Lancers complete Div. I transition but stuck in independent limbo

Most coaches learn quickly that while being good "on paper" is nice, it's what actually happens -- on and off the court -- that counts.

It's become hard, though, for Longwood head coach Mike Gillian to separate the theoretical from the actual. On paper, his Lancers have finally completed their five-year transition to Division I and now exist among college's big boys. But without a conference to call home, what's the reality?

"Well, there are two answers," said Gillian, whose program is one of three that becomes fully eligible this season. "[On one hand] it feels great, because it's gratifying that at the end of this process, technically speaking … you've done everything they asked of you. Eligibility, recruiting rules, scheduling requirements, compliance. You've handled them."

But here comes the crucial "Yeah, but … "

"Now, let's flip over to the reality side. We've been competing at this level for three years now," Gillian said. "… Technically speaking, it's gratifying because you've done it all right. In reality, you've been living that life for three years."

So, unlike reclassification mates UC Davis (Big West) and Northern Colorado (Big Sky), which will have full conference and postseason eligibility this season, Longwood's Division I arrival remains in independent limbo. It's like finally turning 21, but going to party at the same bar you've been sneaking into since you were 18. Sure, now you're fully legal, but nothing's really changed.

Or has it?

Longwood definitely isn't the same program -- or school -- it was five years ago. There is new infrastructure in place -- a big health and fitness center, new dorms -- that have come in lockstep with the maturation of the athletics program. Hoopswise, there is more recruiting and expense funding. There also is more respect in scheduling, as the Lancers have developed healthy regional rivalries.

Most important, there is more talent and depth on the roster, as Gillian manages to lure better players to Farmville, Va., despite the lack of postseason possibilities. It may seem odd for any college coach to de-emphasize the magic of the NCAA Tournament, but when you don't have that to offer, you need to push other angles.

"A lot of time we're recruiting against people that are in one-bid leagues," Gillian said. "Are you going to make that [decision] based on the opportunity to play maybe one game in the NCAA Tournament in your four years, or are you going to base that on the chance to play maybe 130 games over the next four years and the kind of player and person you're going to be after that period of time?"

However, much like a magician, as soon as the quick-talking, effervescent Gillian has made the NCAA Tournament vanish as a recruiting factor, he makes it reappear as part of his closing pitch.

"Now, as soon as I get done telling them that, [I say] this," he said. "Everyone here at Longwood wants that NCAA Tournament bid, that conference championship, as much as you do, so once we get that opportunity, we have to be ready immediately."

That bait-and-pitch technique is working. The improved roster has brought the Lancers a long way from where they were three seasons ago, in the midst of a brutal 1-30 campaign that still resonates.

"That was definitely a tough season. It's hard to look back on," said redshirt junior wing Dana Smith, who was a freshman that season. "… We just stuck together as a team, took every win and every loss -- well, that year, it was mainly losses -- but [we tried to] take them as a team and get better every game."

What did the one win, over Howard from the MEAC, feel like?

"Heaven," Smith said in a still-satisfied tone.

These days, basketball heaven's opening its gates a lot more often in Farmville. Two seasons ago, Longwood had nine Division I wins. Last season, there were eight more as the schedule continued to stiffen. The Lancers' RPI improved from 329th to 314th to 307th in that span. Perhaps most notably, given potential conference aspirations, Longwood split home-and-home series with both High Point and Liberty, the second- and third-place teams in the Big South last season, just missing a sweep of HPU. It may be slow, but it's most certainly progress, especially given where the program was.

Now, Gillian is looking for a different type of player than he was five years ago, which is as sure a sign as any of a program's growth. They will be more talented, for sure, but also of a different mind-set. Less explorer, more ensurer.

"Can you be a pioneer in Year 6? Maybe not as much as you could in Year 1," he said. "I'm not interested in pioneers [anymore]. I'm interested in kids who will come here and be ready when the opportunity comes."

When that opportunity will come is anyone's guess. Until then, Longwood will keep growing, keep improving and keep waiting.

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.