Conventional wisdom was that UNC Greensboro basketball coach Wes Miller would leave for a higher profile job after leading his team to a 27-8 record and a near upset of Gonzaga in the opening round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the former North Carolina point guard signed a seven-year contract extension that increases his base salary to more than $300,000 and increases his retention bonuses and other performance-based incentives.
While it’s doubtful that Miller will stick around for the duration of the deal, it’s no secret as to why he decided to stay at the Southern Conference school for at least one more season. With leading scorer Francis Alonso and two other starters back, this year’s Spartans have a chance to be every bit as good, if not better, than they were a year ago.
“We certainly like our guys,” Miller told Greensboro television station WFMY recently. “We like the work they did in the offseason. We think we have some pieces to be a competitive team, but now it’s about going to the gym every single day and doing the right things to put it all together.”
UNCG was picked as the favorite to win its conference again while Alonso and teammate James Dickey were named to the preseason All-SoCon team.
Alonso, a 6-foot-3 senior from Spain, averaged 15.6 points per game while shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range last season, but according to Miller he’s “so much more than just a shooter and scorer.”
His 103 assists, which were second on the team to returning point guard Demetrius Troy, bear out the diversity in his game. Dickey, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-10 junior who averaged 8.9 points and 8.4 rebounds while blocking 71 shots.
The Spartans also return two of their top reserves from a year ago in 6-foot-8 forward Kyrin Galloway and 6-foot-3 guard Malik Massey.
“We have some upperclassmen that are impact guys,” Miller said, “and that sets the tone for us from a personnel standpoint.”
As talented and motivated as that veteran nucleus might be, Miller said it’s important for them not to get caught looking too far ahead, assuming that a return trip to the NCAA Tournament is inevitable.
Not only do the Spartans have a difficult nonconference schedule that includes trips to LSU and Kentucky, but they play in a competitive conference in which only one team is guaranteed entry into the madness of March.
“We’re in October,” Miller said. “We’re not going to get to the NCAA Tournament today or tomorrow, so that’s not on the front of our mind.
“Everyone in the country wants to make it to the NCAA Tournament. That’s not a unique goal. We’ve got to take care of things in front of us. If we incrementally handle our business, we’ll put ourselves in position to make a run at the end of the year.”
One newcomer that could potentially help them make that run is 6-foot-8, 268-pound freshman Mohammed Abdulsalam.
A four-star big man from Nigeria who attended high school in the Atlanta area, Abdulsalam chose UNCG over the likes of Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Providence and is rated as the top incoming recruit in the SoCon. If he lives up to his advance billing, he would be an upgrade from the player he’ll replace in the lineup, Jordy Kuiper.
If the Spartans take care of their business and do earn their fourth NCAA trip since 2001, they’ll be a team no high seed will want to play.
Gonzaga can attest to that.
UNCG led the third-seeded Bulldogs by two with possession of the ball with 1:49 remaining in their first-round matchup last March. A missed shot and an offensive foul on Alonso allowed Gonzaga to escape with a 68-64 victory that left Miller and his players disappointed, but proud of what they accomplished over the course of a successful season.
“It was nice to achieve that,” the youthful 35-year-old coach said. “Certainly the way it ended was heartbreaking and we thought there was a little bit more basketball to be played. We think about that every single day. I know I do. But it was a heck of a ride.”