EAST STROUDSBURG — East Stroudsburg University head men’s basketball coach Jeff Wilson knows what he needs out of his players.
That’s why the Warriors’ 10-game winning streak shouldn’t come as a surprise to most, capped most recently by an 86-74 home victory over No. 3 West Chester in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference at Koehler Fieldhouse on Wednesday night.
But when considering ESU (20-8) sat with a 10-8 record on Jan. 25, losing to Gannon while also suffering a four-game losing streak earlier that month, maybe it’s fair that the turnaround surprises others.
But in Wilson’s typical fashion, the focus always remained on what was ahead.
“We don’t talk about the 10 wins,” Wilson said. “I haven’t mentioned it yet. That’s not what this is about because if you start thinking about what you’ve done, you forget about what you need to do. And what we need to do is play our best 40 minutes of basketball on Saturday.”
The key takeaway from the past 10 games is just how far each individual player has come in his respective role.
“We’re now able to make adjustments, whereas early in the year we probably weren’t, just because of the youth and guys playing different roles,” Wilson said. “And even the seniors that were here – Michal Weiss was a backup. He played 12 minutes a game his junior year, and then he was thrust into the role of being a starter. He’s done a tremendous job for us.
“(Freshman) Zach Sabol has grown as his backup. And I think when you look at every guy on the roster and every position, every guy has shown growth, right? And that’s where you get to be a better program and better team.”
What comes next is perhaps the Warriors’ most difficult challenge since embarking on their winning streak.
ESU, the No. 2 seed from the PSAC East, will face IUP, the PSAC West’s No. 1 seed and a program ranked No. 7 in Division II basketball by the NABC coaches’ poll. The Warriors faced the then-No. 8 Crimson Hawks on Nov. 24 and fell 80-56.
“Probably our worst game of the year out there early in the year,” Wilson recalled. “I think we’ve grown a lot. You’re not playing any bad teams at this (time) of year. We just get the best team right now in our league, but you’re going to have to beat them anyway to win a championship. Really happy for my guys that they’re getting this opportunity.”
In their first meeting, the Warriors were out-rebounded 42-28 and shot a dismal 17-of-62 (27.4%) from the field.
“I think at that time of the year, we were still trying to find ourselves,” Wilson said. “We have a lot of youth on our team as you can look at on our roster. We have three seniors, one junior and then everybody else, 11 freshmen and sophomores. So this team’s going to be together for a bit.
“I talked about the growth and these guys buying into the program, buying into each other. And I think as we’ve grown during the course of the year, these guys probably looked at some of those losses and that can cripple you or it can make you stronger. And I think it made them stronger for sure.”
As sure as Wilson is that his men are better than they were three months ago, he knows IUP’s improved too.
“Coach (Joe) Lombardi does a great job with them too,” Wilson said. “It’s a great program, and for us to have the opportunity, we’re going to give it our best shot. And I guarantee you my guys will show up and play.”
In his 18th year at the head of ESU’s men’s basketball program, Wilson is seeking his fourth PSAC title, his first since 2017-18 and a third consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division II Tournament.
The road for the Warriors ended last year in the PSAC semifinals. He and his players are eager for a chance at the title on Sunday.
“All I know is there’s four teams left out of 18 playing,” Wilson said. “And we talked very openly about – I started sending my guys texts on Sunday, ’survive and advance. Forty gets us 40.’ And for us to get another 40 in the championship game, we’ve got to put together our best 40 of the year against IUP.”
East Stroudsburg will take the court against the Crimson Hawks on Saturday at Shippensburg University at 1 p.m.