Cleo Hill Jr., who has brought back Winston-Salem State’s basketball program to relevance in his two seasons, has been named the CIAA coach of the year.
CIAA coaches and sports information directors voted.
“I have received the conference coach of the year three times,” Hill said, referring to honors with Shaw in 2012 and Cheyney in 2008. “By far, this is the most gratifying being here at Winston-Salem State with this administration and with this coaching staff.”
Hill has guided the Rams to a 16-10 record overall and 13-4 in the CIAA, good enough to be co-champions with Johnson C. Smith in the Southern Division. WSSU will play the Bowie State-Livingstone winner on Thursday in the CIAA Tournament quarterfinals in Charlotte.
Among his players at WSSU, many have said all season that Hill’s strength is his ability to deal with today’s generation.
“He’s a players’ coach,” said senior Rob Colon, who was a contender for the CIAA player of the year and made All-CIAA first team after adjusting his game. “He understands players and what we do on the court.”
Before Hill arrived to replace James Wilhelmi, the Rams went through a season of five wins and a first-round exit in the CIAA Tournament. But in two seasons the Rams are contenders this week in the 75th league tournament.
Nobody has improved more this season than Colon, who is having a career year in shooting percentage and averages a team-best 17 points.
“He’s seen the results of what we’ve been teaching,” Hill said. “From last year to this year, he’s seen the results in terms of wins and that’s confirmation in terms of his talent as a player. Defensively, he’s taken a challenge to be very good, and that’s kept him on the floor.”
Hill says the late Clarence “Big House Gaines,” who coached his father, Cleo, was a mentor and says coaching at WSSU means something.
“Sitting in the seat that my mentor sat in, and where my father excelled and met my mother, I’m overwhelmed with the support of the campus, faculty, staff, student body, alumni and the entire Winston-Salem community,” Hill said.
The other pieces that Hill has added to holdovers and seniors Mason Harrell and Julius Barnes were transfers Jaylen Alston (Gardner-Webb), Jon Hicklin (James Madison), Justice Kithcart (Old Dominion) and Dontae Caldwell (Md.-Eastern Shore). It’s easy to bring in Division I transfers, but it’s another thing to make that talent mesh.
Barnes said Hill’s ability to teach the game sets him apart.
“His knowledge and experience as a former player definitely helps a lot,” Barnes said of the former N.C. Central star.
The Rams lead the CIAA in defense, allowing just 65 points per game with one of the smaller but quicker teams in the league. Only Harrell, who is 6 feet 8 and is the team’s best post player, is above 6-4 among Hill’s eight-man rotation.
Hill and the Rams went 12-15 last season and weren’t consistent enough defensively, giving up 73 points per game.
This season, the Rams have paid attention to what Hill and his two assistant coaches, Lance Beckwith and Ricky Wilson, expect on defense.
“We like games in the 50s and 60s because when we see that it usually means we are doing a good job defensively,” Hill said this season.
When Hill was hired by Chancellor Elwood Robinson, he was taking on the legacy of his family name. Cleo Hill Sr. is one of the best players to have put on a WSSU uniform and led the Rams to back-to-back CIAA titles in 1960 and ’61.
Hill has embraced the challenge and is thriving this season. The Rams went 11-4 at home, and many students couldn’t get into the games because the Gaines Center was overcrowded. Hill also bought pizza for students before one game as they waited for the Gaines Center to open.
“Our sixth man has been great and that’s part of why we’ve been so successful,” Hill said this season. “I can’t say enough about how all of our students, and our alums, have made the atmosphere great inside of Gaines. I love it.”
Meanwhile, Roger Ray of Livingstone was named the CIAA player of the year. Virginia Union’s Terrell Leach, a former WSSU player, also made the All-CIAA team.
Cayse Minor, a former star at Mount Tabor High School, made the All-CIAA team for Johnson C. Smith. The senior has scored more than 1,000 points in his career.