Is the Gonzaga Hype For Real This Time?

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I am not going to lie, I don’t follow college basketball as much as I used to. Probably the peak of my college basketball/Gonzaga fandom was my second year out of college, when I lived in San Jose, not far from Santa Clara university. (I probably went to about 4-5 Bronco games that year, including their contest against the Zags which resulted in an upset loss for Gonzaga and my first experience of a court storming; I hated it). After I moved from San Jose, to South Dakota, a college basketball wastelands of sorts, I grew to have more of an affinity for the NBA with each and every year of age.

At nearly 30 years old, coming back to write on college basketball on this blog feels weird. It was something I sort of disavowed to do a couple of years ago, opting to concentrate more on NBA and Euroleague analysis which has become more of my niche the past couple of years.

So why am I coming back to follow college basketball again? Coming back like a couple who split apart years ago, but somehow managed to find their way back to one another’s arms stronger than ever, bent to see if it will work out the second time around?

Mostly due to Gonzaga and their 14-0 start.

In all honesty, I know with the advent of ESPN and online streaming, following Gonzaga basketball isn’t all that difficult. Hell, I can follow games going in Belgrade, Serbia. Following the Zags shouldn’t be a problem. But, it’s tough being a Zag in the Midwest simply because there aren’t a lot of us here. Most Zag fans either live in the Pacific Northwest or West Coast. There is a contingent of Zags fans who are from Denver and Colorado, but that’s about eight hours driving distance away from my current home in Kansas City. Yes, in Big 12 country (i.e. Kansas Jayhawks country with K-State, Iowa State and Mizzou fans sprinkled in), people know about the Zags. They know about their general legacy (“they always choke in the tournament” they tell me) and know about players like Adam Morrison (“I don’t know why he wasn’t good,” they’d say).

But it’s not enough really. Talks are superficial and shallow at best. They don’t know about the extensive history of Zags basketball, including the empowering joys, and crushing disappointments. Maybe they know about the UCLA collapse in 2006, but thanks to NCAA On Demand, that is easy conversation fodder with anyone who likes or follows college basketball on a moderate basis. But to talk about the St. Mary’s rivalry? The WCC Tourney in Vegas? The 28-year-olds on BYU’s roster? Well…that goes unnoticed or uncared for here in the Conservative Red States in contrast with the Liberal West Coast.

So, I have distanced myself from Gonzaga, mainly because it’s just not productive nor worthwhile to majorly invest in it considering my current circumstances. And Gonzaga has had good teams worth paying attention to on occasion. I have enjoyed sporadically keeping tabs on Zags teams over the past few years in Kansas City, watching them from afar, being elated and equally crushed by them in that time span. Of course, all this usually experienced in private, with the exception of text/Facebook/now Snapchat conversations from time to time with some friends from college who are in closer proximity to live Zags basketball action (i.e. in Washington, Oregon, Idaho or California). Usually, the fandom doesn’t hit until late February/Early March, when it’s closer to WCC and consequently NCAA Tourney time.

Yet this year, it’s the first of January, and I’m trying to catch up on as much Zags basketball as I can. I watched the Pacific game in its entirety on ESPN 3. I re-watched the Arizona game via CBB Reddit Uploads on YouTube. I’m back analyzing Ken Pomeroy.com, studying up on other teams sure, but mostly breaking down the Zags.

I’m practically two months ahead of schedule from my serious Zags “fandom” over the past three years. And I’m doing this because this really may be the best Zags team I have ever seen, followed, or studied up on in my years of Zags fandom (since my Dad is an alum, that includes my early years during the Dan Fitzgerald era).

I’m wanting to see if this Zags team actually will live up to the hype.


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Zags basketball fandom is like most irrational college basketball or even sports followings. Like Duke’s Cameron Crazies in the East Coast and Jayhawks fans here in the Midwest, they are passionate, loyal, and usually unconditionally biased toward Gonzaga teams each and every year. Zags fans swoon like the Pacific tide, changing moods and expectations quickly and often. A big win over a non-conference opponent like SMU or UCLA, and all of a sudden, Gonzaga is a Final Four shoe in. An unexpected loss to BYU or USF, or a season sweep to the rival Gaels, and all of a sudden Mark Few is a shitty coach who is going to be responsible for the Zags missing the tournament for the first time since the Nixon administration (okay, not that long; Clinton administration). I have seen fans overly rate former Zags, with Zags fans clamouring that Morrison was a shoe-in NBA All Star to Sam Dower being a second-round pick talent (neither was true). Zags fans are passionate, but in the grand scheme of things, they prefer to live in their bubble when it comes to the basketball world, not allowing practicality or reality to enter their “overly fond” feelings when it comes to GU hoops.

