Chase Cochran / Samford Athletics

HOMEWOOD, Ala. —- As Samford coach Bucky McMillan sat shoulder-to-shoulder with a pilot he didn't know inside of a tiny plane somewhere over the rural South on his way to visit a recruit, he couldn't help but ponder the what-if scenarios.

"Obviously with no co-pilot, you're thinking all types of things," McMillan said. "What if this guy passes out?"

McMillan has piloted Samford basketball to unprecedented success during his four seasons on the job and has the Bulldogs (23-3, 12-1 Southern Conference) in the mix for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in a quarter-century and tied with No. 1 UConn for the most wins in Division I. He cannot land planes, though.

It was a different type of what-if scenario that compelled him to make this frantic journey from Birmingham to an unsettlingly short runway in Marianna, Florida. 

What if he didn't find a way to see Achor Achor once more and the blossoming big man from Chipola College committed to another school as his two-year playing career at the Florida junior college concluded?

It was the final day of the recruiting open period, and McMillan was tied up at Samford hosting a coveted high school prospect. Meanwhile, Achor was traveling back to Chipola after visiting other schools.

"We thought we were in a good spot, but you've got to have the last word," McMillan said. "I needed to be in two places at once."

Posed with a predicament unlike any he faced during 12 years as a local high school coach, McMillan reached for his phone.

It contains names and numbers that comprise a vast local support system, which the 40-year old McMillan credits for aiding his improbable leap from varsity coach at Mountain Brook High School to two-time reigning SoCon Coach of the Year.

At this rate, a third straight Coach of the Year trophy may be coming, thanks partially to the flight found by one of McMillan's local connections. Given the urgency, McMillan was thrilled to learn the trip's $1,500 price would fit in Samford's recruiting budget.

It turned out to be a bargain.

Achor Achor leads the Bulldogs in scoring and rebounding. Samford Athletics

Achor verbally committed to McMillan that night. Now, almost two years later, he is in the running for SoCon Player of the Year as the Bulldogs sit atop the league standings after being picked to finish fourth in the conference's preseason poll.

"If you don't get on that plane, we probably don't get Achor," McMillan said. 

And if McMillan weren't so well-established in the Birmingham area, he wouldn't have been able to find a last-minute flight.

McMillan acknowledges that he hears the "noise" in regards to when his success at Samford may lead to bigger job opportunities than this gig at a Baptist university of under 6,000 students that is 0-2 all-time in NCAA Tournament games.

But there aren't many other jobs where McMillan is going to look up and see his former teammates, former players, former coaches and their families in the stands. Often, they are people with no prior connection to Samford that have adopted the program as their own – cheering, donating and even serving as travel agents – because of what Birmingham's native son is accomplishing.

"They're at all the games, they're supporting and they look at it as helping someone they helped raise," McMillan said. "This can be something we build and we look back on it and say that we all jumped in on this together and we did something magical and it's our own college basketball program."

Something 'truly unique'

Samford finished the 2019-20 season 7-23 and ranked No. 325 in the NET prior to McMillan's arrival. Now, it is No. 59 in the NET and has reached 20 wins in three straight seasons for the first time ever. The Bulldogs have already set a program record for regular season victories with five games left, and they are inching toward consecutive league titles. All this at a program that had never posted a winning record in SoCon play before Samford athletic director Martin Newton's bold decision to hire the high school coach from down the road.

If they make it through the annually treacherous SoCon Tournament, the Bulldogs are projected as a No. 12 seed for the NCAA Tournament, which would be their best-ever seeding in a limited Big Dance history.

While the program's progression under McMillan is altering the SoCon hierarchy and turning heads nationally, it comes as no surprise in Alabama.

McMillan has been accomplishing improbable basketball feats in a football-crazed state his whole life. He made it as a Division I player at Birmingham-Southern and began coaching before he graduated. The job for the boys varsity coach at Mountain Brook, his alma mater, opened when McMillan was just 24. After cutting his teeth in youth coaching, on the AAU circuit and in the junior varsity ranks, he knew he was ready.

