A Look at What Broncos Fans Can Expect from Herb Sendek

Santa Clara hired Herb Sendek (above) to a six year deal on March 28th. Sendek formerly coached at North Carolina State and most recently at Arizona State until 2015.

So it seems official, Herb Sendek is going to be the new head coach for the Santa Clara Broncos. Shortly after the Pacific Tigers made a splash by hiring former NBA star and Arizona Wildcat Damon Stoudamire, the Broncos replaced the outgoing Keating, who had only two winning campaigns in his nine-year tenure at Santa Clara, with a proven head coach who has won in the MAC, ACC and Pac-12. In an earlier post, I felt Sendek was a good fit because of his proven resume not just as a head coach, but as a recruiter in the West Coast, and it looks like the Santa Clara administration ponied up the money and got the best guy for the job.

Let’s take a look at some of the positive and negatives of Sendek coming to not just Santa Clara, but the WCC in general.

Positives of Sendek at Santa Clara

Sendek coming to the Broncos is a big boost for the coaching community in the WCC. Sendek has bountiful head coaching experience at the Division 1 level, as he has led three schools (Miami of Ohio, NC State and Arizona State) to the NCAA Tournament under his watch. He has a career record of 413-295, and he has only had a losing season three times in his 22-year coaching career. That is pretty damn impressive no matter how you cut it. When it comes to success on the court, Sendek has the kind of resume that can compete with the big coaching names in conference such as Mark Few of Gonzaga, Randy Bennett at St. Mary’s and Dave Rose at BYU. That profile alone will make Santa Clara a bigger name not just in conference circles, but in national media circles as well. Do not be surprised to see the Broncos’ name thrown out a lot in preseason magazines simply due to Sendek’s name alone.

Another strong aspect of Sendek’s profile is his ability to recruit, as he has been able to get sneaky good polished talent to lead his teams, both at NC State and Arizona State. With the Wolfpack, he was able to land Julius Hodge, who led them to a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and an 11-win ACC campaign and NCAA Tournament second-round appearance in 2004. At Arizona State, he most famously landed James Harden and had him stay for two seasons. Harden had a solid college career with the Sun Devils, leading the to the NCAA Tournament second round his second year. Furthermore, Sendek also brought in top talent like Jahii Carson (who led them to a tournament berth in 2014) and Jamelle McMillan (the son of former NBA player and coach Nate), so recruiting in the West Coast is something that Sendek is not only familiar with, but has a history of succeeding at considering the circumstances (Arizona State tends to lean more toward football and even baseball in terms of fan attention).

And lastly, the style of play typically seen from Sendek’s teams plays well into the WCC’s “wide-open” reputation. Though Sendek teams play typically a slow pace (only in his last two years did they have a tempo that ranked in the Top-150 when it came to speed), they are extremely perimeter-oriented and rely heavily on the 3-point shot. In terms of 3-point attempt percentage, his ASU teams ranked in the top-100 seven out of his nine years as a head coach (the lone exceptions being 2012 and 2015, his last year), and ranked in the top-15 in that category in 2009 (11th) and 2010 (9th). The fact that Sendek embraces the 3-point shot is a good sign for this Santa Clara team going into next year, as his philosophy plays well into what the Broncos have done offensively as of late under Keating. Since 2011, the Broncos ranked in the top-100 in 3-point attempt percentage every season. Considering Sendek is an accomplished coach whose teams’ offensive efficiency, according to Ken Pom, have always ranked in the top-100 (with the exception of 2012, 2011 and 2007, his first season at ASU), the fact that he will be taking over a program that has played his style of basketball (being perimeter-oriented and relying on the 3-point shot) in the past half-decade or so is a good sign that the coaching veteran can pull a quick turnaround of sorts in his first season with the Broncos.

Negatives of Sendek’s hire at Santa Clara

As with any coaching veteran who comes from a big school to a small school, the question for Sendek perhaps is not “if” he will pull a coaching turnaround but how long will he stick around when he achieves the first successful season in a while at Santa Clara (and by successful I mean NCAA Tournament berth). Though Sendek spent a lot of time in the West Coast at Arizona State, he is not a West Coast guy. He was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and he went to college in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon. His jobs at Miami of Ohio and even NC State played more into his background than the Arizona State job, and many critics of his felt Sendek wasn’t successful at ASU because he didn’t fit into the mold of what is expected from a “West Coast” coach (i.e. he didn’t make the necessary connections to have lasting recruiting impact there).

