Is Rex Walters Finally Turning a Corner at San Francisco?

Sophomore Mark Tollefsen Has Helped the Dons Develop as a Possible WCC Dark Horse This Year and Beyond

I know it’s been a while since I have posted. I have been caught up with the start of school (both teaching and graduate school), so it has been tough to find time to post. That being said, I think I have found a routine, which should open up more writing down the road. Hopefully, I’ll get at least a couple of posts a week, especially as we just pass the mid-season mark in the WCC.

If you have read this blog before, you know that Rex Walters topped the list in terms of the Coaching Barometer Check. It made sense: Walters was in his sixth year, and had not made consistent process, and the sudden “retirement” of senior Cody Doolin and numerous transfers over his tenure made people wonder if there were things going on internally in the Dons program.

Well, since the Doolin departure, the Dons have actually been competitive as a squad this year in the West Coast Conference. Even though they are coming off two straight losses to St. Mary’s on the road and BYU at home and were blown out on the road at Gonzaga, the Dons still sit in good shape in the WCC with a 4-3 conference record heading into today’s home contest against San Diego, a team that has statistically been in the bottom of the WCC in both offense and defense (9th in conference both Adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiency). With home games looming against St. Mary’s and Gonzaga, and with “better-than-you think” road wins over Portland (remember: Portland beat Gonzaga at the Chiles Center), and Pacific (127th in Ken Pom’s ratings), the Dons are setting themselves up nicely as the fourth place team in conference this year, which should give them a good shot to make a run in the WCC tournament should they finish the year in that position (they would get a much needed bye).

After the Doolin fiasco, it was typical to think that the Dons would hit the skids. After all, we have seen changes of any sort not go well in the Dons’ favor in the past (cough…Eddie Sutton…cough). That being said, the Dons have been strong as a team offensively, as they rank 37th in the nation in Adjusted Offense with a rating of 112.9. They have been a little inconsistent in conference play (thanks to the stinker in Spokane), as their rating is only 108.3 in conference play (5th best in the conference), but they have showed flashes of brilliance on the offensive end, and they have interesting players that make them a dangerous foe.

What has made the Dons such a strong offensive team this year? While their shooting leaves some to be desired, their ability to create second chance shots has been a strength of this Dons team. They rank second in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage with a rate of 35.7 percent, and they did out rebound the Cougars (the no. 1 rated team in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage) in their contest on Jan. 16th. Kruize Pinkins has been a primary reason why the Dons dominate on the glass, as his 18.5 offensive board percentage is fourth best in the nation. Cole Dickerson and Matt Glover have also contributed as well on offensive glass, as their percentages are 8.5 and 8.0, respectively.

One of the biggest surprised for the Dons this year has been the emergence of sophomore Mark Tollefsen, a 6-9 forward who has the versatility to guard players on the perimeter. He has been extremely efficient offensively, as he is posting a 128.2 offensive rating and an effective field goal percentage of 63.8 on a usage rate of 17.5. However, while his offensive game is vastly underrated (and probably underutilized), it’s his defense and athletic skills that make Tollefsen such an interesting player. He is quick enough to guard bigger guards, and while his block percentage helps confirm his defensive prowess (4.0 block percentage), it’s his ability to hound and make opposing players uncomfortable that makes Tollefsen such a valuable player for Walters. Against BYU, Tollefsen was making BYU players struggle early on, as his combo of height and wingspan made him a defensive nightmare for opposing perimeter players.

Defensively, the Dons do leave a lot to be desired this year, as Walters has struggled to get any consistency from them on that end of the court. They are one of the worst teams in the nation in defensive rating, as they are posting an Adjusted Defensive rating of 108.9, 264th in the nation. Conference play hasn’t been much better, as they rank 7th in the conference in Adjusted Defense, as they struggle to generate turnovers (8th in the WCC in turnovers-caused percentage) and send their opponents to the line way too much (9th in conference in opponent free throw rate percentage). It’s those defensive deficiencies that will probably keep the Dons from being a true dark horse in the WCC this year, though they will certainly provide entertaining games, as evidenced by their contest against BYU at War Memorial Gym.

And still, though the ceiling probably isn’t high for the Dons “this” year, there’s a lot of potential in next year’s squad. The Dons only lose forward Dickerson next year, and though Dickerson leads in a lot of “peripheral” stats (points per game, etc.), efficiency-wise, he’s probably a bit overrated (101.5 offensive rating on a 25.7 usage rate). But, Pinkins and Tollefsen return in the post, and they also return guards Glover, Avry Holmes, Chris Adams, and Tim Derksen, who have also showed solid play in their replacement of Doolin. Also, they will return the raw of potential of Chinese import Tao Xu, who is extremely raw, but could have the ability to help the Dons’ ability to continue to dominate on the boards in WCC play for the remainder of this year and especially next year.

