Stetson men’s basketball was under new management this past season with head coach Donnie Jones taking over the program in 2019. The former UCF and Marshall head coach inherited a program coming off a 7-24 campaign that hasn’t experienced a winning season since 1994-95.
But it was the job Jones wanted. In fact, it was the only one he wanted, and he said he would still be an assistant at Dayton if not for the Stetson opportunity opening up. He knows it will take plenty of time and hard work to get the Hatters where he wants them, and he’s ready for it.
“I’ve been part of several programs where we walked in and they’ve been programs that hadn’t had success,” Jones said. “Every time I’ve taken a job, it’s not because they’ve won, it’s because it hasn’t went well. With that, you have to be able to come in and create it. What we’ve been through in our experience, we know the blueprint, what right looks like. We just just have to cultivate it, grow the people and add some recruiting, and that’s what we did.”
Jones and his staff added eight players to the Stetson roster last offseason, including seven freshmen, to begin the process of building the program. Unfortunately, though, before the season could even start, the Hatters lost one of those additions.
Chance McSpadden, a grad transfer from UCF who originally played for Jones in Orlando, suffered a season-ending injury in early November 2019 days before Stetson was to take on Trinity Baptist in its season opener.
Still, Stetson forged on with a new-look squad and coaching staff, and the 2019-20 campaign showed some encouraging signs of life.
McSpadden wasn’t needed to dispatch Trinity Baptist, but he loss was felt more in Stetson’s second game against Western Illinois. But the Hatters got it done, 77-75, to secure their head coach his first Division I win at Stetson. In late November, Stetson added another big win – a 63-55 victory over Monmouth in the ASUN/MAAC Challenge – to get off to a 3-3 start, already almost at half the wins the team experienced in all of 2018-19.
A four-game losing streak in December, including an 83-67 handling at home by FIU, brought Stetson down to earth, and the Hatters brought a 5-9 record on the road with them to take on South Carolina in their next game on Dec. 30.
Naturally, the Hatters took it out on the Gamecocks, 63-56, as Jahlil Rawley came off the bench to put up 16 points in 32 minutes.
Against FIU, Stetson went 0-of-17 from beyond the arc, ending a 15-year streak of sinking at least one triple in each game. In response, the Hatters shot 7-of-17 from deep against South Carolina.
“I’ve been on both ends of this before,” Jones told the Associated Press after the game, referring to his past coaching jobs. “We were just hoping if we could hang around and get lucky down the stretch, it would be an incredible win.”
In fact, the outcome was jarring enough for the Gamecocks that South Carolina head coach Frank Martin let his team know.
“I got really negative on the bench against Stetson, and I did it on purpose,” Martin said to David Cloninger of The Post and Courier. “I was embarrassed and disturbed by how we took the court that day, and the score of the game had nothing to do with how I felt. After that performance, I needed them to know that kind of performance isn’t going to be tolerated around here.”
The team used that momentum to carry itself into conference play, going 5-2 to start the ASUN season, including a 48-43 home victory against Liberty, the 2019 ASUN regular season co-champion and auto bid winner, on Jan. 25, moving the Hatters into a first-place tie atop the league’s standings.
Only four Stetson players put up points in the low-scoring affair, though Rob Perry and Diawara Mahamadou combined for 37, equating to more than 77 percent of the team’s output for the night. Those performances were crucial as the Hatters dug themselves a hole early and needed to come back from an 11-point halftime deficit.
Stetson didn’t take its first lead of the game until 5:31 left to go, and it didn’t relinquish its gains before the final horn, securing its fourth-straight triumph, the team’s longest wining streak since the 2012-13 season.
“I think it’s a great win for the school and for the program,” Jones said after the game. “I have so much respect for Liberty. They’ve been where we’re trying to get to. They are the top of the mountain, and for our kids to come in, show them respect and compete, is impressive. It was our night tonight.”
Stetson would fall in its next outing – 78-65 at North Florida – then rattled off another four victories in a row, starting it off with a huge road W at Lipscomb, the other ASUN co-champ from 2018-19, on Feb. 1.
It was a narrow one, and Stetson needed all eight of the points Wheza Panzo scored in the last 3:05 of the game. Unlike the Liberty game, the Hatters had to hold onto a lead to close the contest, and the Bison gave them almost everything they could handle, coming back from deficit after deficit in the second half to continue to hang around. With seconds remaining, Perry was fouled with a one-and-one opportunity to ice the game with a 55-53 advantage. He missed the front end but immediately stole the ball from Lipscomb’s Michael Buckland to squash any Bison hope.
“It’s been fun to watch us over the last or eight games,” Jones said afterward. “We’ve really learned to play the next possession, good or bad. We’re able to make plays but also show a little grit. It’s more than just one or two guys. It’s starting to be more guys, and when we can get multiple guys playing the way they did down the stretch today, it gives you a chance to do good things.”
For as outstanding as the results were for much of conference play, they turned the other direction to close. Stetson dropped the final four events of the regular season, falling out of the ASUN regular season title race and cementing a third-place tie with Lipscomb at 9-7. The last loss in particular was difficult as the Hatters missed their last eight attempts from the field and had their final try blocked at the buzzer to come up just short of Jacksonville, 53-52.
Stetson collected itself and prepared for the ASUN Tournament, knowing it would host at least its first game of the event. As the No. 4 seed, the Hatters welcomed No. 5 seed North Alabama to DeLand for the quarterfinals.
Kenny Aninye went for a career-high 21 points, scoring 15 of those in the second half, as Stetson prevailed, 82-72. It was the first conference tournament victory for the program since a 96-75 semifinals win versus Lipscomb in 2016.
The Hatters met No. 1 seed Liberty in the semifinals and kept the game competitive. Behind double-figure scoring efforts from Diawara, Rawley and Christiaan Jones, Stetson was within two, 58-56, with 1:12 to go. The Flames iced the game at the free-throw line, though, hitting on eight straight to end the game to secure the victory, 66-62.
That concluded Stetson’s season, finishing with an overall record of 16-17. Without question, it was an improvement from where the program was one year before, though there are clearly some areas that need work.
“(We’re) about where I want to be. I like where we’re heading is probably a better term,” Donnie Jones said. “Any time you get young guys, there’s inconsistency, and we’re not consistent enough. We had eight new players, and I’m bringing in six more. I think I like the steps we’re taking, but we got plenty of them to still take. You just don’t change a culture around. You can bring some life into it, which we did, but we know that for us to have a good team or good season, we want to be competitive like we were at Florida over the years, where we walk in, we build it, and it’s equipped to last.”
Stay tuned for our preview of the 2020-21 Hatters, coming out later this week as our coverage of Donnie Jones and Stetson men’s basketball continues!