Bill Trocchi
Tuesday January 19th, 2010

If you're a college basketball fan, you've heard this storyline before: An academically elite school with a spotty basketball past is challenging for its first NCAA tournament bid ever thanks to a roster full of three-point shooters. What you probably haven't heard is that description fits not only Northwestern, the Big Ten's lovable private school, but also William & Mary, a small state school in Virginia that is fielding its best basketball team ever.

The Tribe are 15-3 (6-1 Colonial) and have won 14 of their last 15 games since opening with a respectable loss at UConn and a heartbreaking, triple-overtime loss to Harvard (1:14 into clip). Included in the run are wins at Wake Forest and Maryland, marking the first time a CAA school has two road wins vs. ACC teams in the same season. William & Mary, which finished 10-20 a year ago, has done it behind a strong four-man senior class and an attack that is knocking down 9.8 three-pointers a game, good for sixth in the nation.

Another factor, according to coach Tony Shaver, is his team's chemistry and willingness to share the ball. Every player has a positive assist-to-turnover ratio, "which is pretty amazing," Shaver said. "I've coached for a long time and I've never had a team share the ball like these guys do."

Shaver played for Dean Smith at North Carolina in the mid-'70s and learned the up-tempo, pressing style favored by the legendary Tar Heels coach. He used that system successfully during a 17-year career at Division III Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, then brought it to Williamsburg when he was hired in 2003. Shaver discovered he was having trouble attracting the athletes to W&M that he needed to run the system in the CAA, so he overhauled the style three years ago. The Tribe now feature a one-post/four-out attack on offense and mostly zone on defense.

"We've had two or three years of recruiting to that style," Shaver said. "We have some pretty good pieces fitting together right now."

The most important piece is senior David Schneider, a do-everything guard who leads the team in points, rebounds, steals and floor burns. Schneider broke his nose and lost a tooth last week in practice, yet returned three days later and had 17 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals in a win over James Madison.

"He's the heart and soul of our team," Shaver said.

Schneider was a key part of the Tribe's team two years ago that almost ended the NCAA tournament drought with an amazing run at the CAA tournament. William & Mary reached the final as a five seed after three last-possession wins, then fell to George Mason in the final.

"It was almost like getting to the finish line and tripping right before you cross," Schneider said.

There are five schools in the nation that have played at least 50 Division I seasons and not reached the NCAA tournament: William & Mary, Northwestern, Army, The Citadel and St. Francis (N.Y.). Although Shaver makes it a point to not discuss this with his team, he's well aware of the drought.

"I read about it, believe me," Shaver said. "We try to focus on being execution-driven, not results-driven. So far, it's working."

William & Mary may not have to depend on winning the CAA tournament to get that elusive bid this season. The Tribe have an RPI of 30 and four RPI top-60 wins (Richmond, Wake Forest, Maryland, VCU). The CAA got one at-large bid in 2006 and 2007, but did not get one in either of the last two years.

Shaver feels like his team is good enough to beat any team remaining on his schedule, but like all coaches, feels like his charges could lose any given night, as well. Backing up that notion, the Tribe have had an amazing seven games decided by one or two points already, with W&M boasting a 5-2 mark in those games. Included was a miracle comeback in overtime against Delaware that saw the Tribe erase a seven-point deficit in the final 32 seconds.

"We're definitely a poised team down the stretch," Schneider says. "We've been doing anything it takes, whether it is a big stop or a big shot. We've done it all. We have a will to win that is hard to find."

William & Mary, which is in a four-way tie for first with Old Dominion, George Mason and Northeastern, faces a tough week with games against VCU and Old Dominion. The game against the Monarchs on Saturday may fulfill one of the goals Schneider set as a freshman -- to sell out the 10,000 seat William & Mary Hall.

Schneider's other goal? To be part of the first William & Mary team to reach the NCAA tournament, of course.

"It is almost impossible to describe as far as what it would mean to the community and the school," he says. " We're trying to make William & Mary a well-known school. I think before we got here, people would look at us on their schedule and think, 'easy win.' I don't think anyone sees us as an easy team to beat anymore."

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