He bucked conventional wisdom for a suburban school without a great basketball history by implementing the relentless, up-tempo style coined "Buckyball." 

"I'd never had any experience as a varsity coach," he said. "If it was another job, I probably wouldn't have been the best. But at that time, I really felt I would do the best job for that community because that was my home."

McMillan stayed at Mountain Brook for 12 years, steadily building it from mediocrity into a titan of the state's highest classification that took down national powers like IMG Academy. He brought five state championships to Mountain Brook and produced current NBA players like Colby Jones of the Kings and Trendon Watford of the Nets. Questions came about when McMillan might leave. Collegiate assistant opportunities came along. But McMillan said it would take something "truly unique, truly special" to coax him away.

A Division I head coaching job at Samford fit the bill, especially since it actually shortened his morning commute.

McMillan's geographically condensed journey into coaching stardom jives with a saying he likes about how hired soldiers in war don't fight with the same intensity as those fighting for their homeland.

"That's how I felt coaching at Mountain Brook and that's how I feel here," he said. "When I'm banding up with all these people from this community that we raised to win and be successful, it's not just about a random school. This is where we grew up. I came to Samford basketball camps when I was younger. When our boosters are fighting and we're banding together, this is pride to us."

After taking Mountain Brook to previously unimaginable heights, McMillan quickly began doing the same for Samford. After a 6-13 debut campaign amid the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, he guided the Bulldogs to their first-ever winning record in SoCon play during his second season. Among the Bulldogs' 21 victories in the 2021-22 campaign were wins at Ole Miss and Oregon State, which was coming off an Elite Eight run.

It was the foundation for what the Bulldogs are accomplishing now as they contribute to Alabama's growing national reputation as a basketball state.

Auburn and Alabama, neither known for their basketball histories, have risen to the top of the SEC in recent years under coaches with stylistic similarities to Buckyball. Alabama coach Nate Oats was also a high school coach for over a decade before breaking into the college ranks as an assistant at Buffalo. Bruce Pearl's team at Auburn is one of just 10 nationally getting more minutes from its bench than McMillan is at Samford.

"I don't think people thought Auburn could get to the Final Four or be the No. 1 team in the country. I don't think people thought Alabama could be the No. 1 team in the country," said McMillan, whose parents attended Alabama. "And now with the transfer portal, now with international recruiting, now with all of that you've got a chance."

Samford, not Stanford

McMillan feels his time coaching highly recruited high school players prepared him to engage prospects. He observed the approaches taken by some of the biggest names in coaching who came through Mountain Brook in pursuit of Watford, who played two seasons at LSU under Will Wade.

"I think in recruiting it's really important that you're not this 'holier than thou, smarter than thou, all-knowing, all this' coach," McMillan said. "That's almost intimidating to people. I think the fact that I was a high school coach, it disarms the parents and it disarms the player I'm recruiting a lot of times. If you look at it, a lot of times the most enjoyable time a player has is when they're playing in high school."

Samford point guard Rylan Jones meshed with McMillan on his visit, largely because Samford's system reminded Jones of how he played in high school. The Bulldogs play fast, substitute often, take 25.3 shots from 3-point range per game and press even after misses. The analytics-minded McMillan eschews mid-range jumpers in favor of 3-pointers and points at the rim.

"He's just a basketball junkie," said Jones, who played at Utah and Utah State previously. "He's extremely smart. You can just tell he just thinks about basketball 24/7. He just thinks a little bit differently than a lot of other coaches. It's been awesome to learn from him."

Rylan Jones is thriving in Samford's up-temp system. Samford Athletics

As Jones shared the news of his interest in Samford with his inner circle, there was initially some confusion. One of Jones' former coaches assumed he was being recruited by Stanford. Once Jones committed, he found a shirt in the Samford bookstore that says "Sam, not Stan" and bought it for his old coach.

"Samford basketball is making a name for itself the last couple of years," Jones said. "We just hope to keep that growing this year."