Ken Pom projects the Dons to finish with a 16-14 record for the year (9-9 down the stretch), and if the Dons finish with a record like that, I think Walters gets one more year. The amount of talent returning next year is enticing, and it seems that the Dons have found the right mix and identity to find success in the WCC. Defensively, I don’t know if they’ll ever be elite under Walters. But, if they can at least be average, or slightly below, they could be a real dark horse next year, especially if they continue their offensively efficient play in 2015.

To be honest, the turnaround is surprising under Walters, and he and his coaching staff have been able to weather through the storm of the Doolin distractions and the lackluster start in non-conference play. Walters at the very least in his tenure has proven to be a solid offensive coach, and his ability to still find success despite the wave of transfers and new players is a good sign of his ability as strategist on the bench. While his recruiting classes haven’t generated big buzz in “recruiting circles” (i.e. Rivals or ESPN), he has found good talents in Tollefsen and Pinkins, who fit his system well and are probably better than their subjective “Recruiting Site” ratings. There still is a long way to go, and there is the possibility that USF will still hit the skids and hit rock bottom. We have seen teams already this year in the WCC (LMU and Pepperdine for example) who looked to be dark horse contenders, only to fall back earth due to flaws that they simply couldn’t overcome over the long course of the WCC season. USF has those flaws just like any other team (mostly defensively), but Walters has them playing a style of ball that maximizes their strengths (crashing the boards, playing a moderate tempo) while limiting their negatives (questionable shooters, sloppy with the ball). Walters has made an adjustment with his squad this year that many coaches this year in the WCC have failed to do consistently through the progression of the WCC campaign. Its signs like that which should bode good things for Walters and his Dons squads, especially if all of his talent does return as expected next year (which unfortunately for him and Dons fans hasn’t been a sure thing, and has been hard to determine if its more of the culture of college basketball or something he’s doing internally in the program; I’m starting to believe it’s more of the former).

It may have taken longer than expected, but just maybe, things are looking up and success may be shortly on the horizon for the long-suffering fans on “The Hilltop”.

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Three Under-the-Radar Players WCC Fans Should Know About

As teams finish up their Non-Conference slate and get ready for WCC conference play, there have been many players that have jumped out on the national and even local radar to begin the year. Brad Waldow has been having a tremendous impact on the offensive end of the court for St. Mary’s (though defensively he still raises a few questions), and Kevin Pangos has emerged as the Zags’ “Go-to-guy” following the departure of Kelly Olynyk.

However, who are some players that may have gone under the radar this year in the WCC? Who are some playmakers that could have an impact on the wide-open WCC? (And yes, it’s more wide open than in years past, but remember…the WCC has been traditionally a top-heavy league since the emergence of Gonzaga). Let’s take a look at three guys WCC Fans Should Know About as conference play begins this Saturday.

Kruize Pinkins, junior, USF, six-feet, seven inches, 230 pounds

Pinkins, a JuCo transfer from Chipola College in Florida, has immediately made an impact in his first year on the “Hilltop”. An athletic power forward, Pinkins has made his name as a bit of a highlight show, known for some sensational dunks that made appearances on some national hoops Mix Tapes. But, Pinkins is more than just an Ira Brown-esque player (guy who is known for sensational dunks and little else), as he has made a tremendous impact on the offensive end for the Dons off the bench.

According to KenPom.com, Pinkins is tops in efficiency for players who have at least 28 percent of possessions used at 110.3. Though he has primarily served as a role player, Pinkins has seen an uptick in minutes over the course of the year, as he has only had one game where he played under 20 minutes since the Idaho State game (the fourth game of the year). The increase in minutes has served the Dons well, as they have gone 5-3 over that stretch.

