William and Mary's basketball season began and ended with losses. In between, the Tribe authored a remarkable year that came one defensive stop, one missed jump shot short of history.
The enduring memory is W&M's 75-74 loss to Delaware in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship. That game left a scar, since the Tribe's first CAA title and NCAA berth were within its grasp — up six with 1:18 remaining.
When Marcus Thornton's jump shot from the right of the key bounced off the back rim with two seconds left, William and Mary remained one of just five original Division I members never to make the NCAA field.
"I thought it was a great season, under any measuring stick, I really did," said coach Tony Shaver, who just completed his 11th season at W&M. "I thought it was a team that improved, played high level basketball, particularly late in the year."
William and Mary (20-12) finished third in the CAA, tying for its second-best finish ever in the conference. W&M won 20 games for just the third time in the past 60 years, but the second time in five years. The Tribe played for the CAA title and an NCAA berth for the third time in the past seven years.
"If you're Kentucky, your gauge is the Final Four," Shaver said. "I don't think every school can have their ultimate goal be the NCAA tournament. I think if that was our only goal as a program, we should change leagues. We should play in leagues that are more like William and Mary, academically. We should get in the Ivy League, the Patriot League."
"If that's our only goal, there are places we can do that," Shaver added. "But I think we want to compete at a high level and for me, every way you measure this team it was really an outstanding team."
William and Mary was, to Shaver's periodic consternation, an offense-first bunch that elevated when engaged on defense. The Tribe became a better, tougher team as the season unfolded, particularly on defense and the boards.
Progress was evident at the CAA tournament, where the Tribe came from behind versus the College of Charleston, outlasted a physical, athletic Towson team to which it had lost twice, and was on the brink of a CAA title courtesy of a massive second-half turnaround against the matchup headache that was Delaware.
"One of the best things to me is that this team really learned to compete," Shaver said. "It's a very simple thing to say, but a lot of kids don't know how to compete, a lot of teams don't know how to compete at a high level, day in and day out. I think that was on display for three days in Baltimore — how hard they competed to do things the right way and to be successful."
W&M was the CAA's most efficient offensive team, according to numbers maven Ken Pomeroy, and ranked high nationally in a handful of advanced metrics. The Tribe led the conference in effective field-goal percentage — a combination of 2- and 3-point shooting — and was more than seven percentage points better than runner-up Towson.
W&M had three 1,000-point career scorers in Thornton, Brandon Britt and Tim Rusthoven, along with a fifth-year senior in Kyle Gaillard and a fill-the-box-score guy in sophomore Terry Tarpey. Senior Julian Boatner, sophomore Sean Sheldon and freshmen Omar Prewitt — the landslide CAA Rookie of the Year — and Daniel Dixon provided depth and versatility.
Pitching forward to next season, W&M will look markedly different — younger and longer. Thornton will be one of only two seniors on a roster with eight freshmen and sophomores. He and redshirt freshman guard Mike Schlotman, at 6-foot-4, also will be the shortest players on a deceptively athletic team stacked with players from 6-5 to 6-9.
Thornton is on the short list for preseason CAA Player of the Year, a dynamic and creative scorer who embraces the moment and delivers more often than not. He already is W&M's No. 7 career scorer (1,519 points) and has a chance to be the all-time leader, provided he remains healthy and doesn't get worn down as the target of opposing defenses and the de facto leader.
"He needs to do two things," Shaver said. "He needs to keep getting better, and his work ethic will get him there. And two, he's got to become even more of a great leader for our club. I thought he made a huge step in leadership and the type of teammate he was this year. He's got to make another step next year, because our guys will really lean on him for that. This year he had some seniors to help him out, but it's going to be in his hands next year.
"I'm going to tell our young guys in the offseason, if I can only convince you to do one thing, it's going to be to follow Marcus around. He's going to be working, and you get in there with him."
Prewitt, who has the look of a potential all-timer at William and Mary, figures to expand his 11-point scoring average. Tarpey should score a bit more, in addition to his defense, rebounding and the half-dozen things he does that don't show up in the box score.
Sheldon's development will be key. The 6-9 sophomore is more fluid and athletic than Rusthoven, but less polished within W&M's system. If he can finish around the basket more consistently and, more important, be the high-post hub around which the Tribe offense revolves, it will go a long way toward easing the transition.
William and Mary figures to take a dip next season, but so will several contenders. League champ Delaware loses two all-conference players. Towson loses Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon, among others.
Shaver said that he believes his team will be better on defense next season, even with its youth. He thinks the program is in better shape than the last time it played for the CAA title — the NIT team in 2010.
The following year, the Tribe started and relied heavily on freshmen, thus beginning another building cycle that peaked with this season's performance. W&M won't rely on freshmen next season nearly to the extent that the 2010-11 team did.
"I feel like we're better equipped, from a talent perspective, to not drop — to not have a dramatic drop," Shaver said. "We're excited about our incoming freshmen, but I don't think we're going to have to depend on those guys. That's exciting."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.