T.J. Dekmar (above) was suddenly thrust into the head coaching role a year ago when Chuck Hammond became G-B's Dean of Students. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
Last fall, T.J. Dekmar got quite a surprise from his boss.
The then-26-year-old Goldey-Beacom assistant coach found himself immediately in charge of the LIghtning program, when former coach Chuck Hammond moved from the sidelines into a position as Dean of Students at the Wilmington, Del. school last September.
Inheriting most of a roster that went 10-18 the year before, Dekmar guided Goldey-Beacom to a 20-7 record in his first year, though Dominican ended their CACC Tournament run in the quarterfinals. Those 20 wins equaled the school record, which had been accomplished in CACC finals runs in 2010 and 2011.
Though Dekmark now has had a full offseason to prepare for his second year as head coach, he’s got almost a brand-new roster on his hands. The graduation of seven seniors leaves only senior Dante Thompson (13.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg and junior Corey Taite (10.4 ppg) remaining, alongside a group of 10 new additions -- five freshmen, three Division I transfers and two junior college transfers.
Local hoops fans should recognize former Chester guard Mahir Johnson, a junior who played his first two seasons at Delaware State, while Valpo grad transfer Chandler Levingston-Simon and former Morgan State guard Isiah Graves, another senior, bring experience and expertise to the roster.
CoBL recently spoke with Dekmar about replacing his roster and preparing for the 2017-18 season. Here are the (copy-edited) highlights of our conversation:
CoBL: Year Two of the Dekmar reign at Goldey-Beacom. Last year at this time you were just a month removed from finding out you were going to be head coach after Chuck stepped down. How much different is it this time around, having had a whole offseason to prepare for the job?
Dekmar: Well, it’s a lot smoother obviously, because I know what I’m going into, but it’s kind of like the same feeling because of how many new guys we had to bring in. So last year, it was easy in the sense that everyone on the roster was pretty much a returner and knew who I was, and I knew what I was dealing with personality-wise, this year with nine new guys, I’m trying to figure everyone out on the fly and it’s just as challenging as it was last year just because of all the new faces and the personalities and trying to get all these guys to mesh together and seeing who plays well with each other. So it’s nice that I knew what position I was going to be in going into the year, but from a personnel standpoint it’s probably more difficult this year than it was last year.
CoBL: We’ll get to the personnel in a second, but from your standpoint, how were you able to spend this offseason differently and what did you to do to set yourself to be a head coach this year?
Dekmar: Honestly, it was an offseason not much different than when I was the assistant. I was still recruiting all summer, trying to fill a roster. And obviously I had help with my assistants going out on the road as well, but that took until late August to fill a roster, and then the only difference was I was able to look at the team as a whole and I needed to make the decisions about preseason practice, what we were going to go over. I was able to do that earlier in the year than I was able to last year. The offseason was very similar, I just had a little more time to figure out what we wanted to do and a long-term schedule for the team.
CoBL: Last year, you inherited an entire roster, guys that you were their assistant coach. Now in the span of a year, the roster went from players you inherited to almost entirely players you recruited as head coach; most coaches take 2-3 years to fully remake the roster. Is there a different sense in terms of coaching kids you brought in versus players who were used to seeing you as an assistant?
Dekmar: There’s always a different dynamic between assistant coaches and players and head coaches and players. And last year, a lot of those guys knew me as the assistant coach. So it was still that assistant coach/player relationship. This year, with bringing in so many new guys and having a pretty much brand-new roster, the relationship has changed. Not in a bad way, just in a different way. But there definitely is a different feel in relationships, you have with this roster than we had last year. Not in a positive or negative way, just a different relationship and different way I feel like the players look at me, just because they only know me as the head coach and not the assistant.
CoBL: Was that difficult for you to adjust to? Do you like being the boss, or do you try to keep some of the assistant coach vibe?
Dekmar: Definitely, being a younger coach I still feel like I relate to a majority of the guys really well. I still always want to have that friendship-type relationship with all the guys, it’s not like I’m the boss and they’re working for me, I want them to tell me anything and I’ll be open and honest with them. I took a little bit of that buddy-buddy relationship an assistant usually takes on and I wanted to bring that to the head coach, and I think it’s really helped the relationship build quickly with a lot of our new guys, I feel like a lot of our guys are very comfortable on campus and with the program and with me and our staff. We have a very, very young staff -- I’m 27 and I’m the oldest person on our staff. It’s a huge family of young men at Goldey-Beacom and it’s a great atmosphere to be a part of and a great situation right now.
CoBL: The two guys you bring back, Corey and Dante, obviously on-court you’re expecting a lot from them, but in terms of off the court, getting the guys adjusted to college as well as yourself, how have they been?