So with this being known, what if Penn State comes calling if Sendek succeeds early at Santa Clara? What about Pitt or another school in that rust belt area? Will Santa Clara’s “fun and sun” of the South Bay be enough? Or will Sendek itch to be in a bigger conference at a bigger school should they come calling? That will be a major questions with Sendek going forward, simply because he doesn’t have the kind of ties that could keep him long-term at Santa Clara unlike Gonzaga’s Few (Oregon) and St. Mary’s Bennett (Arizona) who grew up geographically close to their jobs, and Rose, whose personal background (being Mormon) is a major tie to him staying at BYU.

Another issue with Sendek is that his teams have had a history of not necessarily living up to expectations. Despite being a constant NCAA Tournament participant, his NC State team never made it past the Sweet 16, and that happened in his second to last year there, and they were sub-.500 in ACC play that season as well. At Arizona State, too many bad losses marred years where they could have been potential at-large participants, and as a result, his Sun Devils teams only made the NCAA Tournament twice in his 9 years there. And lastly, Sendek was mostly known for his 8-38 record at NC State against conference rivals Duke and North Carolina. While beating Duke and UNC is no easy task it makes you wonder how Sendek could do against Gonzaga and St. Mary’s who own the WCC in a similar way to Duke and UNC in the ACC. Was Sendek’s lackluster record a matter of luck, or is Sendek simply the kind of coach who can only maintain a mid-tier or slightly above program no matter the conference (his Arizona State teams never won a Pac-12 title under his watch) he is coaching in? If Sendek wants to make a splash and get Santa Clara to where it hasn’t been since 1995 (the Big Dance), then he is going to need to go through the conference favorites to do so, and Sendek doesn’t necessarily have the history to show that he can topple the best in conference over the whole course of a season.

What to expect from Herb?

Yes, Sendek did not have much success against Duke and North Carolina. Yes, he only made the NCAA Tournament twice at Arizona State. Yes, he is more of an Yinzer than a Beach Bum and that doesn’t bode well for him “finishing” his career as a Bronco. But Santa Clara made a great hire nonetheless and one that I think will make them competitive immediately or at the least within the next three years. Sendek’s a proven offensive coach whose style will mesh with the program currently, but the conference as a whole, which favors the outside-oriented game. It’ll be interesting to see if Jared Brownridge, the Broncos’ best offensive player the past couple of seasons, will stay in Santa Clara his senior season, as well as other major contributors, including guards such as to-be-sophomore KJ Feagin and to-be-junior Kai Healy and to-be-senior post Nate Kratch. If Sendek returns those players, it is entirely possible to see the Broncos as a bit of a dark horse, as Sendek’s system and philosophy as a coach most likely will fit into the talent he will have next season.

But the big question though is if those guys will stay. In this day and age, it is a lot easier for a kid to go to another program after a coaching change than stick it out, especially in the Broncos’ star player’s case. After all, Brownridge may not be willing to go through the growing pains in what could be his last year as a collegiate player. It may be too big of a risk, and Sendek has had times before where he didn’t mesh with star players (he kicked his top returning scorer at Arizona State in 2012 for “unacceptable content“).

That being said, if Brownridge does stay, along with everyone else? Don’t be surprised to see Santa Clara make some kind of run in the WCC in 2017. Sendek is that polished a coach and the situation and talent fit is that good for him next year.

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NBA Bound? Why Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis Should Declare for the Draft

Domantas Sabonis was key to the Zags’ success in March and should be a NBA first round pick this upcoming draft.

If you want to understand how the Zags were a minute away from going to the Elite Eight, look no further than the triumvirate of guard Eric McCllelan, forward Kyle Wiltjer and center Domantas Sabonis. In the six games the Zags played in March (in which they went 5-1), the three players all took Ken Pom MVP awards in the games they played, with McCllelan earning three (Utah, St. Mary’s and Portland), Sabonis earning two (Seton Hall and Syracuse) and Wiltjer one (BYU). The combination of McCllelan’s streaky scoring and tough defense, Wiltjer’s offensive versatility and Sabonis’ post scoring and rebounding presence made these Zags tough to beat in March, and after Syracuse’s upset win over Virginia to earn a spot in the Final Four, it definitely makes you wonder what could have been possible had the Zags took better care of the ball in the closing minutes in Chicago.

While there is no questioning the three’s impact in the past month, one of these players will be the sole focus of Gonzaga fans’ attention and that is Sabonis. McCllelan and Wiltjer have exhausted their eligibility and will now be transitioning to professional careers in some kind of capacity this summer (Wiltjer could be a second round pick; McCllelan most likely will be looking D-League or overseas). Sabonis on the other hand has just completed his sophomore year, and still has two years left to wear a Gonzaga uniform.

