Picked to finish 11th in the Ohio Valley Conference, first-year head coach led Austin Peay to 3rd place finish.
Austin Peay fell short in its bid to earn the Ohio Valley Conference championship in Evansville, Ind. this weekend. The players fought all season, however, to wear ‘the hustle belt’ - their coach’s reward for deflections, drawing charges, hitting the floor for loose balls. Paying attention to those details beyond the box score enabled the Governors to secure their first winning OVC record since 2011 in coach Matt Figger’s first year.
Picked 11th in the OVC preseason poll and returning only four players - none of whom played a significant role the previous season - Figger steered Austin Peay to third place in the regular season and was named conference Coach of the Year. Austin Peay returned the fifth fewest minutes in the nation - and those players who did return were part of a program that was 17-31 in the OVC the last three seasons.
While newcomers Averyl Ugba (15.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and Terry Taylor (14.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg) made an immediate impact on the court, Figger is forever grateful to the foursome who helped form the foundation for the program he intends to build in Clarksville, Tenn.
“I had to figure out a way to get kids to believe in themselves, when there wasn’t an opportunity for them to play on an 11-win team,” Figger said. “The four kids that came back are all unbelievable human beings. We had a team GPA of 3.2 in the fall semester and every one of those kids had a 3.0 or better. They just approached everything as hard as they could.”
Figger received his first shot as a DI head coach last spring following a successful run as Frank Martin’s assistant at Kansas State and South Carolina.
What did he learn from in 11 seasons working for Martin? Plenty.
“Just be consistent with who you are every day,” Figger said. “In how you approach the job. Be consistent with your work ethic. Don’t overemphasize winning, don’t get too low on losing. Use every moment as a teaching deal, those are the things. Get the kids believing that if they are consistent with who they are as people, they can find success in their role as people.”
Helping lead the Gamecocks on a magical run to the Final Four last April gave Figger instant credibility with his players at Austin Peay. Watching the 7th seeded Gamecocks roll past Duke, Florida and Baylor to win the East Regional gave Figger additional proof to confirm what he learned throughout his tenure with Martin: Toughness and Togetherness can overcome Talent.
Hence the belt. Figger and his staff went all out, buying a replica WWE Championship Belt like one you might see parading around the ring on a Monday night national television broadcast. Fake jewels bordering gold, words inscripted. The works.
Figger wanted his players to compete. The Governors cherished the belt and wearing it around the locker room or the practice court for the day gave them a sense of pride in doing the dirty work. Chris Porter-Bunton, a redshirt junior in his third season at Austin Peay, won the award for the regular season.
“If we won the game, I’d let the title change hands from game-to-game,” Figger said. “It became a contagious thing where six different guys won the title throughout the conference season. The winner wore the belt and all his teammates had to call him ‘Champ. Everybody looks at points and total rebounds. I wanted our guys to understand the value of the unseen stats.’”
Anyone who has followed Frank Martin’s career understands the emphasis he puts on interior defense and rebounding. So it’s not surprising that Figger quickly made Austin Peay elite on the grass. They snagged the carom after more than a third of their missed shots during conference play to lead the OVC in offensive rebounding percentage. They are 18th in the nation, hauling down 13 offensive rebounds per game.
While shooting can come and go, Figger believes rebounding should remain constant from game-to-game. Teams that finish near the top of the rebounding stats on both ends typically finish near the top of the league standings.
Austin Peay lost to Belmont in the OVC semifinals to finish with an 18-14 record. Figger’s squad overcame everything from extreme roster turnover to a game delayed 90 minutes due to a tornado warning and leaky arena roof. Handling the adversity and growing as a team bodes well for the foundation Figger has installed in his first season leading the Governors.