Countdown to 2015–16: William & Mary senior Terry Tarpey is the most dynamic force in college basketball

Courtesy of William & Mary athletics.

He can sort out a Rubix cube in less than a minute, but for a more hoops-oriented manifestation of the “Tarpedo” effect, there was last season’s Triple-Double week.

“One of the best performances I’ve seen,” was how William & Mary coach Tony Shaver described Terry Tarpey’s 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists — along with a ho-hum four steals and two blocks — in an 81–73 win over James Madison in early January. It was the first triple-double in program history.

Five days before, in a blowout win over Drexel, Tarpey, a 6–5, 210-pound junior, just missed a double-double, with nine points and 10 rebounds. Two nights later, in a tough loss at Elon, he’d chipped in a tidy 22 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and no turnovers.

The James Madison win was the pièce de résistance, something Shaver alluded to when he was asked — though not specifically — about the Tarpedo effect. “There are a lot of nights where (Terry) is our MVP,” said the coach. “He does so many things to impact our wins.”

Pound-for-pound, Tarpey can lay serious claim to the title of “most dynamic force in college basketball”. Few can rival his across-the-board production. Tarpey finished last season ranked among the top-10 in the Colonial Athletic Association in eight statistical categories. He led the league in rebounding and steals, was second in blocks, and third in field goal percentage. He was named the CAA’s defensive player of the year, the first time a W&M player received that honor.

He is instrumental — see: 10 double-doubles in ‘14–15— to the point where his absence from the court becomes immediately noticeable. Says Shaver, I don’t want him on the bench sitting next to me.

That was the case in the Tribe’s NIT first-round game at Tulsa last March. Tarpey picked up his third foul with just under six minutes left until halftime. Tulsa amassed a 17-point lead, before Tarpey helped key a huge fightback, thanks in large part to his disruptive work at the top of a stifling 1–3–1 zone defense. William & Mary ended up losing by just three points, and they had two chances to tie it at the buzzer. In just 29 minutes, Tarpey had posted 14 points, six rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers. “He’s that influential,” says Shaver. “It’s a good example of how good we are when he’s on the floor.”

Shaver has almost 40 years of coaching under his belt, but he readily admits that he hasn’t seen, let alone coached, many players like Tarpey. “We work really hard recruiting versatility, but Terry’s kind of in a class by himself,” he says.

When Shaver watched Tarpey at Fairfield Prep, in Connecticut, he noticed a blend of athleticism (Tarpey dunks, often emphatically) tethered to a Go-Go Gadget 6–10 wingspan. But in addition to these physical gifts, Tarpey had cultivated a tremendous sense for the game. “He had an incredible nose for the ball, in terms of rebounding, and thanks to his wingspan, he got his hands on so many passes, deflections, and steals,” says Shaver. “His defensive instincts were very rare. I loved how he impacted the game. He just saw things that other guys didn’t see.”

Tarpey was born in France, and spent his first three years near Paris, where his dad played basketball professionally. (Tarpey will renew his French citizenship next week.) Then, it was Long Island, N.Y., and Stamford, Conn., where friends called him “Spidey”. Whether he was playing shortstop in baseball, wide receiver in football, goalie in soccer, or being his dynamic self in basketball, if a ball came near him, Tarpey had to catch it.

Shaver saw a good kid from a good family. “Love for the game” was a phrase that kept ringing out. “You look for guys with a good work ethic,” says Shaver. “We’re confident in our ability to develop players here (at W&M), but they need to first have that quality.”

For Tarpey, William & Mary ticked all the boxes. He loved the laid-back vibe on campus, and the tremendous academics. (He’s pursuing an economics degree.)

So he signed on, and set about helping revitalize a program.

Courtesy of William and Mary athletics.

In early May, following a sophomore season in which he’d started 31 games for a 20-win team, Tarpey was playing at the park near his house when he broke the ring finger on his left hand. Diagnosis: out for a month. A couple of days after undergoing surgery, Tarpey remembers thinking, How can I use this to my advantage? He talked with Shaver, who reinforced the glass-half-full approach: this could be a blessing in disguise.

Though Tarpey had showcased his all-around impact in his first two seasons, he’d struggled shooting the ball. A career 21% from three, and 63% from the foul line. Defenses sagged off him on the perimeter; Shaver would often sub him out when the game was on the line.

Now, Shaver drilled home a message: You need to do form shooting every day. So, a few days after surgery, Tarpey went right back to that same park, and began shooting with one hand on a hoop. Then, after lunch, he’d go to Holy Cross High, where his dad coaches basketball, to put up more shots. He worked almost exclusively on form shooting, often using only his right hand, without the comfort of the guiding left, to make muscle memory. So it went, every day of that month of recovery.

Then, once the pins came out in his hand, Tarpey hit the ground running. His jumper felt smooth. “A big goal for me in college was getting stronger, but I might’ve gotten too strong, too fast, and it affected my shot,” says Tarpey. “The injury to my finger was a good re-set button.”

He began playing in local Pro-Ams, and he noticed that amidst the frantic pace and 24-second shot clocks, the game was slowing down for him. He felt comfortable getting his shot off at game speed. Defenders didn’t know how to play him.

Says Shaver, “You could see a change when he came back to campus that summer. From an offensive perspective, (the broken finger) was one of the best things that could have happened to him. He did form shooting religiously, and it’s made him a much better player.”

In ‘14–15, Tarpey hit 34% of his threes, and went 82% from the line. He’s become the perfect example of the type of player for whom Shaver’s offensive system is designed. Matrix levels of dexterity (well, maybe that’s just Tarpey), coupled with consummate skill. “He’s very good driving the ball now, and he’s an incredible finisher inside,” says Shaver. “He’s grown so much in his game.”

William & Mary returns four starters intent upon punching the program’s first bid to the NCAA tournament. They lose Marcus Thornton, last season’s CAA Player of the Year and a Boston Celtics draft pick this past June. One thing Shaver has stressed to the roster this summer: nobody should try to replace Thornton. Just do what you do well — nothing more.

Tarpey will be playing the 4 position a bit more this season, so he’s been watching clips of Dirk Nowitzki. He’s trying to add that patented step-back fadeaway to his offensive arsenal. He’ll cull things from LeBron (confidence, finishing his shot) and Vince Carter in his prime (dunks, dunks, dunks.)

“We have talent, we have experience,” says Tarpey. “It’s been great in the summer. We’re motivated. We have a really good team, and what is gonna scare people, the more you play in our offense, the more comfortable you get. We lose Marcus, but Daniel (Dixon) and Omar (Prewitt) have another year of experience. Sean Sheldon, too.”

Back to last season’s triple-double game for a moment. In his press conference, James Madison coach Matt Brady noted the impact of Thornton (27 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and Tarpey’s historic performance, before settling upon the kicker.

Typical Tony (Shaver) team. The sum is better than the parts. They’re connected and unselfish. They all pass the ball.

This is one thing that Tarpey will take away from playing with Thornton and fellow departed senior Tom Schalk these past three seasons. They were always working, they always remained within the system’s flow. “It taught me that if you want to become a great player, you have to put in the work,” says Tarpey. “Once you’ve done that, things will take care of themselves.”

William & Mary will be just fine.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops