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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    Miller back in familiar territory at Division III Saint Joseph

    Glen Miller, the ex-Fitch star, guided the University of Saint Joseph men’s basketball team to a 25-0 record during the regular season. They’ve been ranked No. 1 in the Division III national polls for nine straight as they head into the post-season. (Photo courtesy of Steve McLaughlin)
    Glen Miller, head coach at University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, works the sideline during last year’s NCAA Division III tournament. Miller, the ex-Fitch star, has guided the Blue Jays to a 25-0 record during the regular season and the No. 1 national ranking for nine straight weeks. (Photo courtesy of Steve McLaughlin) Miller

    West Hartford — Glen Miller may be having some flashbacks these days.

    Back in 1999, Miller was in a very similar place as he is now as head coach of the undefeated and top-ranked University of Saint Joseph men’s basketball team.

    He guided another Division III program, Connecticut College, to new and unexpected heights. The Camels achieved a No. 1 ranking on the way to an unbeaten regular season (24-0), and their magical run ended with the school’s first appearance in the NCAA Division III Final Four.

    At 25-0, Saint Joseph starts its postseason journey on Tuesday, hosting Anna Maria in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference tournament first round.

    “Both situations we were building a program pretty much from the ground floor up and were able to do it through competitive recruiting and getting the right type of player that plays year-round, has pretty good athletic ability and has a passion for the game and good competitive toughness,” said Miller during a recent interview in his O’Connell Athletic Center office. “It’s not a special recipe; It’s pretty basic.

    “Our guys worked hard for years and we’ve gotten better each year. Same at Connecticut College.”

    They’ve resided at the top of the Division III college basketball world for nine straight weeks, an impressive accomplishment that’s gone relatively unnoticed outside the Saint Joseph campus and West Hartford community.

    Miller has seen his share of glory days during his career, including serving as associate head coach on the 2014 national championship team at UConn. He believes his players deserve more attention for their success.

    “I could care less about me,” said Miller, whose roots are firmly planted in southeastern Connecticut where he grew up and graduated from Fitch High School. “What they’ve done, it’s incredible. Really, it is. You’re talking about a program that didn’t exist five years ago.”

    “They’ve gotten very little attention or accolades, not just for the season that we’re having this year, but also for the season they had last year and going into this year.”

    Miller has continued what he helped Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, who was hired as the program’s first head coach, build. He officially moved from assistant to head coach when Calhoun announced his retirement in 2021. His staff includes assistant Stephen Laffin and volunteer assistants Jeff Calhoun and Tyler Olander.

    Saint Joseph has a roster stock with mostly in-state talent. Leading scorers Ryan O’Neill (Litchfield), Jaecee Martin (Hartford), Tyree Mitchell (East Hartford), Delshawn Jackson Jr. (Hartford) and Alec Kinder (West Haven) all have contributed to the program’s success.

    Coming off a 26-2 season, Miller isn’t surprised by his team’s success this season.

    “It’s a great group,” Miller said. “They’re very competitive. They’re committed. We have a lot of experience and also a very talented freshman class.”

    The Blue Jays boosted their resume by rolling through the regular season, winning all but three games by double digits, and playing a difficult non-conference schedule that included beating three ranked teams. They’re first in the country in scoring margin (25.0) and field goal percentage defense (35.3).

    They’ve remained undefeated despite dealing with pressure of expectations and from being ranked No. 1.

    “It puts more pressure on the guys,” Miller said. “We’re trying to keep them focused on getting better every day and enjoying the game. Not putting too much pressure on them to win was a challenge this year, and they handled it very well. It seems like the more you win, the more you have to win.”

    During their journey, the players have carried a large boulder on their shoulder. They’re fueled by what they believe is a lack of respect for their conference and program.

    “They’ve thrived off of that,” Miller said. “Our guys know, despite our success, they’re not as respected as they think they should be.”

    This week, the Blue Jays are concentrating on capturing a third straight GNAC tournament title and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that comes with it. It will also them an opportunity to be a first and second round host.

    If they’re upset this week, there’s a strong chance that they’ll receive an at-large berth, something a GNAC team has never done.

    “No matter what happens in our conference tournament, I would think we’re in,” Miller said. “But it’s our goal to win our conference championship. For sure, we want to win it. Our guys are very focused on that.”

    While the Blue Jays are 48-2 since Miller took over as head coach before last season, they’re still searching for the program’s first NCAA victory, going 0-2 in the previous two trips in their short history.

    Ultimately, Miller hopes to accomplish with Saint Joseph what he fell just short of doing at Conn College, and that’s win a national championship. The Camels lost in the NCAA national semifinals and placed third overall, setting the program record for wins at 28-1.

    Winning a national championship is a goal that Miller and Calhoun set before the program even played its first game.

    “It has been right from the get-go,” Miller said. “When coach (Calhoun) and I started this program, we wanted to win a national championship. Whether it was realistic then or not, that was a goal. We wanted to build a program as quickly as we could, be competitive, and get to the NCAA tournament.

    “Once you get to the NCAA tournament at any level, there’s so much parity these days, who is to say you can’t win one.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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