From the first day of Willis Wilson’s tenure at the Island University on March 25, 2011, he made it instantly clear what his goal for the program was.
“We want to be the premier program in the Southland Conference and follow down the paths of a Butler, Gonzaga, George Mason or Virginia Commonwealth.”
Taking a program with one NCAA Tournament appearance and just 12 years of Division I history into a place alongside the premier names in college basketball is a tall task. The first step is building a culture and foundation for the Islanders.
The program’s philosophy for recruiting student-athletes – Character, Toughness, Talent – will be a major step in the building process for the Islanders. These attributes in basketball players that work hard will build Islanders Basketball into a championship program.
The first year of the Willis Wilson era saw a team with just 10 scholarship players, including 10 newcomers and just two players with significant Division I experience, take on one of the most challenging non-conference schedules in the nation. And though the end of the season record showed 6-24, the Islanders played all 30 games against Division I opponents and had 18 games within striking distance in the closing minutes.
In a league where freshmen rarely provide impact minutes, the Islanders had five frosh on the floor regularly, including point guard Johnathan Jordan, who set a school record with 138 assists in his first year as a college athlete. Jordan, who averaged 31.4 minutes per game, led the Southland Conference in assists per game and finished third in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. Additionally, fellow freshman Nate Maxey was third in the Southland in blocked shots, and nearly doubled the previous record for blocks by a freshman with his 48 swats on the year.
Freshmen weren’t the only ones to see significant improvement. Junior Terence Jones was given honorable mention by the league after averaging 13.7 points per game, while senior Chris Hawkins-Mast upped his scoring 250 percent from the year before with 12.7 points per game. Both players finished in the league’s top 10 in scoring during conference contests, as Jones averaged 14.7 points and Hawkins-Mast 14.1.
Before coming to the Island University, Wilson served two seasons as an assistant to Josh Pastner at the University of Memphis. In two years, he saw the Tigers go 49-19 and advance to the postseason both years. During the 2010-11 season, the Tigers went 25-9, won their fifth Conference USA Championship and a berth in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. In his first season for the Tigers, Wilson helped guide the Tigers to a 24-10 overall record and a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) berth.
Wilson became one of the most respected coaches in the country in his time as the head coach at his alma mater, Rice. In 16 years leading the Owls, Wilson posted a career record of 219-246, leading the team to the postseason three times in his tenure. He is the school’s all-time winningest coach, and his reputation in the collegiate coaching circles – and across college basketball – is impeccable.
Wilson had the most winning campaigns in Rice basketball history during his time as the head coach. His 2003-04 squad recorded a 22-11 overall record, and the 22 victories were the second-most for a single season since World War II. Wilson guided the Owls to 60 wins in a three-year span from 2002-05, marking the second-most victories in a three-year stretch in school history.
The Silver Spring, Md., native also led the Owl program to the most postseason appearances since 1950. Wilson guided the Owls to three National Invitation Tournaments (NIT) – in 1993, 2004 and 2005. Rice’s first round win at Wisconsin in the 1993 NIT was the program’s first postseason victory since the 1954 NCAA Tournament. Wilson was also an assistant on the Rice coaching staff when the Owls earned an NIT berth in 1991.
In his tenure at Rice, Wilson coached 17 all-conference performers, including 2007 Conference USA Player of the Year Morris Almond. Almond, a 2007 NBA Draft first round pick, and Michael Harris (2005) both earned All-America accolades. Wilson also had four players pick up CoSIDA Academic All-District honors, including Adam Peakes who was a two-time CoSIDA Academic All-America selection.
The 2004 team was Wilson’s most successful, as it won 22 games including the BP Top of the World Classic championship. For his leadership in 2004, Wilson became the first Rice basketball coach to be selected as the National Association of Basketball Coaches District 9 Coach of the Year since the award began in 1970. During the 2005 season, the Owls won 19 contests and advanced to postseason action in consecutive seasons for only the second time in school history, as Michael Harris and Jason McKrieth again were named all-conference.
One of his best performances was in 1998-99, when Rice finished 18-10 to equal the third-best turnaround in NCAA history. The Blue and Gray claimed sole possession of third place and went 13-1 at home, including a streak of nine straight victories. As the Mountain Division’s third seed, Rice advanced to the WAC Tournament, where the team defeated San Jose State, 64-61, before falling to 25th-ranked New Mexico in a two-point loss (51-49) in the second round. Wilson was the pick of the league media and coaches as the WAC Mountain Division Coach of the Year.
Prior to taking over the reins of the Rice program, Wilson spent the 1991-92 campaign as an assistant on Mike Montgomery’s staff at Stanford. The Cardinal finished the season with an 18-11 overall record and a 10-8 Pac-10 mark for fourth place in the league. Stanford earned an NCAA Tournament bid and lost in the first round to Alabama. Wilson coached All-American Adam Keefe, who finished his collegiate career as one of four players in NCAA history to have 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor in a career.
Wilson began his collegiate coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater in 1985-86. After a one-year stint as a head coach at Houston’s Strake Jesuit Prep, Wilson returned to Rice as an assistant from 1987-91. As a member of the Rice staff, Wilson helped the Owls improve their Southwest Conference standing each year. During Wilson’s final year as a Rice assistant, the Owls finished fourth in the league and received a bid to the NIT. The winning record was Rice’s first in 20 years and the postseason appearance marked its first in 21 seasons.
After arriving on the Rice campus in August 1978, Wilson was a four-year letterman for the Owls. He co-captained the Owls to a 15-win season in 1982 and was a teammate of former NBA star and Rice Athletic Hall of Fame member Ricky Pierce. Wilson, a Will Rice College Fellow and member of the college court, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1982. He also participated in the Rice NCAA Volunteers for Youth program.
Wilson and his wife, Vicki, have three children, daughter, Kristin, and twin sons, Zachary and Keenan.