raiders were losing four of their top players and that impacted the back end of the roster. Realizing an immediate infusion of talent was needed, Donlon said he met with backup players John Balwigaire, Alex Pritchett and Jason Cuffee, and while he said “I don’t like running a program like this,” he informed them they likely would play little in the coming year.
That prompted their transfers, as well.
Suddenly WSU needed seven new players.
Compounding matters was the university’s decision that Joe Thomasson — an incoming recruit from Thurgood Marshall High School — didn’t meet academic standards and would not be admitted to the school.
That’s when Donlon and his staff — sans spray cans — started to make a quick, new creation of their own, adding five high school recruits and two junior college players.
“I’m sure some of our fans are panicking after all that’s happened, but I want them to know they can be excited about our guys,” the Raiders’ third-year coach said.
“This will be the most athletic group we’ve had at Wright State in the seven years I’ve been here as an assistant and a head coach. It doesn’t necessarily mean winning, but it certainly helps. Now we’ve just got to mold them into a real team.”
A different culture
That’s easier said than done, especially when you’ve lost a cornerstone like Mays, who Kentucky coach John Calipari recently told Donlon would be in the top eight of the rotation for the defending national champs.
The loss of Mays — who had transferred in from North Carolina State and became the Horizon League Newcomer of the Year — hurts WSU in a couple of ways. Last year the Raiders averaged 58 points a game and Mays accounted for a team-leading 14.2 a game.
“I have no ill will toward Julius and I wish him great success at Kentucky,” Donlon said after a long pause and a careful choice of words. “He made a decision he thought was in his best interests. But what I struggle with is that I know what he was when he walked in the door here as a player.
“For two years — the year he sat (per NCAA transfer rules) and the year he played — this whole university put a lot of time and effort into him. The athletic department, the trainers because he had a major hip injury, the doctors, the coaching staff, the strength coach, they all gave him everything they could when he needed it.
“So, if I was in his shoes would I have made a different decision? Absolutely. I believe in loyalty.
“But it’s not just Julius, it’s a different culture now. This is a microwave generation. Throw yourself in the microwave and come out a finished product in 30 seconds. Everybody wants instant success and if you have a bad season or a tough year like we did, you move on.
“The transfer rate is over 50 percent in Division I basketball. Many kids today play for four and five different AAU teams. They go to two or three different high schools and when adverse times hit in college they follow the pattern.”
Donlon said he was just as surprised with the departure of Hall, who he said wanted to play point guard, the same position talented freshman Reggie Arceneaux started at last year.
“Vance had no Division I offers coming out of high school,” Donlon said. “
In the spring of his senior year, he and his dad toured Division I programs, but we were the only program to make an offer. And last year he played 25 minutes a game and took the second most threes on the team behind Mays.”
Similarly, losing games really ate at Donlon.
Respite came in his daily phone calls to his 6-year-old daughter (who lives with his ex-wife in North Carolina), weekly conversations with Brad Brownell, his former coach and WSU boss who’s now at Clemson, and, of course, regular chats with his dad, a longtime college assistant and high school coach who ended up coming here along with Billy’s sisters to give some support through a tough stretch in December.
“I felt a lot of pressure to win,” Donlon admitted. “Not because I was worried about losing my job, but because as a coach’s son I know how hard these jobs are to get and how fortunate I am.
“And the thing is everybody associated with the university wants us to be successful. They care so much. And I know what could happen here if basketball really took off. It puts a program, an entire university on the map. You just saw it happen at George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth and Butler.
“That for me is the pressure.”
No quick fixes
Donlon said he didn’t want to try a quick fix and restock his team with several junior college or transfer players who’d only be here a couple of years: “I think you have to build your program with high school kids you get for four years.”
He did add two juco players in 6-foot-1 Miles Dixon, who played at D-I Houston Baptist and Blinn Community College in Texas , and 6-5 Jarron Young, from State Fair C.C. in Missouri.
His five high school players include 20-year-old Joe Bramanti, who played at a prep school after high school in Andover, Mass., 5-11 Bobo Drummond (Peoria), 6-5 Jacoby Roddy (Peoria), 6-6 J.T. Yoho (Solsberry, Ind.) and 6-foot-7 Steven Davis from Indianapolis.
Although the schedule hasn’t been released, it’s known the Raiders will open at Idaho, play a round-robin Thanksgiving tournament in Utah (joining the Utes, Central Michigan and Idaho State), host VMI and Miami and play at Cincinnati, Hofstra and Bowling Green.
Donlon is planning to change the style of play to generate more offense and he’s looking for a team leader – Matt Vest and A.J. Pacher are two candidates, he said – to emerge from his returning players.
I think people will be excited about the athleticism they’re going to see this year,” he said. “And I think if we win some games right out of the box, you’ll start to see the Nutt House fill up again.”
And then art would be back imitating life.
Then Raider basketball would be something to howl about again.