That is if he wants it. Because to be perfectly frank, not only is he a much more sought after NBA prospect than either of the graduating seniors, he also is one of the Zags’ best pro prospects in a long time, and has a chance to be the Zags’ first First Round pick since Kelly Olynyk in 2013.

Now, make no mistake, Sabonis is not really a bonafide lottery pick by any means and this is a pretty loaded draft (unlike Olynyk’s where there wasn’t really a consensus no. 1). There is top “one and done talent” in Ben Simmons from LSU (the consensus No. 1), Brandon Ingram from Duke, and Jalen Brown and Ivan Rabb from California. Polished college scorers like Buddy Hield from Oklahoma and Kris Dunn from Providence. And high-upside European prospects like Dragan Bender from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Timothe Luwawu from Mega Leks of the Adriatic League. Without elite height or wingspan, and average to slightly below athleticism, there is no question that Sabonis’ pales at first glance in comparison to many of the eligible prospects who are expected to enter this summer’s NBA Draft.

Many college coaches would not encourage Sabonis to declare considering his circumstances. To most college coaches, if you’re not a lottery pick, the risk is too high and the reward is too great. Famously, Tyler Ennis declared for the NBA Draft though he was guaranteed to be a first round pick, but not a lottery one, much to the chagrin of his head coach Jim Boeheim. Boeheim argued that Ennis would go into a tough situation without much financial security if he was drafted outside the lottery. And, as much as I dislike the whiny Boehiem, he has proven to be right. Ennis has been flip flopped around the league and has probably spent as much time on a D-League floor than a NBA one.

But, Sabonis is a special player, and while his natural gifts and athleticism may not be “first round” worthy, other aspects of his game make him a great value that will not only be seen and recognize by a NBA team, but perhaps even utilized in some kind of playing role as early as next year. Sabonis is not a project by any means, and that alone will give him a lot of value to teams that are looking to build immediately competitive teams through the draft.

So, why should Sabonis leave and not stay for perhaps another “March Run”? Here are two reasons why Sabonis should stay not just for the benefit of himself but to the benefit of the Gonzaga basketball program as well.


Reason No.1: Sabonis’ stock is probably as high as it ever will be and there really isn’t anything he can truly work on in 2017 to make him a better prospect

I’m not going to pretend to be a “draft” expert by any means. I watch a lot of basketball, college and NBA included (I subscribe to NBA League pass). I will let other, more qualified writers (like here and here) determine Sabonis’ exact stock in comparison to other eligible prospects for this draft. But the fact of the matter is this: nobody in college basketball has raised their stock more in the past month than Sabonis.

First off, look at the numbers: Sabonis averaged 17.3 ppg and 11.5 rpg on 61.3 percent shooting from the floor and posted a 76.9 percent free throw percentage in 33 games this year. If you go into the advanced numbers, the Lithuanian looks even better: he posted a 120.0 adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pom, with a 115.0 adjusted offensive rating against Tier A competition, much better marks than McCllelan (110) and Wiltjer (105). His 28.2 defensive rebounding rate was 14th best in the nation, and his 65.1 true shooting percentage ranked him 21st in the nation. And to wrap it all up, according to Ken Pom’s national player of the year ranking, Sabonis ranks eighth, putting him in the same class with other more heralded players such as Perry Ellis (who ranks 5th), Georges Niang (who ranks 6th) and Virginia’s Anthony Gill (who actually is behind him at 10th). In a game and professional league that is becoming more and more reliant on analytics and advanced numbers, Sabonis satisfies the requirements as a legitimate first round pick and possible sleeper lottery pick.

But if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t buy into all the stats (i.e. Seth Davis), then look at what Sabonis has done on the floor. His footwork is impeccable for a post player, and his bevy of fakes and pivot moves makes up for his lack of length and athleticism. Furthermore, his motor is non-stop and without a doubt, Sabonis carried the Zags numerous times this year emotionally, especially in big games such as the WCC Championship and in the NCAA Tournament. But the biggest crowning achievement? His defensive shutdown of lottery pick Jakob Poeltel of Utah in the second round. Poeltel came into the game as one of the best offensive post players in the country, as evidenced by his 17.3 ppg and 8.9 rpg in 34 games and 124.1
adjusted offensive rating for the year. But against Sabonis? The Austrian center was limited to 5 points on 2 of 5 shooting and only nabbed 4 rebounds, good for an offensive rating of 77, his second lowest rating of the year (his lowest was 66 in a contest against Colorado on January 8th). Despite giving up a couple of inches and some considerable weight to Sabonis, the Lithuanian pushed Poeltel off the block on constant occasion and made him a non-factor whenever he was on the floor. If critics needed confirmation that Sabonis could handle himself against NBA bigs, then they were given a rude awakening after his sterling performance against Utah (he also scored 19 points, nabbed 10 rebounds and sported an offensive rating of 134).

