SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The 2017-18 season was one the University of the Incarnate Word men's basketball team would rather forget. The Cardinals finished with a program-worst 7-21 record and secured back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in program history. After 11 years with head coach Kevin Burmeister at the helm, it was time for a change.
Enter Dr. Carson Cunningham.
After turning a two-win team at Carroll College in Montana into a perennial NAIA contender, Cunningham is now tasked with accomplishing the same feat at the Division I level with UIW. The biggest challenge is the Cardinals' lack of experience. Twelve of the 15 players on the roster are underclassmen -- four sophomores and eight freshmen -- but Cunningham relishes the opportunity to develop young talent.
"For me, it's fun to see the potential and give them some tricks of the trade as they develop," Cunningham said. "We are exceptionally young, and especially with all of our injuries, we're even younger. Right now, we have six guys out with injuries, and that's pretty rare. We're just going to battle through that. I definitely see some green shoots, as the economists like to say. We'll put some Miracle-Gro on that, add some sun and some water and see what happens."
"He really breaks everything down for us," explained sophomore forward Christian Peevy. "He simplifies things and makes them easier to understand. He's got us always bringing energy every time we step on the floor."
Early results are plainly seen on the court: The Cardinals have already notched five wins this season, four by double-digit margins. Peevy and freshman guard Morgan Taylor have paced the team's offense, averaging 14 and 12.4 points per game, respectively. With upperclassmen leadership at a premium, it's been up to the entire team to raise their level of play.
"I don't think there's any one leader on this team," Peevy explained. "Everybody pushes each other to be the best they can be. If I'm messing up in practice, I expect one of the freshmen to say, 'Hey, you've got to pick it up.' I think we're starting to work as a team. We're going harder in practice, focusing on the small details. The little things always help."
The Cardinals are also hitting free throws at a record clip. As of Dec. 14, UIW leads the entirety of NCAA Division I basketball, shooting 81.4% of their shots from the charity stripe. Success at the free throw line is nothing new for Cunningham.
"I've had good fortune with free throw shooters over the years," Cunningham said. "The last two of three years, we were the best in the nation at Carroll College, and for these guys to be shooting at a high clip is cool. People say, 'What do you do?' Mainly we say, 'Look, put the peach in the basket.' And they're doing a good job."
"We embrace it," Peevy said. "We take a lot of time to work on it in practice. I'm actually not surprised by the results we're getting on the free throw line, because we've been putting in the time towards it."
The early season hasn't been without its fair share of speed bumps. Aside from injuries, the Cardinals have suffered four losses by 20 or more points, the most recent a 91-50 decision at LSU. But there is good news: Rest and recovery is on the way. After a road trip to Chicago to face Illinois-Chicago and DePaul this week, UIW will then have two weeks off before they open up Southland Conference play on Jan. 2, 2019, by hosting McNeese.
Cunningham is looking forward to seeing how his team responds to coming challenges.
"We're going to be learning," Cunningham said. "We've got a lot to learn. But that's okay. You've got to enjoy that process. I believe Joel Embiid is trying to trademark that phrase, but we're in the middle of it, and I think the guys are willing learners. I'm excited to see what we can do."