When Billy Donlon arrived as a freshman at UNC Wilmington in 1996, he was expecting to be the scoring point guard that made him a high school star outside Chicago.
Instead, he was met with an ultimatum.
“You don’t guard, you don’t play,” then-coach Jerry Wainwright told Donlon.
The provision stuck with him into his coaching career, as Donlon’s teams became known for defense and gritty play. Donlon hopes the strategy works at his newest job, as he was introduced as the next UMKC men’s basketball coach on Friday.
Donlon replaces Kareem Richardson and is the first UMKC coach to take the job with previous head coaching experience since Rich Zvosec in 2001.
UMKC athletic director Brandon Martin told reporters on Friday that his search consisted of meeting with 11 coaches in 16 days and that previous head coaching experience “was imperative.” Martin said he wants UMKC to be a top-50 program nationally and chose Donlon because no other coach was as prepared in his interviews and knew the program’s strengths and weaknesses better.
Donlon comes to Kansas City from Northwestern, where he was an assistant coach under Chris Collins the last two seasons. Donlon has known Collins since he was in the fifth grade and the two went to the same high school. Before Northwestern, Donlon spent a season at Michigan under John Beilein in 2016-17, when he ran the Wolverines’ defense.
After becoming Wright State’s head coach in 2010, Donlon was fired in 2016 despite leading the Raiders to a 22-13 record, his third 20-win season in six years running the program. The Raiders made three Horizon League Tournament title games under Donlon but lost each time.
He admitted to being bitter over the firing, but quickly recovered after joining Beilein’s staff.
“(Beilein) sat me down and said, ‘How your program does right away will determine if you did a good job or not,’” Donlon told The Star. “‘If they succeed, it means you did a really good job.’ That really helped me.”
Donlon’s replacement Scott Nagy has had three straight 20-win seasons since taking over, which included a trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2018.
Donlon said he plans to bring Beilein’s work ethic with him, which starts with local recruiting. UMKC has struggled to keep local recruits in recent years, with some Kansas City-area prospects either being too good, like KU’s Ochai Agbaji, or not interested.
At Wright State, Donlon heavily recruited local junior colleges, but didn’t see the likelihood of luring a high school prospect from Kansas City to Ohio. He’s looked into some staff hires with coaches who have local ties and plans to meet with two more at next week’s Final Four.
“We need some Kansas City trailblazers,” Donlon said of local recruiting.
Working with Collins helped prepare Donlon for UMKC, because the Kangaroos have never been to the NCAA Tournament, which was the same situation at Northwestern until Collins arrived.
Donlon said Collins wakes up everyday convinced that Northwestern will become a national program, which is the same attitude he has to take with the Kangaroos.
As a defensive coach, Donlon said he’s never been into zone, and plans to build the Kangaroos’ defense with man-to-man schemes. He’s adopted Wainwright’s motto when it comes to playing time. On offense, he’s become a fan of the modern game, in which teams rely on three-pointers that stem from spacing the floor, and wants to push tempo on teams.
Donlon said he’s big on three-point defense, and he has the numbers to back it up. At Northwestern this past season, the Wildcats ranked eighth nationally in three-point defense, according to KenPom.com, holding teams to 29.3 percent accuracy. The Wildcats ranked No. 20 in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. While at Michigan, Donlon’s defense ranked No. 3 nationally in the same category.
Donlon joins the program during a time in which the Western Athletic Conference has improved despite being a one-bid league. Four years ago, the WAC was ranked No. 25 in Division I, but has jumped to No. 14.
New Mexico State has become an in-conference powerhouse, winning 19 consecutive games heading into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed, before a last-second loss to Auburn in the first round, while Grand Canyon has become a worthy challenger.
Having competed against Brad Stevens and Butler when he was at Wright State, Donlon isn’t worried about that aspect of the job. He’s been at programs that haven’t won historically and has coached in smaller conferences and won.
“We’re used to being in this caliber of league when it’s peaking,” Donlon said.
Time will ultimately tell if Martin made the right hire in Donlon, and if he can become the first coach to lead the Kangaroos to the NCAA Tournament.
Martin left no doubt when asked about how he handled the search and how he expects it to work out.
“I know I got it right,” he said.