Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Derek Johnston continues to rack up NCAA Tournament wins
If the young assistant coach on the Liberty University bench looked familiar, he should. After all, it wasn't all that long ago that Derek Johnston was on the Williams College bench, helping former coach Mike Maker guide the Ephs to a pair of trips to the NCAA Division III Final Four in Salem, Va.
Now, Johnston and his team are one win away from the Sweet 16.
Johnston worked for Maker when Williams went to the Elite Eight in 2013 and the Final Four the next year. He then spent three seasons at Alabama-Huntsville, where the Chargers made two NCAA Division II tournament appearances.
Now in his first year at Liberty, the Flames knocked off Mississippi State and have in-state rival Virginia Tech up next today. It was Liberty's first-ever NCAA Division I tournament win.
So, if you want to win in the NCAA Tournament, you should hire Johnston.
If you missed it Friday night — and finding TruTV on your cable system can be a challenge — the 12th-seeded Flames knocked off No. 5 Mississippi State 80-76. It was Liberty's fourth appearance in the tournament, and playing a good team from the SEC did not make advancing any easier.
"They're really, really good. Even moreso in the backcourt probably than I realized, watching them on film," Johnston said, when reached by phone in San Jose, Calif., as Liberty was getting ready to play the Hokies in the Round of 32.
"[Lamar] Peters is maybe as quick of a guard as I've ever played against. He just lived in the paint," he said. "Their fours and fives are so long and physical and athletic. They had us on the ropes. You watched it. They had us on the ropes. But I was really proud of our guys. We didn't flinch.
"There were a couple of times when we could have folded, and thought we had a really good run, and our season was over. Our guys didn't do that."
The former Alabama-Huntsville player had his first college coaching job in Williamstown for Maker. Johnston got here because his former college coach, Lennie Acuff — who later became his boss — recommended him to Maker.
Johnston said there are a number of similarities between his time at Williams and his current post.
"First of all, it's an unbelievable collection of young men, as it was with that group," Johnston said, comparing the Liberty squad to the Williams team that had Mike Mayer, Duncan Robinson, Mike Greenman, Dan Wohl and Taylor Epley in the starting lineup.
"There was a lot of character," he said. "A lot of guys who were pursuing the right things, a lot of guys who were willing to put the team before themselves."
When I asked Johnston about the similarities and differences of Selection Sunday in Division I and Selection Monday in Division III, he said that watching on television wasn't much different. He did remind me that being at Williams makes it a little easier to get into the NCAA Tournament.
"One of the big difference is if we didn't win [the Atlantic Sun] conference championship, we're not going. Whereas, oftentimes in NESCAC, it's harder to win the league than it is to get to the Final Four," he said, "because it's such a competitive league. That part was different. Also, what was different is that we had a week off between our championship game and Selection Sunday. You had some time to enjoy it, but you got a little antsy by the end of the week.
"When your name pops up, it doesn't matter what the level is. You're in the tournament and you're excited about it."
Johnston said that a group of Liberty fans made the cross-country jaunt from Virginia to San Jose, Calif., but by the end of the Mississippi State game, most of the arena were cheering for the 12-seeded Flames.
Liberty had to travel across the country for its next game, against a team that lives some 90 miles from Lynchburg.
"It's got be a similar performance for us," Johnston said of Sunday's game against the Hokies. "We've got to take care of the ball. If we throw it to them, it's going to be really hard to beat them."
These two teams played an exhibition game back in early November, raising money for hurricane relief. The squads raised more than $36,000, which was the good news. For Liberty, the bad news was that Virginia Tech won the game 86-70. So, it's not like these teams are strangers.
"Our guys remember that well," Johnston said. "We had some good moments in that game, and had some not-so-good down the stretch. So you kind of want to bounce back from that. On the other side of that, they're going to be really prepared too."
It should be easier finding the Liberty-Virginia Tech game. it'll be on TBS at 7:10 p.m.
And we'll all see if coach Ritchie McKay's team can put another single-digit seed into the 12th-seeded squad's win column.
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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