MARTIN – Renovation work continues behind a temporary barrier a few steps outside Heath Schroyer’s office inside the Elam Center.
The coach and his players are doing a kind of renovation, too.
UT Martin athletic director Julio Freire made his first big personnel decisions in March, firing Jason James and hiring Schroyer as the men’s basketball coach. Schroyer, 42, previously coached at Portland State and Wyoming, two other programs that were struggling when he arrived.
The men’s basketball team has had five consecutive losing seasons, and Schroyer wants the players to change their habits and methods.
“I really believe that all the guys wanted structure,” Schroyer said earlier this week inside his UT Martin office. “They were starving for structure and leadership and a direction to go.”
Schroyer said 10 players have spent all summer in Martin. Through April, May and June, 7 a.m. workouts became routine. Nightly study halls did, too. Conditioning and better classwork are the goals, respectively, but those sessions are also supposed to reinforce accountability and work ethic.
If UT Martin wants to win in the Ohio Valley Conference, the players must develop those traits. Schroyer said the players received him warmly and have accepted his new ways.
Junior guard Dee Oldham said the morning workouts required a schedule adjustment but he doesn’t mind them. He said one change has been a consistently high work intensity.
“We’re doing it every day,” he said. “There’s no ‘Work hard Monday and take Tuesday light,’” Oldham said.
Oldham acknowledged the players thought it might be awkward between them and Schroyer when he first got there, but Oldham was pleasantly surprised it was not. Oldham said he trusts Schroyer based on the coach’s background.
Senior forward Myles Taylor, the team’s leading scorer the past two seasons, has lost about 30 pounds. Schroyer said that illustrates his players’ willingness to do what’s asked of them.
“All of them, per a man, they want to win. They wanted to do something different,” he said. “They knew that we needed to change direction in what it is that we were doing. So that part was good.”
“Now it’s easy to say that. The hard part is actually living it.”
In two of the past five seasons, UT Martin won only four games. They failed to qualify for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament three times in James’ tenure, including last year.
There were scattered highlights, like an upset win at Murray State in 2013, but too often the ends of games were characterized by turnovers, bad shot selection and poor transition defense. (Near the end of one game last season, a then-senior received a technical foul while sitting on the bench.)
Culture is a buzzword for Schroyer in the way location might be for a realtor. His concept of “the Martin way” includes five attributes – loyalty, passion, unselfishness, discipline and work ethic. Addressing these areas is an offseason priority.
“I don’t know if there’s one of the things that we need to change the most,” he said. “I think that we equally try to establish a system, if you will, that will help govern the program and have collective accountability. That’s what we tried to incorporate literally from day one.”
UT Martin’s academic progress rate (APR) fell to 920 out of a possible 1,000 in 2012-13, the lowest of any team on campus and below the NCAA minimum threshold of 930 to avoid a penalty. UTM thus had its allotted practice time reduced.
Further issues in this area could lead to a postseason ban, as OVC member Jacksonville State men’s basketball had in 2013.
“We obviously inherited a basketball program that hasn’t been successful, but we also inherited a program that hasn’t been successful in the classroom,” Schroyer said.
UTM is not the first struggling team Schroyer has taken over. He coached Portland State of the Big Sky Conference from 2002 to 2005 and the University of Wyoming from 2007 to 2011.
Portland State had losing records in his first two seasons before winning the Big Sky regular season title in his third and final year.
Schroyer then took an assistant’s job at Fresno State before becoming head coach at Wyoming, which had APR issues. The Cowboys’ academic situation improved and the team reached the College Basketball Invitational tournament in Schroyer’s second year.
Losing records, though, the next full season and into the fourth season, which Schroyer attributes to the team’s youth and injuries, led to his firing in the middle of that fourth year.
Schroyer said he considered multiple aspects of his job and made tweaks he thought would make him more effective.
“I think that as hard as it was, that was really, really a beneficial time in my growth,” he said. “… I’m a lot better now than I was the day I took the Wyoming job.”
As an assistant Schroyer helped improve the program at Brigham Young and until last year worked at UNLV, where Freire served part of the same time as associate athletics director.
On the court, Schroyer is emphasizing fundamentals of man-to-man defense and shot selection on offense. He would like a rotation of nine to ten players, but he declined to estimate the minutes certain players would play. (Several newcomers have not yet arrived on campus.)
Schroyer has also implemented other aspects of his coaching style. While at UTM, James tried to use past failure as motivation.
“We talk about it every day,” James said just before the 2012-13 season, which followed a four-win campaign. “I don’t want these guys to forget it. I don’t want them to forget our struggles.”
Schroyer seems to have taken a different approach.
“To be honest we don’t talk about stuff in the past,” Oldham said this past week. “Whole new team, whole new year, whole new culture.”
Getting past that is easier to say than do, and Schroyer knows everyone at UTM is tired of losing seasons.
“It’s a new day. And I don’t think you can ever move forward if you’re always focused on the past. I’ve told our team that. I tell fans that when I speak,” he said.
“You’re going to see a very different product. We’re going to be together, we’re going to play together. We’re going to have a defensive chip on our shoulder, and we’re going to play with a purpose.”
Schroyer acknowledged UTM has a lot of work to do to match regular OVC contenders like Murray State, Belmont, Eastern Kentucky and Morehead State.
The hope is the habits being formed in this offseason translate to more success in games, with the time frame for such improvement still to be determined.
“Guys have improved. I’m not satisfied by any means,” Schroyer said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve definitely made a lot of progress.”
Craig Thomas, 425-9634
UT Martin roster
* – player joined after Schroyer became coach
Seniors: Myles Taylor (forward), Marshun Newell (guard), Khristian Taylor (guard)
Juniors: Dee Oldham (guard), Alex Anderson* (guard), Terrence Durham* (guard), Twymond Howard* (forward), Arkeem Joseph* (center)
Sophomores: Javier Martinez (forward), Chandler Rowe (forward)
Freshmen: C.J. Davis* (guard), Richard Lee* (guard), Fatodd Lewis* (forward), Brandon Hitchman* (forward), Nick Detlev* (center)
Notable departures: Mike Liabo (guard/completed eligibility), Terence Smith (guard/transferred to Ole Miss)
Courtesy of: Craig Thomas
Published by: The Jackson Sun