Editor’s note: This is the third and final part of a series looking back on the Purple Aces’ 23-year NCAA tournament drought. You can read Part I and Part II.
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Marcus Wilson hasn’t set his alarm since June 1. He hasn’t needed to.
He wakes up every morning at 5:30 or 6 am, excited to get into work. Wilson knew he had the job as new University of Evansville men’s basketball Coach David Ragland’s first assistant June 1 and was publicly announced two days later.
Since then, he hasn’t needed any extra motivation to get up and go to work. They just do it.
“I’m locked in,” Wilson said. “I’m serious about this.”
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He wants to bring his alma mater back where he left it in 1999 — the NCAA Tournament. Wilson’s final game with the Purple Aces, a 95-74 loss to Kansas in the first round of the Big Dance, was the last time UE was in the tournament. Some close calls over the years followed, but the Aces never made it back.
That’s why he and his ’99 teammate Craig Snow left their jobs to join Ragland’s staff. They didn’t want to get UE back to the tournament.
“If this program had made the tournament several times since then, I’m not sure I would leave the gig that I had to do that now,” Wilson said. “Maybe, I don’t know. But I’m tired of us not winning.
“I still can’t believe it’s been that long (since UE has been in the NCAA Tournament). That’s why it’s so personal to me right now about this job and why I take it so seriously.”
Snow particularly agreed with one word: “Personal.”
“The fuel is different. I’ve had a lot of coaching jobs that are good jobs, but I haven’t had a job that isn’t a job,” Snow said. “I hate using the word “calling” because it puts other connotations on it, but there’s a fire. I don’t need to be motivated.”
Part 1:Like it’s 1999: What made Evansville’s last NCAA tournament team so special?
Part 2:How building ‘the right culture’ will Someday lead the Aces back to the NCAA tournament
The work to get the Aces back to that level started when Ragland was hired. The goal, as he said at a recent meet-and-greet, is to connect UE’s successful past to the present. Wilson and Snow are bought in, but getting to the NCAA Tournament is far from an easy task.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s what we’re doing is bridging the gap of the past and the present,” Ragland said Sept. 16. “We’re trying to do what those teams did. We want to be successful on the floor. We want to win championships.”
Snow: “It’s pretty clear what we have to do”
Winning starts on the recruiting trail.
While that may be an overstated part of college athletics, the authenticity of it remains true. A team can’t win without good players.
While a lot has changed in the sport, “a lot of the recipe is the same,” Snow said.
“We just have to stay focused with where we’re headed and in our goals and not get distracted,” Snow said. “There’s no magic potion. It’s pretty clear what we have to do.”
Wilson and Snow both spoke of the process that is needed to reach the NCAA Tournament. Wilson pointed to a clip of Texas Coach Chris Beard talking about the process, putting in extra work after practice and taking care of their bodies with proper diet and rest, something that needs to be followed “whether we’re 25-0 or 0- 25,” Wilson said.
For the coaches, Wilson said they have a similar process.
“We gotta get in the office and study film, we’ve got to criticize ourselves,” he said. “We’ve got to find out how to put our players in the best position.”
That was something the 1999 team had. Coach Jim Crews had the team well prepared and well put together, Snow said. Having a team like that is what the new staff at UE wants to build.
The Aces have put an emphasis on recruiting strong students and athletes over the years.
“Sometimes it felt like that was the priority, and then if we win, then OK. … I think they can both be 1A and 1B,” Wilson said. “You can get high-level players who are also studs on the basketball court, who are also great players in the community. There is no order of 1, 2, 3 in my mind.
“Those are all 1, and I think that’s how our team was good.”
Stanton: ‘I think they’re gonna give themselves a legit shot’
The Aces have plenty of history. The near misses and other poor seasons in the past have kept them out of the NCAA Tournament for 23 years now, but there’s a sense of a changing tide.
UE hasn’t had a perfect start to this season, but it didn’t need to be after last year’s 6-24 disaster. Ragland, along with Wilson and Snow, have the Aces playing a fast brand and hard defense, which has been the way to success in the Missouri Valley Conference in recent years. Fans and former players have welcomed the change of pace.
“I think the best programs and the best coaches are the ones that get the group and have the players be an extension of what they want,” 1999 UE forward Curt Begle said. “There’s just a lot of distractions out there for any kid, whether it was then or now. You’ve gotta have a common goal, and the common goal is winning.”
That’s what Begle, Wilson and Snow experienced on the ’99 team. That common goal, paired with growing community support, has been paramount for the Aces’ rebuild. But the biggest thing that Ragland has focused on in building his program has been culture.
“I think they got the right pieces in there from a coaching standpoint,” 1999 guard Jeremy Stanton said. “(Ragland was) stressing we got to build the culture here, we’ve got to build that back up, and I think he’s 100% correct.
“Once they build that back up, obviously getting the right players in there, I think they’re gonna give themselves a legit shot here to get back there.”
With the pieces in place and the steps already known, the UE staff has started building towards that goal. The coaches have mentioned Championships and cutting down nets throughout the offseason, but also said it was a process.
That process has officially begun, and Wilson and Snow are eyeing another title with each other along the way.
“I think it would be a pretty awesome story to do it with a guy that we won a Championship together as players,” Wilson said. “To be able to get that done as coaches together, they might want to come back and make a movie, a documentary about that. That’s the stuff where Legends are made.”