This summer, Last Word on Basketball looks to profile college basketball teams and their journey through a season played during a pandemic. Our previous installment took a look at Toledo from the MAC. You can also check out prior installments, starting with Xavier. The next program in our series is Wofford basketball. Head Coach Jay McAuley completed his second season leading the Terriers in 2020-21.
McAuley was the man tasked with leading Wofford after Mike Young departed for Virginia Tech. McAuley’s first season came following the historic 2018-19 season. However, he had a lot to do with that as well, serving as the associate head coach on that team. McAuley has continued the championship culture in place. The Terriers advanced to the Southern Conference Championship in his first season. This past season, even in the midst of a pandemic, McAuley had Wofford basketball on the brink of a regular-season title. I had the chance to talk to Coach about how Wofford navigated COVID to have the Terriers in the thick of a title race once more.
The Story of the 2020-21 Wofford Basketball Program
A Late Start
Figuring out how to get ready for last season was no easy task. The ability for various college basketball programs to get together depended on the state and the health guidelines in place. For Wofford and Jay McAuley, any kind of off-season program didn’t exist.
“We didn’t have a summer,” he said. “Right after our championship loss to ETSU, guys went home on spring break and never returned until Labor Day. Other schools were able to kind of modify that. We didn’t.”
Classes traditionally begin at Wofford after Labor Day, which already put the Terriers behind other schools in the conference in their pre-season preparation. The 2020-21 team also had a lot of new faces. McAuley praised the way seniors Storm Murphy and Tray Hollowell led the new guys.
“[They] did a good job of leading those young guys via Zoom calls all summer,” McAuley said. “Getting them caught up to speed as best we could.”
Coach knew that this season was going to be even more unusual than ever, and he tried to get his team in that mindset.
“I think all of us college coaches are used to getting on a roller coaster every year, but not this type of roller coaster,” he remarked. “My message to our team was, ‘we have got to be the best problem solvers in the Southern Conference.'”
For McAuley and his staff, that message would hold true almost right away.
On An Island
After starting the season 2-0 against non-Division I schools, Wofford basketball was ready to square off against a D-I opponent. However, the pandemic wasn’t. The Terriers’ next two games against North Carolina Central and Presbyterian got canceled. The same happened with their game against South Carolina. Wofford was set to go two weeks without a game until they managed to pick up a game against a nationally-ranked Richmond team.
“We’re all on the phone until midnight trying to figure this thing out logistically,” Coach stated. “The scheduling component, you were on your own island in non-conference. We already play, year in and year out, a top 25 non-conference schedule. When you lose, and it’s no knock on those other schools, games against NCCU and PC, and you get a top 25 team on the road in Richmond, that top 25 schedule becomes a top 10 schedule.”
Wofford also pivoted by picking up a game against South Florida in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event in Atlanta. McAuley was always ready to alert his team about a change as they happened.
“The players quickly learned, just like I learned,” he said, “that any call from our trainer was not a good call last year. I’d look at my phone and be like, ‘oh my, here we go.’ There was constantly this overshadowing, dark cloud on college basketball teams through those moments that happened quite a bit.”
Gearing Up for League Play
Even with all the uncertainty, McAuley had a team that knew they just wanted to play as much as they could.
“Our seniors came to my office and said, ‘Coach, I don’t care if we play Duke Monday through Friday, we just want to play'” McAuley stated. “The kids at that point in time didn’t know how the season was going to go and wanted to play any chance they could get. We were sensitive to that as a staff.”
As it was time to start playing SoCon opponents, the league decided to stick to its normal schedule. That decision came after some alternative discussions, according to McAuley.
“There were talks about bubbling up in Greenville and Spartanburg,” he noted. “Having two, week and a half bubbles, where we played five or six games. Worst-case scenario options that I think everybody was close to signing up for with the nature of everything.”
Still, Wofford almost lost their first league game right after Christmas.
“We’re in Macon, GA, and we get a call, and we don’t know if we’re going to play the next day,” McAuley said. “I’m not telling our team that because we’re preparing for our first league game. On the other side of the coin, Mercer is preparing to contact trace.”
It was only a sign of things to come for making adjustments during conference play.
Setting the Table
Wofford had just lost their first SoCon game to UNC Greensboro, dropping them to 2-1 early on. However, the Terriers would get their revenge just three days later. It was that kind of scheduling decision that gave the rest of the coaches in the league a guide on how to get games played.
“Wes [Miller] and I are in the handshake line…and I said, ‘hey, through the grapevine, it looks like your opponent is on pause, and my opponent is on pause,'” McAuley told Miller. “‘There’s an open day two days from now, it sounds like we may have an opportunity to play again.’ This is kind of where we started this deal in our league of figuring it out, because sometimes the league didn’t always put those things together for the members of our league.”
McAuley also felt like winning the rematch against UNCG gave his team a spark to make the run that they did.
“We were a man down, and our guys were tough as nails, and we got a huge win,” he said. “I thought that kind of catapulted us, especially our young guys. We started hitting our stride a little bit there early in conference play.”
Oh So Close
Wofford basketball would go on to win six of their next seven games after that. The month of February was a bit more up and down for the Terriers, but they were still right in the middle of the race for the SoCon title.
“We had a tough, tough break in a game that derailed us for a few days,” remarked McAuley. “So, we had to re-center ourselves a little bit amongst all the other factors going on. I was really proud of the last three games of the year. We won [them] after being a little not like ourselves, I thought, at the beginning of February.”
Going into the final week of the regular season, Wofford had a chance to at least share the regular-season conference title. However, COVID struck again, causing their game against last-place Samford to get canceled. It was the only conference game the Terriers lost last season.
“We would’ve done anything to go to Samford,” McAuley implored. “Anything. But, it wasn’t meant to be for that last league game.”
UNCG finished at 13-5, sitting a half game ahead of Wofford when the standings were set.
Reflecting on Wofford Basketball
Wofford would go on to be upset by the same Mercer team they almost didn’t play at the end of December in the quarterfinals of the SoCon Tournament. While the season fell short of the Terriers’ goals, McAuley couldn’t be prouder of the way his team conducted themselves all season.
“They went through the whole gauntlet doing everything we asked,” he stated. “Living in separate dorms. Moving two or three times on campus. Testing. The extra stuff we had to do just to exist. Really proud of them.”
For McAuley, it was all about learning how to be flexible.
“You learn that maybe the way you’ve always done it doesn’t have to be the way it has to be moving forward,” he said. “We could really learn to be smarter and more efficient with workouts and practice schedules.”
Finally, McAuley remarked on how grateful he feels to have the group of guys that he does.
“I learned and it reaffirmed how tough our guys were,” he remarked. “We recruit tought guys and smart guys, and they love to win and to come to the gym.”
Wofford placed three players on the All-Freshman team, and they, along with many of the other core players from last year, are back for 2021-22. Expect the Terriers to be competing for a SoCon title again next season.