The USMMA men's basketball team is closing in on a Landmark Conference playoff spot.
That did not seem likely in mid-January when the Division III Mariners were teetering in the standings and about to lose coach Danny Nee to administrative leave over an unspecified incident with a student. Nee's future is uncertain as an investigation into the matter continues.
Stepping in for Nee was former Oceanside High School star David Muchnick, the program's only assistant. The 30-year-old was ready.
"It's not as difficult as one might think because of my familiarity of the program and every single player in the program I've ever recruited personally or coached for four years," he said.
"So, they had a familiarity with me and my personality and the very first thing I told the guys was I wasn't going to change who I was, I was going to remain very positive, enthusiastic and the only difference would be that I was the one holding them accountable to their own goals as a team that they made earlier in the year, which was to win the Landmark tournament. My mind-set from Day 1 on Jan. 16 was to make the best of this season for the two seniors that are graduating [Nick Sergio and Zach Karczewski]."
USMMA was 6-8 when Nee left. The Mariners are now 12-11 and 6-6 in the conference and have won six of their last seven games. Tied for third in the conference, they need a victory in one of their two remaining games to make the four-team postseason tournament.
The 6-8 Sergio, who graduated from Patchogue-Medford, leads the team in scoring (14.0) and rebounding (8.8). Karczewski, a senior guard, is second at 13.3 points.
"I think the positivity of the team really changed," Sergio said. "We weren't really coming together as a team during the first part of the season. Coach Muchnick pulled us together, sat us down, he introduced a couple of different things that really turned around our attitudes and we really just started playing as a team instead of as individuals. He's done a really good job, we're grateful that he's been our head coach of late. Results speak for themselves. Our record with him is the best it's been since I've been here.
"When everything first went down, personally I felt the sense that there was like a dark cloud over the team, it didn't feel good, it didn't look good. Coach Muchnick told us 'This is what's going on, we're going to stay positive, go out and work.' There was only maybe a five-minute period that there might have been negative thoughts.
"I think coach Muchnick really handled it well. I give all credit to him for this whole turnaround. We think the sky's the limit for our team right now. We know in the past, teams have won Landmark championships, teams have gone to the NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, but we don't think about that, we think about us. We know we're the best team we've been in four years that I've been here as of right now and we're looking for the Landmark championship. We're writing our own legacy right now, we're going to do what it takes for the USMMA 2013-14 season to be the best it can possibly be."
Muchnick, who held the Oceanside record with eight three-pointers in one game and 64 in a season, wants his team to shoot.
"We've shot a lot better the last month," he said. "They had the freedom in the past to shoot them, not sure they've always had the confidence internally to shoot them. That's the biggest thing I've tried to give them from a shooter's mentality perspective is that confidence, you have to think that every time you shoot the ball it's going to go in or else you shouldn't shoot it."
Muchnick grabbed an assistant football coach, Jimmy Robertson, to help him.
"I don't have a lot of surrounding assistants or support staff to draw from," Muchnick said, "so it's really just been get to the office, put my head down, doing everything I was doing as an assistant with scouting reports and travel arrangements and all of that. At the same time we tweaked our offense, changed defenses more than we had in the past, we've changed our lineup, gone a little bit smaller, better spacing around Sergio in the post. Guys have really responded and done a nice job."
Muchnick, who previously was an assistant at Cortland and Denison (Ohio), said he has not been told what his future will be at USMMA -- and he hasn't asked.
"I'm not thinking about next year," he said. "Obviously I am where I am and I'm enjoying being at Kings Point. This is the place I want to be. Obviously, I'd like to see this process through and the guys in the program all mean a lot to me because I brought them here. And we've got a good recruiting class next year. Hopefully we can keep that together with the situation at hand. But this is a place I want to be and right now. I'm just trying to make the best of what's left for the two seniors that are graduating."