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Tradition and potential: A day with Division 2

Lenoir-Rhyne University's Shuford Arena sits nearly silent after a South Atlantic Conference game with Emory & Henry. (Photo: Brian Wilmer/House of College Hoops)

HICKORY, N.C. – Quick – without opening Google Maps or asking Siri – tell me where Emory, Va., is located.

The “suburb” of Abingdon – you likely don’t know where that is, either – looks like any of 50 similar towns in Washington County and southwest Virginia you’ll see between Bristol and Roanoke. High school football rules the land, where these small towns close up on Friday nights to go watch their teams play.

If you jump off 81 and visit Emory, though, you’ll find the place where an ACC champion coach got his start. Virginia Tech coach Mike Young played at Emory & Henry College in the early 1980s, then took his first coaching job at the school. Young played for yet another legend at E&H. You may not know that man’s name, but you should.

Bob “Coach J” Johnson is a Hall of Famer at the school, guiding the program for 27 years of the 30 he spent there. Johnson also helped coach the football team and served as athletics director, and the basketball court in the King Center where the Wasps play bears his name. There are few places on this campus, in southwest Virginia, or in the Division 3 Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) that hosted Emory & Henry for nearly 35 years before the college jumped to Division 2 prior to last season, that do not bear Johnson's imprint.

While we’re at it – and again, without help from Wikipedia or your favorite digital assistant – tell me where you would find Hickory, N.C. This Catawba County city also spawned an ACC coach. Rick Barnes, now Tennessee’s coach, grew up there and went to Lenoir-Rhyne College. Lenoir-Rhyne is now a university, and the former NAIA District 26 stalwart now shares a spot with Emory & Henry in the Division 2 South Atlantic Conference.

Many of L-R’s former NAIA “neighbors” have made the move to Division 1. The Big South Conference contains many of them – High Point, Gardner-Webb, and Presbyterian have moved to that league. Another team that enjoyed NAIA success, Elon, has now ventured to the CAA.


This brings us to the scene where these two stories collide.

When driving through the Lenoir-Rhyne campus, there is an unassuming building in the shadow of Moretz Stadium. The building has stood in the same location for 65-plus years, and it has held up remarkably well for its age. Walking through the doors, it almost feels as if you are stepping back in time. There’s a trophy case to the left, a concession stand to the right, and not much room to move.

Once you proceed through the glass doors just ahead, though, the aesthetics significantly change.

This portion of the building – now called Shuford Arena after being known as Shuford Gym since its inception – is a testament to the school’s success. Every dollar invested in the program immediately displays itself when you walk through those doors. The seats are nearly new, having been entirely replaced from the old-style wooden bleachers. There are new video boards on either end of the gym, a new floor, a new paint scheme, and one of the biggest center-court logos you’ll find anywhere.

It's a fascinating dichotomy, and the Hickory faithful love it. They have turned out on this day, as they do most days. There are even a few fans donning the blue and gold of Emory & Henry, the team with its own tradition that is trying to build what Lenoir-Rhyne already has.


All it takes is a look at the opposing benches on this frigid Saturday afternoon to see even more of the established-versus-rising comparisons. Everick Sullivan stands wearing a gray pullover in front of the L-R bench, having been the coach of the Bears since 2016. Sullivan was a standout player at Louisville and following several assistant stints at the Division 1 level, he helmed one of the biggest moments in L-R hoops history earlier this season.

The Bears visited Louisville’s Yum! Center – just a short trip from where Sullivan starred – and knocked off the Cardinals, 57-47. Though it was just an exhibition game, the result made national news. Sullivan’s Bears were social media darlings for days. Guard L.J. McCoy – more on him in a bit – scored 16 to pace the Bears in the win.

If you look to the left, Ben Thompson stands, cutting a very coach-like figure in a navy-blue polo and khakis. Thompson has his own history, having been part of the staff at Lincoln Memorial University, one of the South Atlantic Conference standard-bearers. He, like Young, coached at his alma mater, serving as part of the staff at Virginia Tech along with making Division 1 stops at VMI and UNC Greensboro.


The referee tosses the ball in the air, and Lenoir-Rhyne secures it. The Bears get a layup from Jalen Johnson to take a lead they will rarely relinquish. That Johnson bucket is one of 17 L-R would go on to hit in a sizzling 60.7 percent first-half shooting performance. McCoy would eclipse that 16-point performance from Louisville in the first half of the contest, tallying 18 on 5-of-10 shooting and 5-of-5 from the line. That performance propels the Bears to a 48-33 lead at the half.

It's not as though the visiting Wasps are having a bad day, either. E&H is within a make of 50 percent at this point – though the 3-for-12 from distance is a bit suboptimal. Another telling stat hovers in the air like the chill outside, though, as L-R enjoys a 16-5 advantage in points off turnovers. E&H has committed just two more miscues than L-R, but the results have been much more harmful for the visitors.

As the second half unfolds, Lenoir-Rhyne stretches its advantage. The lead grows as high as 25. Then, E&H battles back, despite the Wasps’ youth and competitive disadvantage as they transition from Division 3 to Division 2. E&H slices the lead in half, unfurling a 13-0 run in a three-and-a-half-minute stretch that induces some worry among the home faithful. The fear is short-lived, though, as E&H can only close within 13 before Lenoir-Rhyne finally claims an 89-72 victory.

McCoy – himself a transfer from another successful D2 program an hour or so away at Belmont Abbey – finishes the day leading Lenoir-Rhyne and all scorers with 25. Forward TJ Nesmith finishes just behind with 24, grabbing 11 rebounds in the process. Nesmith tallies 16 of those points in the second half, using his size to his advantage. Johnson and Nas Tyson also combined for 24, buoying a 54.4 percent shooting day for the Bears.


It's now probably 25 minutes after the final whistle, and I’m standing at the table, making sure I’ve packed my bag. Thompson enters the arena, then walks over to me. We share a few words about the game and his team. We agree that the team was a big shot away, a stop away – any number of small things away – from being right there in this game.

Much of the conversation I hear in the halls of the gym – which I’ve not shared with Thompson until I write this – echoes this sentiment. It’s the first time most of the people in the building have seen Emory & Henry play, but they’ll board the bus to head back to Emory having earned the respect of those who have seen a successful season or two in this league.

As I walk through the blustery night to the parking lot, I find myself thinking about envy – not in the negative sense, but in the perhaps more ambitious sense. L-R has set the blueprint to which it would be understandable for Emory & Henry to aspire. The Bears have made seven trips to the NCAA tournament, banners fly above both sides of the seating section of their beautiful arena, and they have an established tradition in Division 2.

Emory & Henry – and Thompson, to be fair – is still a figuratively young program for such a tradition-rich school. The Wasps are in their second year at this level and are plenty competitive, having already won 10 games in this season. It must be exhilarating – if not slightly terrifying, due to the unknowns – for E&H and its fans to consider what this program could be. In fact, a few years from now, some may clamor for E&H to move to the highest level of college sports, just as they now do with L-R.

A wise individual wouldn’t put anything past either school.

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