And that’s fine, as that’s what being a fan is about. I have grown out of that over the years the more I have branched out with basketball (i.e. following more NBA and Euroleague), but I still have friends or know former classmates who still live in that bubble with basketball and it’s cool. If I still lived in the West Coast or Northwest, maybe I would follow that lead as well. Be irrational with Few. Think Pangos should be a NBA sixth-man. Always have the Zags winning the national title in my NCAA Tournament work pool.

Maybe not though. I have become a more inquisitive type since I graduated Gonzaga with my bachelor’s degree. I used to believe in things like “heart” and “smarts” and “grit” as the key to a Zags victory. Now, I believe in skill sets, athleticism, matchups and data when it comes to evaluating how strong Gonzaga basketball teams and players are on annual basis. Maybe it’s a sign of the maturation process of basketball fanhood. Maybe I’m just becoming a fucking adult. But I have left the bubble of typical “Zags” fanhood long ago, and this is one bubble I can’t push myself back into, much like the bubble of Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy myths.

During times when I make it back to the West Coast for the Holidays or special circumstances, I do get the chance to meet up with old college friends and discuss the state of the Zags and WCC basketball. This past Christmas season was no exception. I met with a couple of friends in Midtown Sacramento and we discussed the Zags. They told me how loaded this team was. They told me how big a difference Nigel Williams-Goss made on this team. They talked about Zach Collins looking like a diaper dandy. They sung the merits of transfers such as Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Williams, guys I had my reservations about considering Gonzaga’s shaky history with transfers recently who never lived up to the hype in Spokane. (Yes, there was Kyle Wiltjer, but there were also examples like Gerard Coleman, Bol Kong, and Angel Nunez too.) They talked about USF being a plucky dark horse, that St. Mary’s continued to play no one in non-conference, and how Terry Porter, the former Blazer, was doing a decent job in his first year as head coach of the Pilots.

It made me realize something. I missed the Zags a lot. I had missed the conversations. I had missed analyzing the WCC and the Zags. Yes, we probably had a beer too many at Bar West, and probably should have been focusing more on getting the attentions of single women than talking about Kyle Smith’s 3-point heavy approach with the Dons. But I loved it nonetheless. In a sea of endless Bill Self and “When is Fred Hoiberg returning to college basketball?” talk, immersing myself in the “Zag bubble” for a temporary period brought not only fond nostalgia, but comfort in the sense that no matter how far apart I became from Spokane or the West Coast in terms of years or distance, I could still come back, without warning or preparation, and still ignite that flame for mid-major West Coast basketball. A beer here. A Diamond Head Classic game there. Snapchat sharing of the Gonzaga-Arizona game in Los Angeles. A memory or two of the Kennel. It all brings one back, even for someone who has become a “grounded” basketball fan in general (i.e. less irrational or passionate about their team).

So when I touched down back in Kansas City on the 27th, I got out my laptop. I searched games on Watch ESPN. And I became determined to see if this Zags team is for real, much like my more “in-tuned” friends had preached back in California’s capital.


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Gonzaga is currently ranked 10th in Ken Pomeroy and is currently ranked 7th in the polls entering this week. They are 14-0 and have four “A” quality wins according to Ken Pom: neutral floor wins over Florida (14th), Iowa State (28th), and Arizona (18th), and a win over Tennessee (65th) in Nashville. The schedule hasn’t been extremely challenging (138th strongest non-conference schedule according to Ken Pom), though their win over San Diego State (currently 64th) could get better if SDSU picks it up in MWC play.

The best and most recent comparison of this team should be the 2015 Zags, who went 29-2 in the regular season, and 35-3 overall, making it to the Elite 8, where they lost to eventual national champion Duke. Heading into conference play, the Zags that year had three “A” quality wins: UCLA (40th) at Pauley Pavilion; Georgia (35th) at MSG; and St. John’s (50th) also at MSG (a home game for them).  They also had a narrow “A” quality loss to Arizona, whom they lost to in OT in Tucson. Finish that with a “B” quality win over SMU (26th) at home in Spokane, and you could argue that the non-conference performance in 2015 was every bit as impressive as the current Zags’ one.

