Now entering fourth season at Marist, Mike Maker must replace leading scorer Khallid Hart, but Red Foxes' head coach insists program remains on upswing. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)
His first three years at the helm have not been easy, but if one thing has been learned about Mike Maker during his time at Marist, it is that he does not back down from a challenge.
Although the only thing keeping the Red Foxes from three straight experiences as the No. 11 seed in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament was a fortuitous coin flip result on the last day of the regular season last February, Maker remains upbeat in his hope that Marist will emerge from its morass and take the all-important step forward in a MAAC rife with uncertain projections after losing a bevy of its senior leadership to graduation. And even if the results are not quite there on paper, he is quick to remind those casting aspersions on both he and his program that progress has already been achieved, despite assertions to the contrary.
"Actually, I think we made a lot of progress," Maker reassured, exuding confidence where most would rather turn the page on the heels of an 8-24 season. "We had hoped to have a few more results as far as wins, but as far as how our program is progressing moving forward, I'm really pleased with the kind of young men we're attracting to Marist, their commitment level both in the classroom and on the court, and blending new guys that fit our style of play into a very competitive conference."
"The program is growing," he proclaimed. "It's at a slow pace, but it's a pace we thought it would be at, and I'm really pleased with the development of our younger players and encouraged by what we see. We have a big-picture approach to how we want our program to work, and we're getting closer to that. We're nowhere near where we want it to be, but we're closer than we were three seasons ago."
Such a declaration becomes even bolder in the absence of Khallid Hart, the Red Foxes' do-it-all point guard who graduated last May and left a legacy similar to that of Chavaughn Lewis, Marist's all-time leading scorer whom Maker deemed irreplaceable when he exhausted his four years of eligibility in 2015. But while Hart is impossible to replace individually, the pieces around him have the potential to make a greater collective impact in what will be a pivotal season in Poughkeepsie.
"Individually, you can't replace Chavaughn or Khallid," said Maker. "But what we hope to have is better balance. We may not have someone with the individual ability of Chavaughn or Khallid, but we have the balance necessary to become difficult to guard and if one of our better players doesn't have a normal night, we can absorb that with some other guys. We think Brian Parker and Ryan Funk -- if you look at them statistically compared to some of the guys we've had historically in this basketball program, they're as good as anybody."
"I know in the outside world, his numbers probably weren't what everyone was hoping for, but he's still on a pace as a rising junior that opens a lot of eyes in regard to the numbers he's putting up," Maker said of Parker, the 6-foot-2 multi-position threat who now becomes the de facto face of the program. "I thought Ryan Funk was one of the most improved players in our league last year, and we also have a transfer becoming eligible in Alex Dozic. So those three should give us a nice foundation to work with, and keep in mind, we've had two recruiting classes. We're better than we were three seasons ago, but not where we want to be. I think we've made significant progress, and hopefully we can make the jump this year."
While reserving comment about his incoming freshmen because he is still learning their intricacies and how to properly coach them, Maker is incredibly high on Dozic, who sat out last season after transferring from Marshall. A 6-foot-9, 220-pound sophomore from Montenegro who is projected to give the Red Foxes the jolt they desperately need in the paint, something they have not had since Adam Kemp protected the interior, Dozic has three years of eligibility remaining, giving his coach the hope that he can be a big help for his front line in every sense of the word.
"We're adding him to Brian Parker and Ryan Funk," Maker said. "Those three in particular will be the guys everybody else will be asked to blend with them. I think we'll have more depth and more balance. We're still another year from having a veteran roster that has impactful seniors and impactful juniors on it. We're not there yet. Our league last year was loaded with them. We're headed in that direction but not there yet, but I think that the addition of Alex Dozic with Brian Parker and Ryan Funk gives us the balance that we need moving forward."
All in all, the foundation is in place for upward mobility, as Parker and Funk lead a roster that also includes Kristinn Palsson, Isaiah Lamb and the aforementioned Dozic among its supporting cast. And amid the adversity, Maker remains a beacon of enthusiasm, insisting that better days are on the way for a program that has not enjoyed a winning season since 2007-08, when Matt Brady led the Red Foxes to an 18-14 record before taking over at James Madison.
"We're getting closer, we really are," Maker opined. "It's been challenging, to say the least. I don't think we've moved the needle in regard to wins and losses, but I think the people that have really followed Marist basketball can appreciate the long-term vision we have for our basketball program and how we want to play. All that combined is a challenging process, one that we embrace here, and I'm really proud of our guys."
"I was the third coach in as many years and the fifth out of eleven," he reflected. "It wasn't going to be easy, and I think the return on that investment is really close to coming here. The way we go about our work every day, as a staff and our players, I can tell you that the players have two feet in. They believe in the vision of this basketball program moving forward, they recognize that. If we play to our strengths and believe in the team over the individual, I think we'll make the strides necessary to make a jump."