In the Dons’ offense, the ball stays in Pinkins’ hands when he is in, as evidenced by his 28.7 possession percentage and 26.1 shot percentage, both nationally ranked numbers according to Ken Pom. That being said with an effective Field Goal Percentage of 54.2 and true shooting of 56.1, Pinkins is not a black hole of shooting by any means, and really scoring is not the sole reason he makes this list. With his athleticism and size, Pinkins brings a lot of energy and productive play off the bench beyond points, and that shows in his rebounding numbers, blocks and ability to draw fouls. The area where Pinkins’ is most successful is on the offensive glass, as his 16.7 offensive rebounding percentage is 26th best in the nation. His ability to crash the boards, and create extra opportunities for the Dons not only has helped the team’s offensive effectiveness, but has gotten him to the line as well, as Pinkins is drawing 8.5 fouls per 40 minutes, seventh highest in the nation. Pinkins still has some work to do at the line (58.2 FT precentage), but his aggressiveness will serve him and the Dons well against many WCC teams who have rebounding and size issues.

Yes, Pinkins came to USF known as a “MixTape Player” (i.e. one who showcases highlight dunks or plays but no consistency), but he has developed into the kind of all-around player that could contend for WCC Newcomer of the Year honors by year’s end.

Brandon Clark, junior, Santa Clara, six-feet, 170 pounds

If the Broncos want to make any kind of run to earn a postseason berth of any kind this year, they are going to have to rely on junior guard Clark to do so. However, Clark has been one of the most efficient players int he WCC this season, as the East Chicago, Indiana product has made tremendous progress as a players since arriving to Santa Clara a few seasons ago.

While senior guard Evan Roquemore has gotten more of the hype, Clark has been the one that has taken over as the “Go-to” guy for the Broncos. For the season, Clark has an adjusted offensive rating of 119.5, with an effective field goal percentage of 50.3 and a true shooting of 56.8. What has made Clark so effective, even with the high number of possessions used through him (25.9 percent), is his ability to not only create for others, but limit mistakes as well. This season, Clark has an assist percentage of 26.6 percent, 181st in the nation. Even more impressive though is his 11.9 percent turnover rate, which is not only 281st best in the nation, but almost a 10 percent improvement from his sophomore season. The fact that Santa Clara not only has their point guard creating plays at an incredible rate but keeping care of the ball as well should bode for some surprising success in WCC play, even if SCU is down from a year ago.

Clark also remains a decent 3-point shooter (38 percent), good considering he has a shot percentage of 27.2 percent. Though another strong aspect of his game that stands out even more is his ability to be aggressive and get to the hoop and draw fouls. Clark average 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes, and unlike Pinkins, he is able to make teams pay for it, as he is shooting 84.4 percent from the charity stripe this season. With his strong ability to hurt teams from beyond the arc or at the line, and his ability to be efficient in playmaking, Clark could be a dark horse for WCC Player of the Year Honors, and at the very least should be in the mix for All-WCC 1st team honors.

Stacy Davis, sophomore, Pepperdine, six-feet, six-inches, 245 pounds

Davis was almost not included because he did earn Newcomer of the Year Honors last season, and was expected to compete for All-WCC first team honors after a successful freshman campaign. But, Davis has made such a leap in his sophomore season, that I do not think some WCC fans know how good Davis is. Considering this program has produced a lot of players who were big on name (Keion Bell and Mychel Thompson), but hollow on effectiveness, Davis bucks the trend for the Waves as somebody whose accolades and reputation match his efficiency on the court.

This year, Davis has improved all over the board as a player. His effective field goal percentage (58.5) is almost 14 points better than from a year ago, and his true shooting percentage (62.3) is almost thirteen points better as well. Furthermore, he has cut down on his turnovers (15.9 percent turnover rate, 5.1 percent less than a year ago), and he has gotten to the free throw line more as well, as he is drawing 6.4 fouls per game, a free throw rate of 68.6 (which is 121st best in the nation). And, with the more chances at the line, Davis has also been relatively effective, as his 70.4 free throw percentage, while not great for a guard, is serviceable for a bigger forward. With all these factors in the play, Davis sports a 114.2 adjusted offensive rating for the year, which would be a 20.3 point improvement from his Newcomer-of-the year campaign.

Of course, I don’t know if Davis will have a major impact on this team, since the Waves have so many issues  (mostly defense) that I think will get exposed when WCC play begins. Furthermore, Davis’ rebounding numbers have gone down (his offensive rebounding dropped 1.5 percent and his defensive rebounding dropped to 19.4 percent this year from 19.9 a year ago), so I wonder if Davis is focusing a bit more on his scoring than his overall game this season. Nonetheless, those are ticky-tack issues, and only a sophomore, Davis has sparked a lot of hope for long-suffering Waves fans. Additionally, he went from a dark horse All-WCC candidate to a strong contender as long as he continues this new Wave of efficiency on the offensive end in conference play.