A thousand High Point University students tailgate outside the sparkling arena before the men’s basketball games. They’re gathering to eat, drink and socialize before entering the 4,200-seat Qubein Center, which is filled to capacity.
Last weekend, they watched the Panthers stretch the nation’s longest winning streak to 12 games. High Point is 20-4, ranked fifth in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 and in command of the Big South Conference race with a 9-0 record. As if things couldn’t get any better, High Point will host the conference’s tournament next month.
High Point president Dr. Nido Qubein and athletic director Dan Hauser knew they’d found their guy last spring when their search landed on Alan Huss, a longtime Creighton assistant.
Neither could’ve envisioned such success so soon.
Huss inherited only three players when he arrived on campus last March after helping lead Creighton to the Elite 8. Talented players departed before he arrived. Last year’s leading scorer Jaden House is starting at Rhode Island. High-flying forward Zack Austin leads Pittsburgh in blocked shots.
Replacing them is an eclectic mixture of players who craved a larger role. Huss assembled the roster, most of them sight unseen, relying on his staff and his contacts, landing players with the skill, toughness and basketball IQ to thrive in an exciting offense that produces open shots, exciting plays and 85 points per game.
“We didn’t have time to think about expectations,” Huss said. “It was more about winning days, segments of the day, felt like at any given moment you’re as close to overwhelmed as you can be. I’d love to tell you there was a grand master plan. We were just trying to survive.”
Huss played at Creighton for Dana Altman. He spent the last six seasons there as Greg McDermott’s chief assistant. Although his roots are deep in the midwest, he first became aware of High Point several summers ago during a conversation with another high major assistant between games at an AAU tournament. Hauser reached out to him early in the process and as Huss, who won the Joe B. Hall Midseason Award this season, reviewed a package of information about the university and program, he told his wife this was a job he wanted to pursue.
An hourlong teleconference assured Qubein and Hauser that Huss was the right choice. Once he arrived on campus, Huss and his staff assembled one of the strongest recruiting classes in Big South history.
Injuries limited guard Duke Miles to only six games at Troy a year ago. He’s second in the Big South in scoring, averaging 19.1 points per game. Kezza Giffa thrived at Daytona State, a junior college last season, and his speed and ability to draw fouls were undeniable. He’s third in the Big South at 16.1 ppg, stepping up when Miles missed three games with turf toe, averaging 27 points over the last six. Kimani Hamilton was a top-100 recruit out of high school who couldn’t carve a role in one season at Mississippi State. The skilled, athletic 6-7 forward ranks in the top 25 in the Big South in 15 different KenPom categories, including offensive rating, offensive rebounding percentage and assist rate. Juslin Bodo Bodo barely played on a loaded Southern California Academy high school team last season. The 7-foot, 240-pound freshman has been the Big South freshman of the week five times, leads the conference in rebounding and ranks second in blocked shots.
Together they form the most efficient offense in the Big South since Ken Pomeroy started keeping records in 1999, generating 117 points per 100 possessions, to rank 34th nationally. It’s been nearly 20 years since a Big South team finished in the top 50.
When asked to describe his backcourt, Huss uses one word: poise. Giffa drove the left side of the lane for a tough winning bucket in the final second at Winthrop two weeks ago. Miles is the most efficient player in the Big South by a wide margin and he, Giffa and Hamilton are the top three among high usage players.
Fans and opponents see their ability on the floor but the commitment to attract - and hopefully retain - such talented players spreads across campus. Qubein and Hauser promised to give Huss the resources he needed to succeed.
“We have flexibility in the way we look at challenges,” Huss said. “We’re willing to be a part of solutions. Every program has challenges. How are we willing to attack this, we were pragmatic, president and AD, willing to look at things from outside the box. Individuals who are pragmatic find success in this world. Having an administration that thinks like that is a huge advantage.”
That includes a healthy collective created last spring to fund Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) deals for the players.
“We knew the landscape was changing,” Hauser said. “We needed to be proactive, before Alan’s arrival had not started a collective. He told us what they achieved at Creighton.”
The Friends of HPU started in April of last year with two arms - one for tax deductible donations that can be directed toward domestic students and one for non tax-deductible donations international players are allowed to receive. One is a general fund, the other is a foundation.
Hauser is realistic about the landscape. The transfer portal opens the day after Selection Sunday and mid-major players with gaudy statlines are always attractive to high-major coaches.
“We try to look at it in a positive light. The players are here and their spotlight grew because their statline got better,” Hauser said. “We may not match dollar for dollar with a power 5, but we can tell a story that makes them think. You were at a power 5 averaging 3 ppg, now you’re averaging 18 ppg. Your spotlight grew, the image of you as a player grew during your time at HP. Why not continue to have that and we can turn you into a 20 or 22 point per game scorer. When you start getting into that level, the finite group you join and spotlight on you is going to be immense. There are thousands of basketball players who score 8-10 pts. It’s a rare group that gets 20 ppg or more.”
The success on the court mirrors the growth of the university under Qubein, an alum and the university’s president for the last 19 years. The university’s enrollment has grown from a regional college to an international university, tripling in size to more than 6,100 students while climbing in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and expanding its academic schools from three to 14.
While personally not in favor of NIL, Qubein wanted to give Huss the opportunity to succeed. This included adding three graduate assistant positions funded by the athletic department and installing ShotTracker technology to the practice center and arena floors.
Qubein understands the role basketball plays in building spirit on campus and in the community and helping enhance the High Point brand. He’s proud of the team’s academic achievement and individual character. Besides, he’s an ardent fan of the game, sitting courtside at every home game, offering words of encouragement to the team before tipoff and perhaps the occasional piece of advice to the officials.
“We were able to attract the right coach, who has the same values and family commitment,” Qubein said. “His style is consistent with our energetic, some call it dynamic atmosphere at High Point University. He’s a humble and modest guy, which I think is the mark of a champion.”
“If he wins the Final Four, we’ll write him a big check and take the entire team around the world, all expenses paid - but we’ll give him a couple of years to get there,” Qubein adds with a laugh.
The resources allowed Huss to build a sensible nonconference schedule for such a new team, avoiding the litany of guarantee games against high-major opponents many Big South programs must play annually to help fund the athletic department.
High Point learned from consecutive one-possession losses to Wofford and Queens in the opening week of the season. On each occasion, a late foul cost the Panthers a victory.
Huss and the Panthers are hardly satisfied. When asked where his team can improve, he responds: everywhere. While the offensive prowess is undeniable, he’s displeased with a defense that’s rated 292nd in efficiency overall and sixth in the Big South. He understands the Panthers are now the hunted. They hold a two-game lead in the standings and Wednesday night travel to face one of their closest pursuers, defending regular season and tournament champion UNC Asheville.
“You’re going to get everyone’s best shot. Early in the season we were able to sneak up on some people,” Huss said. “With the responsibility of a long streak, you’re going to get everyone’s best shot and prepare accordingly. The record has nothing to do with what happens in the next game. Your record doesn’t win you any games. Our guys are hungry and understand the task at hand. Everyone in our program understands that.”