What’s in a game?

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IRVING, TX - FEBRUARY 11: UDallas senior Emmanuel Calton (3) subs out in the men's basketball game between UDallas and Schreiner on February 11, 2018. (Anthony Mazur/AM News Net)

It’s been almost a month since the men’s basketball team fell in the first round of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament, but now that the dust has settled and a national champion has been crowned, the season can truly be appreciated.

UD has been far from a basketball power, but four years ago they had perhaps the best season in school history, winning a school-record 18 games and receiving their first SCAC tournament game win. It looked like the program had built a strong foundation and had all the pieces to be a consistently strong program.

But the last two years, the program almost fell apart. The culture was toxic and the team performed below its talent level. Things looked like they would only get worse this year, after the team lost four seniors, three of which were starters, and all four were high character guys.

The only true senior on the team heading into this year was Emmanuel Calton and head coach Jarred Samples was the only coach returning, as he lost his entire staff from the year before.

Amazingly, the change turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to the team.

The team did catch a break when longtime assistant coach Matt Grahn returned to the team after a one-year hiatus and his strong personality certainly had a positive effect on rebuilding a winning culture.

However, for the most part, the team and especially Calton deserve ample credit for turning the program around.

Calton has had as up and down of a career at UD as one can have, battling through career-threatening injuries, contributing to the record-setting team his freshman year and taking the primary leadership role on the young team this year.

The culture was so toxic after last season, it looked like it would take a massive overhaul to restore. I didn’t think that it could or would be done in one season. A lot of people walked away from the program. I walked away. Calton didn’t.

Of course, winning cures all ills, and the program got a lot of help with an extremely talented freshman class led by superstar Spencer Levi. But the team has had other talented freshmen come into the program in the past that fell victim to the poor culture surrounding the team.

Calton helped to change this by sitting the team down when school began. He’d seen the good things team leaders had done in the past, as well as the costly mistakes they’d made. He had one clear message for the team, that no matter what happened on the court, the team was going to have fun again.

The team started off the season a scorching 7-1 as the new players, particularly Levi, burst onto the scene. Some of the players that didn’t fit the new culture slowly left the team, which led to an even stronger bond between players.

The team hit a rough patch after Christmas, going 2-6 in their first eight games after the break, but unlike in the past, they didn’t let that kill them, winning six of their last eight heading into the tournament before falling victim to a hot-shooting team in the first round of the tournament.

It sounds cliché, but culture is important in sports. As Grahn likes to say, culture eats talent and tactics for breakfast. While those latter two are important as well, they won’t be effective without a strong culture.

The men’s basketball team was proof of this last year and the people that helped restore this culture can’t be given enough credit. The foundation is now truly set for the program to be strong in the future. Even if guys like Calton won’t be there for it, their fingerprints will be all over it.

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