So far, so good. Buckyball ranks No. 4 nationally in scoring (88.0 ppg), No. 1 in 3-point percentage (40.7%) and No. 4 steals (10.9). The Bulldogs are top-15 nationally in pace, top-15 in bench minutes, all while ranking bottom 15 in height, according to KenPom.com. It's the profile of a potential March menace.

McMillan never wavered on implementing "Buckyball" at the college level. He submits that the years he spent fine-tuning the intricacies of his scheme as a head coach at lower levels served as better preparation for being a college head coach than working as a college assistant would have.

"I was able to make a lot of mistakes and come up making those," McMillan said. "Then you can make the next step. In college basketball, sometimes you go through this deal and you get a job but you've never called a timeout before, never coached a team, never run a practice and now you're thrown into a game. And if it doesn't work, then they work their way backwards. Maybe they go back to being an assistant or go down a level or maybe to high school. This was truly working your way up and learning to coach from the youngest ages up to the next age and the next age."

'The best flight I ever had'

Sitting next to the stat crew during a Samford game is like sitting next to an auctioneer as the gameday staff call out an endless cascade of player numbers in an effort to ensure every substitution and statistic is properly documented. A whopping 13 players logged 10+ minutes for the Bulldogs in Saturday's win at VMI. Nine different players have at least tied for the team lead in scoring during a game this season.

Jones coordinates the charge for the starting wave of Bulldogs, ranking No. 2 among all SoCon players in evanmiya.com's BPR metric, which measures a player's overall value to their team. No. 1 is Achor. Fittingly, Jones found Achor for a game-winning bucket with 0.7 seconds left against Wofford on Jan. 31 in an example of the duo's obvious connection.

Their backgrounds couldn't be more different. That they ended up at Samford together is an example of how McMillan is transcending his strong local identity in recruiting and successfully branching out far beyond the borders of the only state he's ever called home.

While Jones is the son of a longtime college and professional basketball coach, Achor grew up in Melbourne, Australia, playing Australian rules football. He picked up basketball as a teenager and made his way to the United States in high school to develop his game.

Achor's mother, who moved to Australia from South Sudan in search of better life for her sons, wasn't so sure about her youngest making another move across the globe by himself.

"But now she is happy that I did, because she sees what's going on back home," Achor said. "Nobody is getting into anything really good. They're just getting in trouble. She's glad I got away from that and I am making something out of myself."

Interest in Achor surged late in the 2021-22 season as his minutes and productivity spiked just as his junior college eligibility at Chipola was expiring. But Achor was skeptical about all the last-minute inquiries from coaches at four-year schools.

"It was really weird not knowing who was genuine and who really wanted me and who had really seen something in me," he said.

Recruiting can be transactional. Often, it comes down to promises of playing time and role. In this era, it can also come down to money for some players. Achor, who said he has not seen his mother since 2018, was looking for something more meaningful.

"Mom always taught me to look at the coaches as your dad because I've never had a dad in my life," he said. "It's always just been my mom. She always tells me, 'look at the basketball team as your family.' That's what it's been here."

As Achor's decision came down to the wire and he attempted to discern who he could trust, McMillan's frantic flight left an impression.

"No one is going to do all that and risk their life on a plane that's shaking in the air for someone he doesn't really want," Achor said. "Honestly, I was probably sold just by the fact that he showed up."

Achor leads Samford in scoring, field goal percentage, rebounding and blocks. He is also on the cusp of honoring his mother's wishes by graduating, and he still has one more season of eligibility remaining. 

"I didn't know if it was going to be worth it," McMillan said. "But that was the best plane ride I ever had."

The high school prospect visiting Samford on that frantic final recruiting weekend two years ago was Lukas Walls, who also wound up committing to the Bulldogs and is now a freshman member of the team's rotation.

Landing both was a coup that exemplified how McMillan is uniquely equipped with the drive and resources to succeed where few others have. At Samford, he is fighting with his homeland.

"When you have people jumping on board and that's their mission too, to make this a top 25 team one day, then anything is possible," McMillan said. "Because you have not just a university but a city that wants to make it happen and relationships that go back 40 years."