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Bucky McMillan’s first season as the Samford men’s basketball coach was difficult.

He got hired a few days after signing day, in the middle of the unknown world of COVID-19, and hit the ground getting ready for his first season as a college head coach. He pretty much played with what he inherited, adding just a couple players. Some stayed, others didn’t. His team scored 174 points in an early season exhibition game and was 5-3 before the wheels fell off. The Bulldogs finished 6-13.

“You realize you went through so much and got no reward,” McMillan said. “We were getting killed. We were playing with more walk on guys than scholarship players. You’re going into games, knowing you got six players, really, and you’re inevitably going to get beat really bad.”

An unexpected thing came out of those tough times, though. A culture started being built by a small core of players that endured that mess and are on the doorstep of reaping the rewards. Marcellus Vail and Logan Dye were with the program when McMillan was hired. He was able to sign Jalen Dupree and A.J. Staton-McCray.

Now they are a big part of a roster so loaded that McMillan said he’d be comfortable going 15 deep if needed. They have a legitimate Southern Conference Player of the Year candidate in point guard Ques Glover and a walking double-double in Jermaine Marshall. They are filled throughout with experienced depth and will fit in dynamic scorer Bubba Parham, who played at VMI and Georgia Tech.

“I feel like our coaches and this group of players here … [starting] a couple of years ago, that had to go through a lot of trials and tribulations, really deserves a fun season,” McMillan said.

McMillan said his team has the pieces to accomplish that goal.

“I really like our team, I like them a lot,” McMillan emphasized. “It’s going to be a fun team. We’re playing a lot of other good teams, so I’m not saying we’re winning 30 games, can’t guarantee anything like that. But, I know this group is about the right things and they’ve got good pieces that will fit together. We got to find a way like we did last year to win all these close games.”

Samford took a huge step forward last year in McMillan’s second season. Samford finished 21-11, marking the first time since the 1998-99 season that the Bulldogs won 20 games or more in a season. They finished third in the difficult Southern Conference, marking the highest SoCon finish ever for the Bulldogs, and came within a three-point bucket of making the conference tournament championship game.

Yet, there was a bit of what could have been connected to the season.

Samford was 10-2 in non-conference play, including wins over Oregon State and Ole Miss, and proceeded to start conference play with six losses on seven games.

“We get in conference and first game, we come in and we got three or four starters out with COVID, we go to Furman and lose by 30,” McMillan said. “Jermaine gets hurt, he led the league in double doubles, Ques was out for a bit. We start the league 1-6, it was crazy.”

Once they got healthy, the Bulldogs won nine of the next 10, including an 83-75 win over Furman. The Bulldogs dropped the regular season finale at Chattanooga, won a SoCon Tournament game over UNC Greensboro and ended the season with a 71-68 loss to Furman in the conference semifinals.

Now, they look to build on those experiences. Glover, a 6-foot junior, returns after averaging 19.2 points and 4.4 assists per game. Marshall, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound junior, averaged 13 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The Bulldogs were 21-6 when he was in the lineup and 0-5 in the games he missed.

Parham is an important addition to the deep roster. The 5-foot-11 senior was the SoCon’s leading scorer in 2018-19, averaging 21.4 points per game. He had nine games scoring 30 points or more, which was the most in the conference since Steph Curry had 15 in 2008-09. He played 58 games in three seasons at Georgia Tech and was a starter when healthy.

The Bulldogs have four newcomers, including Parham, but no freshmen on the roster. They also have only two seniors – Parham and the 6-foot-9 Dye.

“This year, we got 15 guys I feel comfortable putting in a Division I game,” McMillan said. “That’s the difference. It’s a fun group, regardless if we win NCAA Tournament games or get knocked out in conference tournament, it’s a great group to be around.”

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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