FAIRMONT — In front of the Fairmont community and Fairmont State Falcons fans base for the first time, new FSU coach Tim Koenig was candid: If the day ever came when he got an offer to jump from his hometown of Cleveland to the Friendly City to coach Fairmont State basketball, there’s no way he could’ve turned it down.
Making his first public comments as Fairmont State coach at his introductory press conference Monday at Joe Retton Arena, Koenig praised almost everything about the FSU basketball program. But one element, in particular, seemed to send shockwaves through his system: The sheer prolificacy of the program’s history and culture.
Legendary coach Joe Retton is the figure at the forefront of that rich tradition of Fairmont State basketball, guiding the Falcons to an unprecedented stratosphere
during his 18-year career. His .836 career winning percentage (478-95) still stands as the best in the history of men’s college basketball at any level.
But from Jasper Colebank to Squibb Wilson to Butch Haswell, Fairmont State’s basketball history has etched successful era after successful era in the years before and after Retton’s illustrious tenure.
The most modern era of FSU hoops has restored the program to those prior lofty heights, with former coaches Jerrod Calhoun and Joe Mazzulla sewing together a historic run since the turn of the decade.
Calhoun, who leveraged his successful coaching stint with FSU into his current position as the head coach of Youngstown State, went 124-38 (.765) during his five seasons as the Falcons’ coach, which included four NCAA Tournament appearances and a national runner-up finish in 2016-17. Mazzulla, who was an assistant on Calhoun’s staff for three of those five seasons, then took the reigns after Calhoun left for Youngstown State.
In two seasons, Mazzulla went 43-17 as head coach of the Falcons, including securing the program’s fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in the past seven seasons last year when the Falcons made the field as an at-large bid before falling to Mercyhurst in overtime in the first round.
Koenig, who spent the past six seasons as the head coach of Notre Dame College where he had a 93-88 (.514) overall and 61-71 in Mountain East Conference play, including an NCAA Tournament appearance last season, may represent a bridge to a new era of Fairmont State hoops. He’s a relative outsider compared to Calhoun, who came from Bob Huggins’ staff at WVU, and then Mazzulla, who was as an assistant under Calhoun.
But Koenig, who’s been coaching in some capacity at Notre Dame College since the 2006-07 season, save for a year in 2008-09, is immersed with MEC basketball in terms of play style and recruiting.
“I know that we’re inheriting a really good program, an elite program,” said Koenig at his introductory press conference on Monday. “Obviously we want to keep it at the highest level year in and year out, and we need to add to it; we have to keep adding from a personnel standpoint and from a learning and growth standpoint every day.
“You always want to look big picture, but then you want to really enjoy the day and enjoy what’s in front of you. Each team has their own journey and their own path. We have to put our own footprint on it.”
Koenig didn’t elaborate much on the contrast in play styles when asked on Monday between what he wants to implement and what Mazzulla, and even Calhoun to an extent, installed during their tenures.
Calhoun molded the Falcons into a team that operated at hyperspeed — pushing the pace in the open court with floor spacing abound offensively and unfurling full-court, helter-skelter pressure defensively. Mazzulla’s teams called off the full-court defensive pressure and tempered the run-and-gun nature a hair, but the go-go principles and new-age floor spacing with four-out, and sometimes even five-out, lineups remained.
Koenig figures the Falcons will still play plenty fast, and his Notre Dame teams offer tangible proof of that ideology.
“Common sense says you want to score before the defense gets set and you want to get your defense set,” Koenig said. “Those are the starting points, and then from there, I want to cater to our talent and our best strengths. I know I didn’t give you a clear cut answer, but those are the qualities we start with and we build from that.”
Last season at Notre Dame, where Koenig led the Falcons to a 23-9 overall record and 16-6 MEC mark en route to winning the MEC Tournament and earning MEC Coach of the Year honors, NDC averaged 87.8 points a game, third in the MEC behind West Liberty (100.9) and Glenville State (90.4). Fairmont State was seventh at 84.2 points a game. FSU allowed the second-fewest points a game in the MEC last season, however, at 77.0, while Notre Dame was fifth at 79.8 points allowed a game.
It’s hard to glean much from those traditional scoring statistics in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency because they’re so easily warped by possession totals. Ditto for 3-point statistics, although they can offer a bit more clarity in stylistic terms. Over the course of Mazzulla’s two seasons at FSU, the Falcons were plus-13.2 and plus-4.9 in attempted 3s versus allowed 3s, a more stable metric of evaluating 3-point shooting differential than raw percentages, which are much more prone to luck and fluctuation.
Over those same two seasons, NDC was minus-3.1 and plus-4.3, with a minus-2.5 differential in 2016-17.
Negative 3-point attempt differentials theoretically put teams at a game-to-game deficit analytically on their face, but that can be made up by any number of other differentials, such as shots at the rim and free throws. Koenig may have prioritized shots at the rim whereas Mazzulla may have put more of an emphasis on 3s.
Ultimately, such statistical takeaways can range from a reflection of a coach’s priorities to, well, nothing at all really. And that doesn’t account for personnel.
For example, at NDC last season, Koenig’s Falcons ran more offense through the blocks and elbows than Mazzulla. Koenig’s Falcons also had a walking 25-and-10 and reigning MEC Player of the Year in senior forward Will Vorhees. Of course, they’d tailor the offense to his sweet spots.
“There could be some different philosophies, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong,” Koenig said on Monday. “That’s just who I am and who (Mazzulla) is.”
Mazzulla made his personal tweaks after Calhoun moved on to Youngstown, and Koenig will surely do the same now. The caveat behind that reshuffling is the state of the roster. When Mazzulla took over for Calhoun after FSU’s Division II national runner-up finish, he watched a lot of talent graduate in two All-Atlantic Region forwards in Matt Bingaya and Thomas Wimbush as well as FSU’s all-time steals and assists leader in Shammgod Wells Jr. Full-time starting center Trevor Andrews-Evans, a shot-blocking force, graduated as well.
But between point guard Jason Jolly and wing Vonte Montgomery, Mazzulla had two every-game starters returning to go with nightly rotation players in D.J. Stockman, Andrew Emrick and Troy Cantrell. Toss inexperienced players in wing Caleb Davis and stretch forward R.J. Hutcherson coming back from injury, and Mazzulla had plenty of pieces toward a sturdy starting lineup and rotation in his debut season as head coach.
The cupboard is more barren for Koenig going into next season, with three starters in Vince Franklin, Jolly, Montgomery and Hutcherson graduating and Emrick, the team’s sixth man and third-leading scoring transferring to Findlay. Outside of starting wings Kenzie Melko and Cole VonHandorf, Fairmont State’s rotation has nearly been plucked clean.
Based on the Falcons’ current roster projection, just 34.6 percent of the team’s 6,300 minutes from this past season will be back.
“Now you’re gonna look and say there are no seniors on the roster, and experience is always a question mark,” admitted Koenig on Monday. “I know we have a lot of learning, myself included, and a lot of growth, myself included, but we’re really looking forward to that challenge. I’m very confident in this group. We’re talented.”