Chuck McGill: Chemistry paid off for Osborne, UC

Dwaine Osborne has plenty on which to hang his maroon-and-gold hat.

You know, if basketball coaches wore hats.

The 40-year-old University of Charleston men’s hoops coach returned to the Mountain State’s capital city Sunday after watching one of his outgoing seniors, Xavier Humphrey, compete in the Division II All-Star game in Evansville, Ind. The game, at the Ford Center, was also the site of the Division II Elite 8. Osborne witnessed Humphrey play for the East All-Star team Friday night. The Mountain East’s West Liberty faced Central Missouri for the national title Saturday afternoon.

West Liberty lost, which means the Hilltoppers finished as the runner-up for two titles this month. Osborne, the MEC co-Coach of the Year with West Liberty’s Jim Crutchfield, guided his first UC team past the Hilltoppers in the MEC championship game earlier this month.

Osborne took over as the Golden Eagles’ coach 34 weeks ago today, and the list of individual and team accomplishments is staggering for that small window: Coach of the Year, conference championship, NCAA tournament berth, a win over the eventual national runner-up, a first-team all-league player (Humphrey, who earned the All-Star invite on top of it) and a second-team all-conference player (Aleksander Kesic, who has two years of eligibility left).

All that had to be hard to fathom 34 weeks ago, right?

“Every team starts with the goal in mind to play for a championship,” Osborne said Sunday. “I don’t ever go into a year thinking something is impossible or we’re going to finish in the middle of the pack ...”

Osborne paused, collected his thoughts and continued:

“From a human perspective, I think you can look at the situation back then and be more realistic,” he said. “There’s a new coach and there are three groups of players: the group that was returning, the group that was recruited by the previous coach and the guys signed by the new coach.

“It would be easy to look at that and see a potential for the team chemistry to be awful. It turns out, it was one of the best things about our team.”

UC had a 5-4 record on Jan. 4, two months before the Golden Eagles outlasted the Hilltoppers in the MEC final at the Charleston Civic Center. After up-and-down nine-game start to the season, Charleston went 16-5 the rest of the way, finished No. 2 in the league, won the tournament title and advanced to NCAA tournament play.

“We had unbelievable team chemistry,” Osborne said. “We won because we played hard and we won because our team chemistry was good.”

A lot of that, Osborne said, fell on his seniors. Before the conference championship game, Osborne told a story about how Denzel Douglas didn’t accept the head coach’s invitation to wiggle out of punishment related to Douglas being late for a practice. As a result, Douglas did not start his Senior Night game, the only game this season he came off the bench.

Humphrey, who led UC in scoring at 16.6 points per game, became the focus of opposing defenses during conference play. He managed only nine shots and eight points in a pre-Christmas meeting with Fairmont State, and then nine shots and eight points in the rematch in January. West Liberty held Humphrey to seven field-goal attempts and five points on Feb. 1, and Humphrey made just two shots and scored seven points in a regular-season finale loss at West Virginia State. UC lost three of the four games in which Humphrey scored in single digits.

“X never once asked for more shots or said he needed more plays run through him or told his teammates they needed to pass him the ball more,” Osborne said of Humphrey. “Not one time, in front of the team or in private, nothing.

“I think it’s a huge credit to him because on the surface Xavier got face-guarded a lot and it was tough for him to even get him the ball much less get him a shot. He never allowed that frustration to get to him and he never took bad shots.”

Now Osborne is tasked with finding players to fill the squeaky sneakers of Humphrey and Douglas, in addition to Baptiste Boucharel and Fred Simpson. The quartet of seniors played a combined 3,218 minutes, so 52.6 percent of the minutes played this season are graduating from the program.

Osborne is on the prowl for as many as seven new players, divvied up between transfers and high school talent. He’d like to find perimeter shooters and rebounders, while enhancing team depth.

It’ll be a tough chore, for sure. But after this season, why doubt anything?

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