Stetson University men’s basketball has been a lackluster program for a long time. That time might be over. Fresh off a semifinals run in the 2021 College Basketball Invitational — Stetson’s first NCAA Division I postseason appearance in program history — the Hatters finally have something to smile about.
To call the history of the Stetson men’s basketball program lackluster may actually be putting it lightly. Formerly members of the NAIA, the Hatters were elevated to NCAA Division I status back in 1971. Under the guidance of legendary basketball mind Glenn Wilkes, things were good in DeLand for a long time. The “Godfather of Florida Basketball,” Wilkes led the Hatters to a .526 winning percentage in his 22 years with Stetson at the DI level. Wilkes retired in 1993, and the program took a nosedive.
From 1993 to 2019, under six different head coaches, the Hatters won only 220 of 670 games — good for a .328 winning percentage. That number would rank as the seventeenth-worst winning percentage of any program in NCAA history. Excluding all now-defunct programs would drop Stetson into the eighth-worst spot. To put it bluntly, since the retirement of Glenn Wilkes, the Stetson Hatters have been one of the ten worst programs in college basketball.
As if things could not have gotten any worse for the program, the Hatters hit rock bottom under former coach Corey Williams. Between 2013 and 2019, the Hatters won fewer than a third of their games — a 0.303 winning percentage. Stetson lost over 20 games in every season under Williams. Despite the best efforts of some of the most prolific players in Hatter history, such as all-time leading scorer Divine Myles, all-time 3-pointer leader Luke Doyle, and all-time assist leader Angel Rivera, the Hatters toiled in six miserable campaigns. Things looked dark for Stetson men’s basketball as it seemed more than ever like the program was content with mediocrity.
Enter Donnie Jones. Brought on as head coach prior to the 2019-20 season, Jones has led an improbable program turnaround that many students, fans, and alumni had likely dismissed as nothing more than wishful thinking. Shortly after his hiring, Jones tore apart the Hatter roster, and what followed was nothing short of astounding. In 2019, Jones led a roster highlighted by seven freshmen to the winningest season for the program in over a decade, and outsiders took note.
After last season, the Hatters received invites to both the CBI and CIT postseason tournaments. The Hatters never accepted either invitation before the advent of COVID-19 shut down the sports world, but Stetson had taken the first step towards a program revival.
In a season of uncertainty under the pandemic, it may have been easy for Stetson to take a step back in 2021. The 2020-21 season may not have been as glamorous for the Hatters, who finished with fewer wins and a losing conference record, but Jones still led his team to a second straight ASUN Conference semifinals appearance. The Hatters fell to the eventual ASUN champions, Liberty University, but Stetson received a nice consolation prize — an invite to the CBI for the second straight year. In Stetson’s 50th season of DI competition, the Hatters would finally get their chance to see a postseason. Jones was quick to recognize the importance of the milestone for the program, especially after the shutdown a season ago.
“Oh it’s huge,” Jones said. “We’re trying to rebuild a program. We had the biggest turnaround in college basketball… Last year, we had that taken away with COVID. Obviously, the CBI respected us enough to give us an opportunity again this year, and I think that speaks volumes of what these kids have done in a difficult environment. I think it’s huge for our kids.”
For Stetson men’s basketball, the opportunity to participate in the CBI is a crucial first step towards earning respect as a program. It is just that, however — a step. Jones and the Hatters are not content with anything less than success at the game’s highest level.
“Obviously, the NCAA [tournament] is the level you want to be at, and that’s what we’re striving for, but to be able to reach some type of postseason is a huge hurdle for a place that hasn’t been there in 50 years,” said Jones.
On March 22, the Hatters took their talents to Daytona Beach hoping to make some noise in the CBI. In their first postseason appearance in half a century, the new-look Hatters made quite the impression. The Hatters trailed Bowling Green by 15 points with eight minutes to play in the second half of the quarterfinal game. From there, it was all Stetson. Carried by sophomore big man Mahamadou Diawara, the Hatters closed the game on a 15-2 run, capped off by a three-point dagger with 17 seconds left to play from a fellow sophomore, guard Rob Perry. The Hatters held on and advanced to the semifinals against Coastal Carolina.
One night later, on March 23, Stetson’s run would end short of a CBI title, but not without a fight. The lone senior on Stetson’s roster, Christiaan Jones, scored a game-high 28 points against the Chanticleers, but the Hatters came up short in the semifinals. They fell to Coastal Carolina in overtime by a final score of 77-72.
The Hatters saw their season end without taking home any hardware. What they earned instead may be much more valuable in the long term. Jones sees bigger and better things in the future for the Hatters – that cannot happen overnight.
“I think when you’re building a culture, that’s something that takes time,” Jones said. “It doesn’t happen in two years. We’re trying to build a winning environment, and I think [the] environment is what you do now – that’s creating an expectation of playing for a postseason. We’ve done it the old-fashioned way, where we started with all freshmen, and that’s what we’ve been playing with. I think it’s huge for our program to be able to keep moving forward regardless of circumstances, and it’s a credit to what we’re doing here with these kids.”
There are over 350 Division I college basketball programs – 92 of them saw a postseason in 2021. The rest went home. The Hatters earned their spot in that exclusive group, but a CBI berth should not be enough. As Jones continues to build the program, his way, Stetson is well-equipped to build on 2021 for years to come. With one of the youngest rosters in the country and another recruiting class on the way, the Hatters have nowhere to go but up next season and beyond.
The dark ages of Stetson men’s basketball are firmly in the past, and the future looks bright. If things go according to plan, Jones and the Hatters may find themselves dancing on a bigger stage at this time next year.
Numbers courtesy of College Basketball Reference, and Gohatters.com