When it comes to UNCG basketball, it is all about defense. It is a cornerstone of head coach Wes Miller’s philosophy, and it shows both on the court and on the statline. UNCG was sixth in the country in scoring defense this year, and the Spartans won their first SoCon Championship since 2001. The centerpiece of that defense is James Dickey, a lengthy 6’11 rim protector who earned the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year award after leading the conference in both rebounding and blocked shots.
Dickey takes pride in that defensive prowess.
“It started in middle school,” Dickey said. “I was never really a scorer, but I was tall… I tried to find what my niche was, and I figured I was good at blocking shots, so I stuck with it.”
Dickey’s length and athleticism make him a nightmare for opposing scorers, but his offensive game is not as polished, though it does come out at times. He scored a pedestrian nine points against East Tennessee State in the SoCon Championship game—but all nine of those points came in the second half.
“Over the season, as the team built confidence, I also built confidence in myself…” Dickey said. “During the whole [SoCon Tournament], my coaches were just telling me ‘be more aggressive! Be more aggressive!’… So, I didn’t try to force it, but when I felt like I had the opportunity, I tried a little harder than I normally would to score, to take my time, and it worked out in my favor.”
Dickey spoke often of confidence, and perhaps no other win was more important to building UNCG’s confidence than their December victory over NC State. The 81-76 win set the tone for the rest of the year—and it was especially sweet for Raleigh-native James Dickey.
“Just being an inner-city kid, not getting recruited by NC State… I always wanted to go there. So it was definitely a little icing on the cake to knock them off, especially in their place. It was definitely a confidence boost.”
The Spartans ultimately fell to Gonzaga 68-64 in the NCAA Tournament, but fans still have plenty to look forward to next season. Starters Marvin Smith and Jordy Kuiper are graduating, but the Spartans will retain most of their core and will be joined by Wichita State transfer Eric Hamilton, who had to sit out the season due to NCAA rules.
“I wouldn’t want to make any number goals, like ‘we want to win 30 games next year’, but [we want] a consistent one-day approach to each practice, get better each day, and just try to grow as a team. I feel like when we make goals such as winning the SoCon [regular season] championship or getting a certain amount of wins, we may already be disappointing ourselves during the season. If we only win 20 games but win the SoCon Tournament, we’re good.”
Dickey and the rest of the team will have to wait months before the start of the next season, but he has a few things he wants to work on in the meantime. He aims to improve his offense and his strength during conditioning over the summer. He’ll have plenty of help from the UNCG coaching staff, led by Coach Miller. The two have formed a special relationship in Dickey’s three years at UNCG.
“He loves me a lot, and he respects me as a basketball player; he thinks I have a very high IQ. If I feel like there may be a better way [of doing something], he’ll allow me to come up to him and talk to him about it.”
Dickey spoke further of the adjustments made by Coach Miller, especially in Dickey’s true freshman season. In those days, the state of the program was still very much up in the air, until Coach Miller changed everything.
“It started with Coach Miller. When I first got here, he was trying to cope with players, more so than applying pressure to them. But I feel like he saw that wasn’t working. He started caring about players’ feelings more on the court. He was going to coach us as hard as he could and say what he wanted to say and we allowed him to coach us that way.”
The Spartans finished the year 27-8, setting a single-season school record for wins. Dickey’s 71 blocks were the fourth-highest single season total in school history. And seeing that he will be a junior come next basketball season, much of the Spartans’ future success will rely heavily on the talents of Dickey.