NAUGATUCK — There is an age old expression, “that Rome wasn’t built in a day.” When former Naugatuck basketball star Mike Wilson took over the reigns of the Greyhounds last winter it would have been an unrealistic expectation to think he would lead Naugatuck to an undefeated season and a state championship.
In fact, the Hounds struggled going 3-17 and missed the state tournament for the second year in a row. It was a far cry from the glory days, when Wilson led Naugatuck to the quarterfinals of the states, two years running. The boys all-time leading scorer with 1,642 points, Wilson averaged 25 points per game his senior year, 1999, to lead the Naugatuck Valley League in scoring and earned All-NVL and All-State honors.
Wilson went on to a stellar collegiate career where he scored 977 points in two years at Division I Rider College in New Jersey and two more years at St. Francis University in Brooklyn, N.Y.
In 2000, he earned the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year award leading the league in three-point shooting and averaged 8.3 points per game for the 16-12 Broncos.
In his senior year at St. Francis University, Wilson averaged 13.1 points per game and led the Northeast Athletic Conference in three-point shooting. He ended his collegiate career second all-time in three pointers in the NEAC.
Following his graduation Wilson was hired as an assistant coach at St. Francis University. The first time he prepared a scouting report, St. Francis defeated St. John’s for the first time since 1956.
The team may have learned a tip or two from Wilson about shooting the threes as later in the season they beat Army in a game that St. Francis set a school record with 15 three-pointers.
Five years ago Wilson came home to Naugatuck and took over the freshman boys basketball program. The transition to head coach of the varsity squad wasn’t really difficult since he coached most of these Greyhounds as freshman.
However, one must still walk before one can run. The young Greyhounds showed signs of improvement but still wound up on the short side of the scoreboard more times than not.
Naugatuck started out 2-5 this season but something was different. They turned a few heads in a close, two-point loss to Holy Cross followed by a one-point, heart-breaking defeat to Crosby.
Playing with a new found sense of confidence the ‘Hounds took off after the Crosby loss, winning six of the next seven games including five in a row to qualify for the state tournament.
“I think the biggest difference I’m seeing is the maturity level,” Wilson said, “the commitment to do the little things that add up to becoming a team playing with confidence.”
Wilson continued, “I think those close losses to Holy Cross and Crosby opened their eyes. They started to realize that they could play with any team in this league.”
It certainly helps that the ‘Hounds have four double-digit scorers in juniors Brandon Kuczenski, Mick Pernell, Gabe Pulliam, and Husani Foote.
“Having the ability to spread the offense around is a tremendous factor,” Wilson said. “Teams can’t just focus on stopping one or two players. Our options are unlimited. We have Adam Neveski averaging five or six points a game that can put down 15 points on any given night.”
Neveski is one of three seniors along with Nolan Kinne and Zac Mercer who have exhibited stabilizing leadership to help carry this team down the stretch.
“Having those three seniors makes my job easier,” Wilson added. “They are the voice behind closed doors in the locker room. I love those guys. They have bought into the system and when they are on the court they lead by example leaving it all out there.”
While team defense has been at the forefront of Naugatuck’s turnaround, the ‘Hounds ability to ripple the nets with the three is as evident as their coach pacing the sidelines.
“I have no problem letting my guys come down the floor and be basketball players,” Wilson said. “Just as long as they hustle back and play defense. We are playing confident. My job is to keep them humble and not get cocky because any team in this league has the ability to knock you off on any given night.”
Now that the Greyhounds have qualified for the states Wilson has much higher expectations.
“If we are a much better team at the end of it all than when we first started, then that would be a successful season,” Wilson said. “Much better all the way around — in the class room and as people. Someone that the school and the town can be proud of. I would like to think we are trying to teach them life lessons through basketball.”