The MSOE men's basketball team is one of the oldest sports on campus, completing its 35th season as a varsity sport in 2013-14.
But, under head coach Brian Miller, the program has established itself as one of the most consistent at MSOE, while standing out in the state of Wisconsin—a hot bed of Division III basketball.
"Brian Good was our previous head coach and he got the ball rolling with no facility, support or reputation to work with when he came to MSOE," MSOE Director of Athletics Dan Harris said. "Coach Miller had a good recruiting class to work with, but he had to steer them in the right direction. He taught them the will to win and how to win. He has great experience and knowledge and the players have bought in."
While the Raiders continue to chase their first regular season conference title in over 30 years, they are regularly in competition in the NACC and have found great success on the court.
Over Miller's first 10 years on the red and white sidelines, MSOE has posted a 163-99 record with a 93-51 mark in conference play. In the state of Wisconsin, which features some of the top teams in NCAA Division III, the Raiders boast the fifth-most wins (152) over the last nine seasons and the fourth-best winning percentage (.644) of the 23 Division III programs in the state.
Success did not always come so easily for the Raiders, who posted just one winning season over their first 25 seasons. They won 160 games in that time and had a .244 winning percentage. Over the last nine seasons, MSOE has posted a winning record eight times.
Miller will be the first to point out the confluence of events which led to a turnaround for MSOE basketball.
The 2003-04 season saw the Raiders go 9-17 and finish fourth in the Lake Michigan Conference standings. Brian Good, who had just finished his ninth year leading the team, made the move to NCAA Division II Queens University in North Carolina. It was a move that opened the door for Miller, then the head coach and interim athletic director at Concordia University Chicago.
"I was quite familiar with the program," Miller said. "I started as an assistant at Lakeland before being head coach there and we played MSOE twice a year. They hired Brian Good, a friend of mine, so we kept playing MSOE every year when I was at Concordia. I saw the progression from a team that had, maybe, half its players who played high school, to where every player played high school, and then to the point where they got some accomplished players. It was clear they were making progress and then with the building of the Kern center I thought it could be a good place."
Harris looked to replace Good and needed to look no further than the outgoing head man's close friend. Miller had been familiar with the growth of the program, serving as head coach at conference rival Lakeland for five seasons before taking the reins at CUC.
"I knew (Miller) from Lakeland and Concordia and I had always liked his style and personality," Harris said. "He was close with our previous head coach and Coach Good recommended him to me as his replacement. I trusted (Good) and his judgment and it has worked out beautifully. Coach Miller has been a great asset to the program and the university."
The new head coach would have an added recruiting advantage, showing off the brand-new Kern Center to potential recruits. The building opened in 2004 and provided a steep upgrade over St. John's Gym (outdated and small) and the U.S. Cellular Arena (too big, no practice space).
What's more, Miller has utilized the Kern Center outside of the traditional recruiting purposes by working with teams and leagues to schedule their tournaments and leagues on the MSOE campus. This past year, the facility has played host to NY2LA, an organization which hosts high-level AAU events, and the Whiz Kids summer league, one of the top summer leagues in the state.
"We work hard to get these events on campus for the exposure," Miller said. "When I started here we used to get the 'you have athletics there?' comment. Now it is common for a kid visiting our campus from other states to say, 'Oh, I played at your gym.'"
The shiny new building was only part of the equation in the turnaround. More importantly, Miller and his staff changed the approach to building a team at a school with such a rigorous academic reputation.
"I have to say that there is something in the mindset of a high-achieving student-athlete that puts team success first and 'me' second," Miller said. "Our stars over the years have been selfless. Jeff Mikos, Scott Murphy, Austin Meier, Jeremy Off were all guys I had to encourage to shoot more. When your stars are selfless no one will be selfish."
Miller inherited a squad which was just two years removed from an improbable run through the LMC Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament despite a 12-16 record. It was a team that had that success to build on, as well as a pair of young players that went on to earn induction into the MSOE Athletics Hall of Fame in junior-to-be point guard Jeff Mikos and sophomore forward Scott Murphy.
"My first team featured Mikos, who had been all-conference the previous year and freshman of the year prior to that, and Murphy was a highly-touted recruit," Miller said. "Our first priority was to change the culture. There was an acceptance of 'that's the way it is here' and we couldn't allow that to survive. Mikos wasn't a guy who accepted that and we had a lot of freshmen who didn't know MSOE hadn't had a winning year (since 1983). We had a week that year where we beat first-place Edgewood mid-week and then we beat first-place Wisconsin Lutheran on the road Saturday. That week changed MSOE basketball. The light went on that we could play with anyone and win."
This attitude change was imperative and certainly affected the atmosphere around the program. The effects of Miller's first winning team are still felt today.
"I don't feel that our 21-5 team was any better than the 2005-06 team that went 17-9," Miller said. "Winning has bred winning. That 2005-06 team didn't have that luxury. They were breaking the barrier and starting that tradition."
Miller credits the team chemistry for its success in tight games. Over the last two seasons, MSOE is 22-6 in games decided by nine points or less, while winning all six overtime games in that stretch.
"Team chemistry is something I sold to the staff first," Miller said. "I have always felt that it is 85% of the equation not some intangible you hope you have. Those guys really set the stage for a great team atmosphere by being focused on winning not stats. Our team chemistry has allowed us to win a lot of close games because in tight situations we believe in one another, we share the ball and no one cares who the star is just so 'we' make the play. Our overtime game success shows that. I really felt that as a team as soon as it got to OT, we feel we have it won. That's a good mentality as opposed to 'hoping' we can do it."
Last season, the Raiders broke the school record for wins for the fourth time under Miller, winning 21 games to top the 20-win plateau for the first time in school history. Sophomore Austin Stueck was named the NACC Player of the Year and senior John Cording was named the Defensive Player of the Year. Stueck returns in 2014-15 to lead a talented base of players, while the staff has added a strong group of newcomers to keep the program on track.