And that’s the issue with Sabonis coming back. Unless he leads Gonzaga to the Final Four next year, I can’t imagine his stock getting any higher. He really has done all he could do to prove that he can play at the NBA level. Furthermore, there is nothing major that he needs to work on that another year of college would help him with. He has played well against good competition in high-pressure moments (the WCC and NCAA Tournament). He has put up good numbers. He has diversified his game, adding a sneaky good mid-range shot. Yes, Sabonis is left-hand dominant, and the athleticism isn’t there, but I can’t imagine Sabonis really getting considerably better in those categories with another year of college. For some players, coming back made sense. Olynyk needed to get stronger and he could put time in the weight room to do so. Sabonis is already pretty strong and has a NBA frame, and that will get more refined with more round-the-clock training at the professional level. Team-wise, yes, the Zags would be a heck of a lot better with Sabonis. But individually? There really is no incentive for Sabonis to come back, and I think he will realize that and enter the draft with his stock so high already (and could even go up more due to his father being Arvydas Sabonis).

Reason #2: The Zags will be garnering a lot of talent next year, and Sabonis returning could clog things up and result in potential transfers.

While we still do not know Przemek Karnowski’s off-season intentions (he probably has more to gain by staying after missing the year due to back injury but you never know), there will be an influx of talent this off-season that will lessen the loss of Sabonis. Center Ryan Edwards, though limited offensively, is a big body that will thrive with more minutes. And furthermore, the Zags will also add Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams, a stretch 4 type who could play small or power forward who has already been practicing with the team (along with Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss who could compete with Josh Perkins for the starting point guard spot). But the incoming freshman class will include McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins, a 6-11 center from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas that is the 37th ranked player according to ESPN, and European prospects Killian Tillie, a 6-8 forward from France and Jacob Larsen, a 6-10 F/C from Denmark. Considering the Zags’ success with European prospects, it would not be surprising if Tillie and/or Larsen are better than their initial recruiting rankings.

Add all that with Karnowski probably back and somebody’s feelings will get hurt on the bench and that could mean a potential transfer at the end of next season. As solid as Mark Few is, he definitely has his issues spreading minutes out, and that has definitely had an impact when it comes to players leaving the program (though for the most part, this hasn’t hurt the Zags with the exception of Ryan Spangler, who to be fair transferred more to be closer to home than any beef he had with Gonzaga). Yes, there is considerable risk going with more unproven commodities to fill in Sabonis’ spot, but if Karnowski is back it should soften the blow and allow the young guys to grow. Even if Karnwoski is back, the experience returning at guard in Perkins and Melson will also help the post players as they grow accustomed to the college game (though if Karnowski is not back, expect some early losses in the non-conference slate).

Yes, Sabonis would make the Zags a potential Final Four candidate and he would be a Naismith-watch player at the start of the season. But, in this day and age of constant transfers, the Zags would probably be best served if Sabonis declared, and that way, they could determine roles in the post positions this off-season during workouts.

Final thoughts on Sabonis

As a Gonzaga fan, I have to think that Sabonis probably was one of the best frontcourt players in Gonzaga history, up there with Olynyk, Robert Sacre and JP Batista. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say he may be the best post player in Gonzaga history as no other player flashed his combo of efficiency and intensity on a night in and night out basis. Sabonis was fun to watch, especially as he yelled after And 1’s and got after refs when he felt he was called. He was a guilty pleasure to watch as a Gonzaga fan, and it is a shame I wasn’t able to watch Gonzaga as much as I wanted to this year. If I had followed Gonzaga as closely as I did in years past, I probably would have a poster of Sabonis in my classroom.

But, I love and know the NBA game, and Sabonis is ready and would be a fool to stay. And to be honest, that’s okay not just for him, but for the Zags. Sometimes you need to move on, and by moving on, Gonzaga can go into this off-season forming their identity without him with the collection of young, though unproven, talent on the horizon.

As a Gonzaga fan, I know that is scary. After all, this year the Zags were so close to snapping their long-time NCAA Tournament streak, and without Sabonis’ the Zags might have been in the NIT losing to Valpo rather than Syracuse. But all good things come to an end, and even though Sabonis leaving would be bittersweet, it is best for both parties involved not just for next year, but the next few as well.

Good luck Domas. I know I’ll be enjoying seeing you get after NBA refs on League Pass next year.