From D3hoops.com/Brian Lester (Photo by Dean Reid, d3photography.com)
Emory is sporting a 10-2 record. Some might view that as impressive. For the Eagles, it’s business as usual.
This is a program accustomed to winning. A program that has won three of the last five UAA championships and a program that has been to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
“We just try to win one game at a time and let the chips fall where they may,” Emory coach Jason Zimmerman said. “Our staff does a good job of reminding the team of the success we’ve had in the past and the responsibility they have to continue it. It puts extra pressure on them but it’s a good pressure. Our guys take pride in keeping this program at the level we think we can be at.”
Not every team is willing to embrace that kind of pressure but the Eagles have thrived under it. That is a largely credit to the seniors, Adam Gigax, Whitt Rapp, Donald Avant and Christopher Avant. They arrived on campus the season after Emory reached the Elite Eight and were part of a squad that made the Sweet 16 in 2015.
They understood right away that success was the expectation rather than a hope.
“A high standard had already been set,” Gigax said. “Every practice and every game, we set our sights high and Coach Zimmerman has done a great job of creating a winning culture within our team. Everyone is focused. We all want to be the best we can be.”
The seniors have no idea what it’s like not to be a conference championship contender each year and they don’t know what it’s like not to play in the postseason. So the expectations they go into each season with aren’t difficult to deal with.
“They don’t know any different,” Zimmerman said. “Eight to 10 years ago, it was a different mentality here. We were trying to improve and set the tone for how hard we play. We still have to play hard but we are also striving to win our conference and get to the tournament. The success we’ve had isn’t something the players take for granted.”
Gigax said he and his senior teammates have forged a close bond over the course of their four seasons together – they are even roommates -- and they have taken on leadership roles for a team that welcomed in seven newcomers.
“We lost a really good senior class, but with having that many freshmen, we know they are going to bring a lot of energy to the team,” Gigax said. “For us upperclassmen, it’s about showing them the ropes and we’ve done that. It’s been great seeing so many of them contribute.”
Gigax has done his part to be a leader, ranking second on the team in scoring at 16.5 points per outing. The two-time first-team All-UAA selection leads the team in 3-pointers made as well with 35.
“It’s definitely been an awesome run this year, and there really isn’t any pressure on us,” Gigax said. “We’re just going out and executing our game plan and having fun doing it.”
Chris Avant is putting up 11.6 points per game and is brother, Donald, is averaging 3.3. Rapp has battled injuries and has only played in six games. He’s averaging 7.0 points in those games and has dished out 44 assists as well.
Zimmerman points out that while Rapp may get overlooked at times in terms of media attention, his value to the team cannot be underestimated.
“He’s been our starting point guard for three years and he makes things more comfortable for the players and the coaching staff when he’s on the floor,” Zimmerman said. “He’s battled some injuries but he’s a big part of our success.”
Rapp is healthy again and has the Eagles cruising through a six-game win streak. Putting up 86.6 points per game, Emory is in a rhythm offensively.
The Eagles are giving up 77.8 but Zimmerman has seen his team really settle in defensively after going through a stretch earlier in the year where guarding an opponent proved to be difficult.
“We’re having a good year. I wouldn’t call it great yet because we still have a lot of basketball to play,” Zimmerman said. “We have room to grow. I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball yet.”
Because the UAA doesn’t have a conference tournament, every game carries extra meaning to the Eagles, who are eager to get into the heart of their conference schedule. They won their league opener 80-62 over Rochester Saturday.
“Every game feels like a championship game,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a challenging stretch to go through, and on that stage, you feel like you can’t afford to slip up. Our guys seem to deal with it well.”
Gigax is ready for the challenges ahead and believes the stage is set for another special year.
“We just have to continue the path that we are on,” Gigax said. “We have all the pieces in place and the depth. It’s just a matter of taking it one game at a time and enjoy the rest of this ride.”