The College of William and Mary is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. It has also been playing organized basketball for 115 years. However, since the modern Division I era, it is one of four original D-I programs to never make the NCAA Tournament. History may be rewriting itself soon though. First-year head coach Dane Fischer just guided the Tribe to their best season in 70 years.
Fischer is no stranger to success. In 17 years as an assistant, he has been part of turnaround efforts at every stop. Fischer helped D-III Williams College finish as the national runners-up in 2004. He also helped revitalize the programs at Rider, Bucknell, and most recently George Mason. Now, as the leader of William and Mary, Fischer seems poised to do the same in Williamsburg, Virginia. Last Word on Hoops caught up with the head man for the Tribe to reflect on year one and the direction of the program.
Spotlighting Dane Fischer
Setting the Stage
William and Mary was searching for a new coach after parting ways with Tony Shaver, who had been there for 16 years. Shaver had kept the Tribe competitive during most of his tenure, but could never break through the door to the Big Dance.
“We have high expectations for our men’s basketball program, including participating in the NCAA Tournament, and we will not shy away from setting the bar high,” said William and Mary Athletic Director Samantha Huge in regards to changing coaches.
With the coaching search in full swing during March Madness, the next man tasked with that goal was Dane Fischer, formally introduced on April 2, 2019. However, the road ahead would not be easy. Four players transferred out, and star big man Nathan Knight was testing the NBA waters. In this day and age of the transfer portal, Knight could have returned from the draft process and transferred somewhere else. However, he chose to return to the Tribe.
“It speaks volumes to the kind of kid that he is,” said Fischer. “He really valued his time at William and Mary and he really valued the degree he was close to finishing here. He’s well aware that he’s got a really bright future in basketball…but he also helped himself in the long term by getting one of the best degrees you can get and applying that whenever basketball is done.”
Knight’s return was huge news. Fischer knew he had a piece to build around, and got Knight to buy in to what he wanted to accomplish for the upcoming season.
“The line I used with him very early on was that, if we were going to have a good team, he had to embrace having the easiest role on this team but also the hardest job,” Fischer said. “He has to be the one that gets coached the hardest and get corrected in front his teammates more than anyone else. Nathan did a terrific job with that all year long. The standard he set in our program allowed us to have the season that we did.”
Preparing for the Season
Fischer ensured that his team would have a measurable way to hold themselves accountable. He introduced five core values: trust, hard work, communication, toughness, and focus.
“Core values allow us to be really simple and consistent with our players,” Fischer stated. “The simplicity is that these are the five things that are going to be really important for our program. The consistency is that they show up in every single thing that we do, off the court and on the court. The idea of being simple and consistent is really important with your players as you’re trying to build a program up.”
He also had to adjust to his new role as being the head coach for the first time.
“The biggest thing was definitely the pull on my time,” said Fischer. “There’s so many different facets of the program that you have to pay attention to.”
However, Fischer knew the importance of surrounding himself with a staff he could trust to help him with those responsibilities.
“One of the most important decisions that you make as a head coach are the people that you hire. I knew the importance of hiring people that you can trust to take ownership of certain areas of the program. I’ve got an unbelievable staff here and they work really well together. That made the transition as smooth as it could be.”
Dane Fischer had a new coaching staff in place and a reworked roster. Now, it was time to tip off the 2019-20 season.
William and Mary played 17 road games during this past season and won 10 of them. That was tied for the most in program history. The tone was set by reeling off three straight road wins to start the year, including a thriller at Wofford. Coach Fischer joked that the key to winning so many away from home was having so many road contests scheduled. However, his was really impressed with the way his team came together.
“There were so many question marks because of the new pieces on our team,” Fischer said. “We had four seniors on our team and none of them had played together before. Early in the season, especially on the road, you can play without a lot of expectations. Our guys played really free and had kind of an “us against the world” mentality. It helped bring our team together. Playing well in those environments gave them confidence as well.”
Even though road games against power schools Oklahoma and Stanford did not go the Tribe’s way, Fischer noted that there are still positives that can be taken away.
“Our guys really developed a confidence from the Oklahoma game,” Fischer stated. “We started to feel like we had a chance to be a really good team. Any time you go into those type of environments, there’s always an excitement level to those games. Those games are always fun ones for us, and we felt like we could go in and compete if we played really well.”
