After Cinderella season, Hampden-Sydney Tigers look ahead

Published 1:00 pm Friday, March 10, 2023

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An impressive season came to an end Saturday night for the Hampden-Sydney Tigers, but not without a fight. In the second round of the NCAA Division III Tournament, the Tigers lost 72-59 to No. 2 ranked Christopher Newport.

“To get to the semi-final of the conference tournament, to play a game we were really proud of, and then be able to go to the NCAA tournament and win a game, it’s amazing,” said Hampden-Sydney men’s basketball coach Craig Kimbrough. “I’m very proud of this accomplishment.”

Now as the team looks ahead, Kimbrough said the goal is to learn from this season and come back ready to play in the fall.

“Right now, we want to give our guys a break, but we’ll talk to them individually and get their thoughts,” Kimbrough said. “Then as coaches, we’ll take a look at how we can be better. We’ll just try to figure out how we can improve and see where it takes us.”

That mindset took the Tigers this year to a 22-7 record, the team’s best season in a decade and only its fourth 20-win season in the last 20 years. The Tigers were ranked as high as #15 in the nation at one point, finishing the regular season ranked #20 in Division III.

And there’s more good news for the team. Out of this year’s squad, 19 of 20 team members expect to return, including all five starters. Only senior Harrison Taylor will graduate in May.

The next step 

Now the Hampden-Sydney Tigers made it to the NCAA Tournament, been ranked in the Top 20 and Top 15 in the nation and won an NCAA Tournament game by beating Emory University 63-59 last Friday. So what’s the next step for this team to take?

Kimbrough said it’s building and developing players, while constantly increasing the level of competition. Hampden-Sydney is built around “Tiger Basketball”, what Kimbrough and the players refer to as “the Excellence of Division III.”

That’s not just a style of play. It’s a culture, something you can point to and immediately recognize.

“You have an obligation to your teammates to give your all every day,” 6’4 ft. junior guard Alex Elliott described it during an earlier interview with The Gazette. “It’s almost selfish of you not to. We talk about being the excellence of Division 3 basketball and that’s what it is, hustling on and off the court.”

In that same interview, his teammate, 5’10 ft. junior guard Adam Brazil agreed, saying he would define it as being high energy.

“It’s this really high energy confidence,” Brazil said. “Locking up on the defensive end, moving the ball on the offensive end, shooting three pointers and dunking. It means waking up with a clean slate every morning, wondering how I can give my all today. It’s the way we operate.”

Taking the next step means looking at what worked this season, what didn’t and how everyone on the team can improve, Kimbrough said.

“We talk all the time about getting the most out of everyone,” Kimbrough said. “That’s going to be the same approach (now). We’re thinking to ourselves that we’ve got to get better.”

Developing the Hampden-Sydney Tigers

And they’ll work to get better with a larger team. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all NCAA players have an extra year of eligibility. That means Hampden-Sydney heads into next year not just adding recruits, but bringing back 19 players from this year’s squad who now have playoff experience.

“It’s never a bad thing to have a lot of players,” Kimbrough said. “Our vision is not just to play minutes or score points. We want to get the most out of every player. We tell players “you need to be ready” because they never know when their time will come.”

This year’s recruiting class wrapped up in December, so they didn’t join the team based on an NCAA Tournament run or a national ranking. Instead, the pitch was slightly different.

“The pitch wasn’t about the NCAA Tournament, it’s telling them ‘here’s how we do things’,” Kimbrough said. “That’s what they really latched on to. We’re looking for high character guys. They want to get better, to try and maximize what they can do.”

That’s what Kimbrough wants not just for the freshmen, but the returning players as well, to maximize their potential.

“Just because another year’s gone by and we’re returning a lot of guys (next fall), that doesn’t mean (the NCAA run) just happens again,” Kimbrough said. “We have to make sure individually that we’re getting better, getting bigger, faster and stronger.”