BOONE —Dustin Kerns says the excitement of becoming the new head men’s basketball coach at Appalachian State has not worn off.
Kerns, who was hired to replace Jim Fox on March 28, still has a skip in his step when he goes out into the Boone community. He’s spoken at organizations and has talked to people when he’s gone to a restaurant or a grocery store.
The subject matter is simple: Appalachian State men’s basketball.
“Truly there is excitement coming in here every day and meeting someone new,” Kerns said. “I enjoy meeting new people and learning something new and growing and I think that’s exciting. The newness has not worn off yet. I’m still super excited and that continues to grow.”
Kerns said he has already grown to love the area. He’s been to several restaurants in town and his family has settled in. The heavy rain that fell last week that put Boone into a series of flash-flood warnings did not douse those feelings of goodwill to the city.
“I’m going to have to get on a work-out plan, but this is been really fun for me and my family,” Kerns said. “They’re up here now and we’re loving the High Country and Boone.”
That love for the High Country also translates into a love of the Appalachian State men’s basketball program and of Appalachian State itself. Kerns has made an effort to learn as much as he can about the program’s past and its present by reaching out to former coaches Bobby Cremins, Buzz Peterson, and Houston Fancher
Kerns would also like to speak with former coach Tom Apke.
“One thing I’ve tried to do is do a lot of listening and a lot of evaluating and figure out the best approach,” Kerns said. “I have a plan and an approach and a vision, but I’m flexible with that plan. Our players are working hard and they’ll all be here in July.
“We’ve tried to change the mentality of this is the standard. This is how we’re going to do things and this is what we’re going to be about.”
He is aware of the fact that the Mountaineers have made just two appearances into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and has not been to the Big Dance since 2000 when Peterson coached the Mountaineers to a Southern Conference Tournament championship over College of Charleston.
Still, he wants his players to know about the program’s past, which is why he’s moving all of the men’s basketball trophies from Varsity Gym to outside the team’s locker room at the Holmes Center.
“I want our players to know that it has been done here before,” Kerns said of App State reaching the NCAAs. “Maybe not as much as we all would like, but it has been done. That’s something I want our players to appreciate and to understand. Now, it’s our job to do it even better, but it has been done. So, why can’t we get back there?”
Kerns wants the Mountaineers not just to picture reaching the tournament in their minds, but actually see what making it looks like.
“It’s important for our program to visually see,” Kerns said. “That’s why we are moving the trophies from Varsity down to Holmes, so the players can see them every day.”
Players, no doubt, have a big role in that. Appalachian State will no longer have leading scorer Ronshad Shabazz to lean on to make the key shot, but the Mountaineers also return four starters, including 6-foot-9 forward Isaac Johnson, 6-9 center Hunter Seacat and 6-2 guard Justin Forrest.
Three other guards, and O’Showen Williams, Michael Bibby and Adrian Delph provide depth in the backcourt. Kerns also is bringing in recruits, R.J. Wilson and Kendall Lewis.
Both Wilson and Lewis are 6-6 forwards and both will be on campus in July for summer sessions. Kerns has one more scholarship to offer, but is in no hurry to give it away until he finds the right player.
“In recruiting it’s not who finishes first, but who finishes best,” Kerns said. “We’ve got to get it right from a fit standpoint for not only the school, but for also our program and there’s an alignment on both ends.”
Kerns is not the only basketball coach who is new. He is also not the only coach who coached the past two seasons at Presbyterian as he brought his staff of three assistant coaches — Patrick Moynihan, Bob Szorc and Frank Young — with him to Boone.
Kerns also kept Fox assistant Jason Allison on staff and also brought Bradley Fey from Presbyterian to be his Director of Basketball Operations.
“Alignment and chemistry — staff chemistry is just as important as team chemistry because the team sees it,” Kerns said. “We have that. I was just a member of the team and they were instrumental in our success at Presbyterian. I don’t have to coach coaches and that’s very critical in a transition period.”
Kerns will not have to teach his staff his basic basketball philosophy of playing intense defense and having the defense set up scoring opportunities. Kerns will allow the team to find opportunities to score on offense, but he wants the Mountaineers to run a defense that makes scoring easier.
“We want to score off our defense,” Kerns said. “We’ve got to be elite defensively and score off our defense. Our players will have a lot of freedom to make plays, but we’ll try to teach them how to play and then allow them to make plays. I don’t want them to be robots.”
Kerns has until the beginning of the season in November to turn the Mountaineers into a well-oiled machine, played by players — not robots.