“We are going to win. That’s what I was hired to do, and I don’t like to lose. I won here as a player, and I won at Arkansas-Little Rock, and we are going to win here at Abilene Christian University.”
These words by head basketball coach Joe Golding have rung in my head since February 2012 when Golding shared his vision of a revived basketball program outside the visiting locker room of Lone Star Conference champion, Tarleton State, after a 74-62 loss that ended ACU’s season.
Although the team has not hung a banner in his first three years, I still think Golding is a heck of a basketball coach, and a winning program is closer than it seems.
Golding was unable to recruit in his first season because he was hired after much of the year’s recruiting was over. However, the team won double-digit games for the first time in several years, despite having to suspend two of his top six players for off-the-court issues. Losing the best shooter on the team and maybe the best rebounder for a significant part of conference play left them only a game short of the LSC tournament. The Wildcats protected Moody Coliseum for the first time in a long time, posting a 10-6 record at home. Without a roster he selected and without two players he was counting on, Golding immediately made ACU competitive.
In his second year, Golding finally got to bring in some of his own players. Golding’s top recruit was a transfer from Arkansas Little-Rock that was even better than advertised. Eric Lawton, the former San Diego State commit, was a scoring machine for the Wildcats. Lawton averaged 17.3 points per game and knocked down 46 percent of his three-point attempts in his final season of eligibility before going to play overseas. Shooting guard Elliott Lloyd and center Steven Werner each scored 11.8 points per contest. Freshman Parker Wentz showed range from the parking lot, and has been able to put together a solid sophomore campaign as well.
Another signee from Golding’s inaugural class is Riley Payne, who is starting games for the ‘Cats as a redshirt freshman this season. Unfortunately, the squad was ravaged by injuries. The best defensive player and heart of the team, Desmond Woodberry’s career was cut short due to concussion issues.
Woodberry’s absence was coupled with the injury to a solid rebounder and defensive power forward in Jonathan King. King missed the entire year because of a knee injury. As if that weren’t enough, backup wing Tyler Rodgers contracted mono and was unable to give minutes off the bench, eliminating the team’s depth. Losing players would be crucial, as the Wildcats lost seven conference games by either one possession or in overtime.
Adding a starter, a sixth man and an extra wing player to the rotation would have undoubtedly made all the difference in the world. The Wildcats still managed to win two more conference games than they had the previous year, which meant Golding was still making progress.
Flip forward to this season where the Wildcats have moved up into Div. I. Moving up a division is never easy for a team, but ACU always fought hard against elite competition. ACU was trending on twitter in Maryland after the Wildcats had a lead over the Terps at halftime.
This is the same Maryland team that plays Duke and North Carolina every year and won a national championship a decade ago. ACU took TCU to the brink on the road, but a couple of unfortunate bounces and swallowed whistles left them unable to secure the victory.
ACU took Southeastern Louisiana into two overtimes before losing on the road. Golding’s team also claimed a victory against Central Arkansas in Moody Coliseum despite having its two best players out for the season. Harrison Hawkins and L.D. Williams are both unable to play for the rest of the year, but the Wildcats still keep fighting.
Once again, they have a winning record in Moody Coliseum and another solid recruiting class. Freshman Michael Grant can hoop. As a true freshman, Grant has seen more playing time since the Wildcats lost a flurry of players, but Grant’s game improves every time he steps on the court.
At 6-foot-5-inches, Grant has the size and length to play Div. I basketball, and he has already shown the ability to score and play solid defense. Junior transfer Jacob Lancaster is shooting 52 percent from the field and has shown the ability to rebound as well. Julian Edmonson is also a junior transfer. Edmonson came from Middle-Tennessee State and has plenty of skills to contribute to a winning basketball team.
The Wildcats are going to win double-digit games for the third season in a row despite having a somewhat snake-bitten program. In Moody Coliseum the Wildcats are 22-16 in the past three seasons. ACU did not even win 10 games either of the last two years before Golding came to Abilene. Last year, they posted double-digit wins at home.
Progress has been slowed slightly by injuries and bad luck, but the results are still impressive. The men’s basketball program is heading in the right direction with every measurable statistic. Joe Golding is well on his way to building a winning program in Abilene, just like he promised outside the visiting locker room in Stephenville two years ago.