DECATUR — Matt Nadelhoffer doesn’t like to define success with numbers.
How many games his team wins doesn’t take into account community involvement, grade-point average, fan engagement and team camaraderie, all of which he considers essential to a complete program.
So if you ask him, “Was your Millikin basketball season a success?” he’ll give you a fuzzy answer.
“That depends on how you define success,” he said.
The short answer is yes.
Millikin recently completed its most successful season since Nadelhoffer began marching the program back from the edge of darkness. And if there’s a sense of excitement in his voice, it’s because he finally sees Millikin closer to accomplishing something that will easily translate in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin standings.
“I’ve already told our kids this is the most important off-season of their careers,” Nadeloffer said. “We don’t need to be looking ahead. What we can control is right in front of us.”
The easy-to-quantify truth is Millikin finished 8-17 this season, 4-10 in CCIW play. On the surface that’s not much to holler about. But understand that in each of the past two seasons Millikin won just one game overall and went winless in the league.
Now weave in all of the intangibles Nadelhoffer cares so deeply about and it’s clear why the overall achievement can’t be measured on a calculator.
“Our overall team grade point average was more than 2.9,” he said, proudly. “We have 20 kids in our program and all of them plan to return. That’s a first in a long time. So retention is good.
“We’ve done some great things in the community. Attendance went from under 100 a game last year to almost 700 a game this season, which was great. There’s been more media attention. Our students are involved. There’s pride back again and I can see it in our kids’ eyes.
“The thing I found most enjoyable is that people I’ve met came to a game, then came back again and again. They can see the excitement building. They know that for $5 they can come and have fun. Yes, there were a couple of games where I wish we could have given them their money back, but people are interested again.”
What makes Millikin’s step forward all the better is Nadelhoffer started five freshmen and nine of his top 10 varsity players were freshmen.
That means Millikin climbed out of the CCIW basement (finishing sixth in the eight-team league) without experience, with minimal physical strength and while going head-to-head within one of the best Division III conferences in America.
“It’s probably a knock on myself, but I honestly think if I knew our kids better we could have won two or three more games,” Nadelhoffer said. “We were in some very close games but that’s part of the process.”
That process included first-year college players getting clobbered and having to deal with it.
“We went through a couple of tough stretches,” Nadelhoffer said. “We had to play against some of the top teams in the country four games in a row. And we did it on two different occasions. We got smacked around pretty good, physically and emotionally. They were doubting their ability and they admitted it.
“We had some deep, emotional talks. There were some tears from the staff and the players. But it was all positive, no tough-guy stuff. They had to understand that just because they miss a shot or make a mistake, that doesn’t change the way we feel about them.
“We always say, ‘If basketball was taken away from you now, what do you have? And the answer is, we have one another. We say that in huddles all the time.”
Now, Nadelhoffer said, it’s time to take the next step.
He is wrapping up recruiting and will soon announce the addition of four or five players he believes can be difference-makers going forward.
A number of first-year players showed the potential to make a much bigger impact next year.
One is point guard T.J. Griffin of East St. Louis, who has natural quickness and is still learning how to harness all of his skills.
Another is post player Mitch Wilfer of Wentzville, Mo., a 6-foot-8, 240-pounder who has the muscle Millikin needs. “He’s a key to our program,” Nadelhoffer said. “He’s a bull.”
Another is Alex Tueth of St. Teresa, who was a major surprise until a meniscus tear sidelined him the final seven games. “I knew he was a great kid and a hard worker, but those last seven games is when I realized just how much we missed Alex,” Nadelhoffer said.
And then there’s Deavis Johnson, who had played just one year of organized basketball in East St. Louis when Nadelhoffer convinced him he had a future at Millikin. Johnson is a 6-6 forward with freakish athletic skills.
He’s just learning to play the game but was a third-team all-CCIW pick and averaged 9.1 rebounds in conference play.
“He’s put on 20 pounds since he got here and is up to 205,” Nadelhoffer said. “Our goal is to get him to 220. We’re talking about a kid who never ate vegetables until he got on this campus. His better days are ahead of him. He has the potential to lead the country in rebounding.”
As for team goals next season, the players believe they can ascend to one the top four spots in the league, landing a spot in the CCIW Tournament.
Nadelhoffer, of course, views it differently.
“I hope to get our team GPA to 3.0. I hope to open up the other side of the bleachers (in Griswold Gym) because we’ll need the seats in order to accommodate the added community involvement. I want us to get better every day and I want us to be very, very difficult to beat at home, even when the nationally ranked teams come here.
“I want them to say, ‘Oh, my, we have to go to Millikin and the Blue Zoo will be going nuts.’ We had a good start toward that this season.”
Every now and then, Nadelhoffer has to remind his players that it takes time to go from where Millikin was to where Millikin wants to be.
“You want them to understand that we play in one of the best conferences in the country,” Nadelhoffer said. “We made the decision to come here understanding we’d be taking over one of the worst teams in the nation. It wasn’t like we were starting in the middle of the pack.
“We were an expansion team trying to play hardball with a Whiffle ball and no bat.”
Then Nadelhoffer sizes up the challenge.
“This year we went from crawling to walking,” he said. “The goal next year is to go from walking to running.”