Men’s Basketball – Tue, Mar. 16, 2021
Tonight, Stillman College’s men’s basketball team will depart for a 12-hour bus trip to Kansas City, Missouri and the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Final Site at Municipal Auditorium. Due to the COVID-19 shutdowns a year ago, it is the first time all but one of the current Tiger players have played in the NAIA Tournament, despite it being Stillman’s fourth NAIA Tournament bid in four years and fifth national tournament in six years.
Stillman made its first postseason run in 2006, when Coach Leon Douglas’ Tigers won the SIAC and went to the NCAA Division II South Region. In 2011, Michael Grant’s Tigers returned to the NCAA DII South Region, winning two games to advance to the region title game as one of 16 teams remaining in the nation. The Tigers captured the SIAC again in 2016 with Donte’ Jackson at the helm and defeated Gulf South Conference champion University of West Georgia in the first game of the South Region. The next year, Stillman moved to the NAIA and was ineligible for postseason during its transition in 2017.
Following 2017, Jackson departed and assistant coach John Teasley took over, starting a four-year run of national tournament appearances. There for all of them, as a player first, and now a coach, has been fellow Mobile, Alabama native Tamarco McDuffie.
McDuffie, a product of Murphy High School, came to Stillman in 2015 despite an offer in New Orleans. While his teammates danced into the program’s last NCAA Division II Regional in 2016, McDuffie was helping the team develop as a member of Teasley’s junior varsity squad. When Teasley took over the program in 2017, he immediately moved McDuffie to varsity.
“He stayed the course and got better. He’s worked for everything he got here. He worked his way up to eventually starting for us. He’s a special man,” Teasley said. “He was one of those guys that was a utility, a Swiss Army Knife. He had so many things he did for us. He played multiple positions and that’s what made him so valuable.”
As a junior, McDuffie helped a Stillman team (27-5) still in transition qualify for the NAIA Division II Association of Independent Institution’s tournament and win it, earning the program’s first NAIA appearance in South Dakota. The next year, as a new member to the Southern States Athletic Conference and NAIA Division I, Stillman (27-6) did not lose a game at home (14-0), won the SSAC regular season and garnered a Top 10 ranking to appear in the NAIA Division I Tournament in Kansas City. During his two seasons on varsity, he played in 60 games, starting 18, scoring more than 500 total points and being second on the team in total assists each season.
Similar to 2018, when Stillman lost in the first round to Indiana University Southeast, 84-66, the Tigers were surprised in the first round of the 2019 NAIA Championships with a 101-84 loss to No. 25 Oklahoma City.
“We had a really good team. We had a lot of athletes. We had a lot of people who could score. We had the whole package,” McDuffie said. “There was a lot we could have done more to help the team and go farther in the tournament. The way it went, it was really shocking we lost in the first round.”
After his eligibility was up, McDuffie remained at Stillman to become a student assistant coach and complete his degree. Once again, Stillman earned a bid to the NAIA Tournament, this time as an at-large after a 20-10 season, but the tournament was shut down due to COVID-19, less than 24 hours after its bracket was announced. The 2019 loss lingered.
“We do think about it at times. It comes up everyone once in a while, but what don’t kill us makes us stronger,” Teasley said. “One of the big things in our goal was to try to figure out how to win one. Now it’s trying to get these guys believe they belong.”
Last week, McDuffie made his national tournament coaching debut at Faulkner University in the NAIA Opening Round Montgomery Bracket, as Stillman defeated Keiser University, 72-64, for its first NAIA Tournament win.
Tomorrow morning though, Stillman will arrive on a much larger stage than their conference opponent’s gymnasium from last week. Such a change can be distracting to a group that hasn’t been there before, and that is where Teasley hopes McDuffie’s experience will come into play, especially with only one player (Derrick Finklea) having played at the NAIA final site before.
“People can look ahead and it is an exciting time, but the main thing is keeping them focused on the task at hand,” Teasley said. “He’s going to try to keep them two, three steps ahead of what to expect instead of being surprised … It’s one thing to be there as a coach, and it’s another to be there as a player. He’s been there as a player and he knows what it feels like to play in those situations and he’s really going to help them with that.”
McDuffie says “we’re going to tell them what we know and what we’ve been through during these past years. This is their first time going to nationals. They don’t know the experience and how it goes, but all we can do is to talk to them about how it’s going to be and how it’s going to go down.”
His best advice to the team is “don’t let anything stop them from playing hard and keep their head in the game. Don’t get misled into anything else. Stay as a team, and play as a team. That is the most important part.”
Helping his team play as a team is a theme through McDuffie’s last six years. After becoming a varsity player, Teasley relied on his JV call up to help teach his teammates’ Teasley’s system. Teasley credits that to being one reason Stillman rolled out 47 wins and two championships in two years. In 2020 it only made sense to keep McDuffie on as a student assistant and now volunteer assistant.
“He wanted to be a coach. One of the biggest things I like is being able to help guys who played for us and help them follow their dream. He wants to coach and that’s why he’s here, trying to learn and give back,” Teasley said. “He’s not far from being a player, so he can talk with the players and say, ‘here’s what coach is looking for right here.’ He’s been huge for us … He’s always talking about reminding them how big the stage is and how important every possession is. That’s what he’s been doing and that’s what’s going to help us.”
McDuffie says his main focus on the trip is to “live … Have a nice trip and enjoy it and enjoy these boys and coaches.” But he wants this trip to Kansas City to be much longer the last.
“Hopefully we can make it to the end and win it. That’s all I want. I want these boys to be great. I really, really do. I believe in them, and I wish I could have been playing with these boys. This is a really good team, and they’re really coachable,” McDuffie said. “I’m happy I’m a part of this team and this family. It’s been a pleasure to play here and still be here.”
Stillman College (17-3) will play as the No. 8 seed at the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Final Site and meet No. 9 Saint Francis on Thursday, March 18 at 2 p.m.