Putting the CAA on Notice
William and Mary found themselves on the road again to start conference play. The Tribe used a late run to pull away from Elon at the end of December. Then came one of the toughest road weekends in the league to Hofstra and Northeastern. For a road tested team, though, this was a piece of cake. Dane Fischer’s squad dispatched Hofstra 88-61. Two days later, Nathan Knight’s last-second shot gave the Tribe a 66-64 victory over Northeastern.
“That was a really big weekend for us,” noted Fischer. “After that Hofstra-Northeastern weekend, our guys felt like this was a really good team. The biggest thing that we focused on throughout the year was not winning or losing, but whether we were doing the right things on a consistent basis to put is in a good position. That particular weekend helped solidify that approach for us when we had some success early.”
William and Mary went on to start 6-0 in conference play, their best league start since 1982-83. The Tribe maintained their status in first place for most of January until a three-game losing streak to start February.
Dane Fischer and his team regrouped after that, reeling off five wins to end the regular season. William and Mary, picked seventh in the preseason, had achieved a second-place finish and a bye in the CAA Tournament. However, a pesky Elon squad broke through in the teams’ third match-up, upsetting William and Mary in Washington D.C.
While the end may have been disappointing, the league had taken notice of the great season in Williamsburg. Nathan Knight took home the conference’s player and defensive player of the year awards. He became just the second player in conference history to win both in the same season.
“There were a lot of times after games, and even practices, that we would come back to the office and just say “wow, that kid is a really good basketball player,”” Dane Fischer said. “He could dominate the game in so many ways. Knight could do it in all facets on the offensive end, but he was also an unbelievable presence on the defensive end. He really is a unique talent, and there were plenty of times we all kind of just sat there and enjoyed the opportunity to coach him during his senior year.”
Andy Van Vliet and Luke Loewe also received honors as key contributors to the team’s success. Van Vliet was a third-team all-conference selection, and Loewe was named to the all-defensive team.
“Andy made the most of his senior year and was a terrific player for us,” Fischer stated. “He was a terrific player for us, especially as a stretch four and space five. The year that Luke Loewe had was incredible. He went from a guy that people didn’t really pay attention to on the scouting report to one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. On top of that, he’s an unbelievable competitor and defensive player. He’s a guy that we’re going to look for a ton next year as a leader on this team.”
Coach of the Year
The final award handed out was honoring Dane Fischer as the league’s coach of the year. The honor was well-deserved, though Fischer defers all the credit to those around him.
“It’s a testament to the group of players that we had and the way that they came together as a team,” Fischer said. “It’s certainly a testament to the work that our assistant coaches do. What I’ll remember most about this season is what the team looked like on the floor together.”
“When you talk about a team, it’s coaching staff, it’s players, it’s support staff,” Fischer stated. “There’s a lot of people that have a hand in the success that you have. Our team did a really good job of embracing their roles and it was evident by the look that we had out there as a team.”
“I thought we were a pretty easy team to root for in the way that our guys carried themselves. If you watched our bench during games, the amount of camaraderie and support they had for one another, that’s the stuff that I’ll look back on and be most proud of with this team.”
Nathan Knight has graduated and will be making his case to play in the NBA. Four starters will be gone when the 2020-21 season commences. However, even as Coach Fischer prepares for next season, the COVID-19 pandemic has everything up in the air.
“Our plan right now is to prepare for our full season and get ready to go there,” Dane Fischer said. We’ve done a lot of stuff virtually this summer as best we could. Our players will come back in early August when school is back in session. Whenever the time comes that decisions need to be made, we’ll be ready to move forward accordingly either way.”
Regardless of if and when a season is played this year or beyond, AD Huge’s goal remains the same. The Tribe want to break their NCAA Tournament drought.
“It’s something we talk about as team when we need to, but I keep the drought in the rear view more than anything,” stated Fischer. “We focus on our core values, preparing the right way, and going out and playing as well as we can.”
“If we do those things at a really high level with the right talent level, we’re going to put ourselves in a position to make a run for it. That’s what we’ll focus on and key on here as we try to move this program forward and ultimately achieve that goal.”
If the first season is a window into the future under Coach Fischer, the program will get there in short notice. William and Mary will reload and should compete once again at the top of the Colonial.