Next up in our award-winning series of profiles on head coaching candidates isn’t a big name, but rather an upside play: Mount St. Mary’s head coach Jamion Christian.
Before an explanation as to why this semi-unknown coach is one to watch, let’s start with some quick 411 to get you familiar with the 34-year-old Virginia native. After four years as an assistant – including the 2011-12 campaign at VCU under Shaka Smart – Christian took over head coaching duties at his Alma Mater in 2012 at the age of 29. During his five seasons, The Mount reached the NCAA Tournament twice (2014, 2017). This past campaign, Christian directed his squad to the NEC regular season and conference championship despite a 1-11 start to the regular season.
Here are the things you likely took from the previous paragraph: This dude is young. There’s a Shaka Smart connection. NCAA Tournament appearances. The youth factors into the aforementioned upside. The Smart angle adds to the intrigue, but Christian came up his relentless “Mayhem” style before joining VCU’s “Havoc.” Reaching the ultimate March Madness event from a one-bid league is never easy so props there.
Yet this past season’s dismal start is the story. It’s the reason why Georgetown should kick these tires rather than some of the names with worn tread reportedly in consideration. Actually, the Hoyas' own story factors into this tale as well.
Low-major schools often face brutal early schedules as the big boys look for perceived easy home wins. The slate Christian put together was extreme. Ten of Mount’s first 12 games were on the road. Six of those teams would eventually make the NCAA Tournament including five power conference schools. Only a win at George Mason prevented an 0-fer after 12 games.
Why did Christian go this route? Well, the obvious answer is to toughen up his squad for conference play. The Mount had enough pieces in place for a title run, Christian thought. Still, put any team into a losing situation and the risk is they don’t come out of it. There were home losses to UMBC and Lehigh in that stretch followed by the Bucknell setback on Dec. 19.
Then came three consecutive wins. By Feb. 2, the Mountaineers were 12-12. When the regular season ended, The Mount stood atop the NEC at 14-4 with a 16-15 overall record. Three more wins followed in the conference tournament, which put the Mount back in the NCAA’s. They got past New Orleans in the play-in game and for one half gave top-seeded Villanova fits.
On the surface, this scenario isn’t unique among coaches from upstart programs. Spend time around the engaging Christian and you might think otherwise. He didn’t just bet on tough early foes and venues toughen up his team.
“Sometimes you have to bet on yourself,” Christian said on Selection Sunday.
When the team fell to 1-11, Christian sent his assistants to buy jockey goggles for the players. These “blinders,” he told the team were to help them “stay focused and locked in because distractions are going to be coming soon. At 1-11, they’re looking at me like I’m crazy. …Then we won eight in a row and the distractions started coming."
He continued. “Sometimes you have to give an example of how much you believe in someone, how much you believe in something, how much you’re willing to fight for it.”
Maybe Georgetown finishes with back-to-back losing seasons regardless of any one loss or rough stretch. Yet in each of the last two campaigns, the Hoyas never truly recovered from tough early losses. Why is a discussion for another time. This is about how Christian, who believes in his ability to rally people, got his squad to remain hopeful when so much suggested otherwise.
“From Day 1 I just believed in these guys. I wasn’t going to not let them believe in themselves,” Christian said with his usual poised demeanor that steers clear of arrogance but binges on confidence. It’s what allows him to stay focused on the plan rather than swerve after every in-game or results setback.
“Everyone talks about being process-driven, but not everyone can withstand a loss to be process-driven,” Christian said. “I’m not like that.”
Not every opponent can withstand “Mayhem,” a system the coach believes allows his players to thrive.
“It’s about allowing everyone to be able to play with freedom and play together with a lot of pizzazz,” he said. “We’re going to turn you over because we’re going to press for 40 minutes. We’re going to shoot a ton of 3’s and we’re going to share the basketball. We’re going to have a lot of smiles and we’re going to be really aggressive.”
That aggressive approach is something associated with Georgetown basketball under John Thompson Jr., particularly in the early 1980’s with Patrick Ewing and fueled a decade later by Allen Iverson. We’ll see what the search committee desires as it seeks a replacement following the dismissal of Hoyas head coach John Thompson III.
“I know when I was a kid and Georgetown was on (TV), we watched as a family,” Christian said recently. “The brand of Georgetown is as strong as Duke or North Carolina. But you’ve got to be different with the person leading it. And it’s important that the person appreciates and not just understands the history.”
It’s important to realize the leap from the Northeast Conference to the Big East is huge. It's unclear if Christian can recruit at that level. For anyone looking at Christian’s credentials, it's important to go beyond his age, Shaka Smart and even in the NCAA appearances. “Mayhem” is his brand, but calm and confident leadership are his trademarks. The next coach at Georgetown will face many challenges. Having someone capable of keeping on the blinders and getting his players to do the same amid those pending distractions would be nice. Yes, so is the winning.
Desirability Rating: 8 out of 10
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