Dekmar: Those two, leadership-wise, have been phenomenal. Dante is [in] his second year here, last year he was one of the two new guys, so he knows what that feeling is very recently, but he’s stepped up and being one of the older guys on the team, he’s taken some young guys under his wing and shown them the ropes and let them know what it takes to be successful here, and Corey it’s his third year here, only being a junior still, but acts far beyond his age. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team and he really leads by example. All over the place, in practice, in the classroom. I couldn’t have asked for two better leaders than those two on and off the court.
CoBL: In terms of the rest of the roster, you have 10 new guys -- six transfers, four freshmen. Let’s try to break it down a little bit. Are there any guys that are clearly going to be, if not starters, major pieces of the rotation?
Dekmar: There’s nothing set in stone, but Mahir Johnson from Delaware State and Chester has been unbelievable so far in preseason and the start of practice. I am shocked he didn’t get more time at Delaware State because he’s been if not our best player every single day, one of our best players. He’s probably spent more time in the gym than anyone else on our team, he does it all on the court, he can score, he defends, he’s smart, he gets his teammates involved, he’s just been a huge, huge positive for us from the second he stepped on campus.
Another one of those guys is Troy Stancil, he came over from Garden City CC, and he’s from down in DC. He’s been solid from day one, he’s one of the highest basketball IQs that I’ve been around and it’s really, really shown coming from a totally different system and him being able to pick up what we do definitely and offensively, he’s really solid. He’s a wing, about 6-4, 6-5, that can really shoot the ball, but defensively he can guard every single position on the floor and I’m pretty sure I don’t have to worry about that matchup the rest of the game.
CoBL: What about, of the other guys, who’s going to see some minutes?
Dekmar: Isiah Graves from Morgan State, he’s been really really good, he’s a senior, he knows he has one year left. He can really score in bunches, he’s very, very athletic, but he’s also very unselfish and he does a good job of getting his teammates involved. Tevin Service, he’s a freshman, but he was here last year as a redshirt so he’s been around the program, he knows what to do. He’s going to be battling for that other starting spot, he’s a 6-5 utility guy who does it all. WIll take every single charge, guard ‘1’ through ‘5’, very good rebounding the ball. So he’s one that’s been really impressive.
A couple of the freshmen, Marcellus Livingston from Linden (N.J.), coming from a great program in New Jersey, really well-coached, he’s battling for a starting spot, he’s a bigger guard that can really shoot it. Kyle Elliott from Coastal Academy, graduated from Mater Dei two years ago. There’s a list of players that have been really, really impressive and right now I think we have the 10 or 11 guys that are really going to battle for some playing time between Kyle, who’s a strong and smart guard, Giovanni Jones, an athletic wing, another freshman from Virginia, and Justin Salem, from Harcum College, really really shoots the ball well and there’s been days where he hasn’t even hit the rim in practice, he’s one of the best shooters in the gym every time he steps on the floor.
And the last guy I’m going to mention is Chandler Livingston-Simon, a grad transfer from Valparaiso. He’s really really skilled, obviously Valpo is a really really good mid-major program, has been in the NCAA Tournament in the last few years.
CoBL: So as you’re still getting to figure out your team and your rotation, what do you think you guys will do well as a team this year and what do you see yourselves needing to focus on?
Dekmar: Right now, our strength is in our guards. Between Corey and Mahir, Kyle Elliott and Isaiah Graves, I think we have a very, very good backcourt that can really score the ball, that can really get teammates involved. I think we have some shooters that if they’re open, it’s going up and going in. I think offensively, we shouldn’t have a problem putting points up on teh board as long as we understand the concept of sharing the ball and getting a great shot every single time, and ball security, which is what the preseason’s all about and that chemistry that’s so hard to get, bringing in so many new guys. As long as we get that chemistry down, I think offensively it’s going to be a fun year.
Defense is probably where we’ve spent 90 percent of our time in preseason and the start of practice because that’s obviously where teams win games, and can we stop someone? We play a little differently from everybody else, it’s not a common defense the way we play and the way we guard different things, so it takes some time with our terminology and defensive slides and rotation. So that’s where it’s going to take some time and we need to be patient and let that get better throughout the year. I’m really pleased where we’re at right now, but it’s nowhere near where it has to be.
CoBL: Anything interesting for you guys in your non-league schedule?
Dekmar: Our schedule is very, very tough. We open up with Franklin & Pierce, Southern New Hampshire and St. Thomas Aquinas, three teams that are going to be in the NCAA Tournament and could battle for a regional championship. We did not want to have a cupcake schedule at all, we really wanted to challenge ourselves out-of-conference. We’ll probably play at five or six NCAA Tournament teams this year from our region, and it’s really going to see early what we’re made of. And not only that, our conference with Bloomfield and Philly U -- I mean Jefferson -- they’re two phenomenal teams, Sciences and Caldwell are going to be really, really good this year. Dominican and Wilmington. So not only is our conference deeper than it’s been in a long time with two really, really good teams up top, but our out-of-conference schedule, I’d be shocked if anybody has a tougher schedule in our region.