The one thing that the 2015 Zags may have over the 2017 Zags in terms of legacy and outlook is the fact that the WCC was much stronger in 2015 than today. In 2015, the WCC was the 8th best conference according to Ken Pom, which was better than even the American Athletic Conference (which includes programs like Cincy, SMU and Temple). Today, the WCC is rated as the 11th best conference, behind other Mid-Major conferences such as the Missouri Valley and Mountain West. The dramatic difference mostly is due to BYU being much weaker than in years past, as they are going through a bit of a rebuilding year after losing six years of key players like Kyle Collinsworth and Tyler Haws (the Cougars are currently 11-4 and ranked 56th in Ken Pom’s rankings; which is where they were last year roughly). Yes, St. Mary’s is still strong (ranked 16th according to Ken Pom), but the WCC needs a good BYU team to be a serious conference, and with BYU not what they were two years ago, this not only hurts the WCC in the current, but also the Zags’ legacy and postseason outlook (i.e. mostly seeding).

But let’s get away from those kinds of numbers and just look at the talent itself. Can this Zags team compare? Could the 2017 team match up with the core of Pangos, Bell, Wiltjer, and Sabonis?

I would say yes, as of now.

First off, Przemek Karnowski’s injury last year may have hurt the Zags’ frontcourt depth a season ago, but it has been a blessing in disguise for this year’s campaign. I cannot really recall a player in college basketball recently who has the pure size of Karnowski and is able to utilize it so well. Sabonis comes to mind from last season, but even though he had Karnowski “post presence” and skills, he doesn’t have Karnowski’s 7’2, nearly 3 bills frame. Watching Karnowski in the block is a godsend for fans of old-school, play-in-the paint basketball, akin to the older John Thompson Georgetown teams, which had Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning in the post (not to be confused with John Thompson the Third Georgetown teams which are boring and underwhelming). It’s amazing how much he has developed from his rawer freshman days, when he still had a lot to learn when it came to moves and position around the blocks. Considering his 118.4 offensive rating though, it is obvious that not only how much he has progressed, but also how he will stand out as one of the most accomplished and talented post players in Zag history.

But while Karnowski is the link from that 2015 team, everything else tends to weigh in favor of this year’s team in comparison to that Elite Eight squad. Wiltjer was a better shooter, but Collins may be a better overall post talent to complement Karnowski, especially on the defensive end. Pangos could be deadly from beyond the arc, but he could not handle defensive pressure like Williams-Goss, whose 6’3 athletic frame and ability to beat players off the dribble as well as from beyond the arc (he’s shooting around 39 percent from three) make him the point guard Zags fans have been dreaming about (and that is saying something considering the Zags’ history at the position). Furthermore, the quartet of Perkins (who was the Zags’ point last year and has been able to play more off-guard, which is more his strength)-Melson-Matthews-Williams definitely is a more efficient and well-rounded group in comparison to the Bell-Dranginis-Wesley-Nunez one of 2015. And lastly, even though the foreign wild card of this year, Killian Tillie, pales in comparison to the one of 2015 (Sabonis), he could become a special player as well in a year or two, albeit in a different way from Sabonis. Tillie is the younger brother of Kim, who is playing well with Baskonia, one of the top teams in the Euroleague currently. And Killian flashes the same kind of inside-outside skill set that makes his older brother a key cog for the Basque club. While I don’t see Tillie with Sabonis’ upside, he could be a more athletic version of his older brother, which would be a huge boost in the future for a Gonzaga team that already has depth in the frontcourt with Rui Hachimura (who will play more when Karnowski leaves) and Jakob Larsen (who suffered an injury in the pre-season).

It’s amazing how far the Zags have come from their early 2000’s days. My friends and I talked about it a lot in Sacramento during my recent trip: premiere talent comes to Spokane now. The Zags used rely on under-recruited northwest guys like Morrison, Sean Mallon and Josh Heytvelt or under-the-radar foreign players like Kevin Pangos and JP Batista. Now, they are getting premiere transfers, foreign talent and Top-100 high schools players. Furthermore, not only is Few’s staff acquiring them, but seamlessly transitioning them into the system and culture of the Zags program without hitch. I thought there would be some growing pains for this Gonzaga team considering how much they relied on Wiltjer and Sabonis a year ago. Now, I’m just wondering if anybody in the WCC will be able to give the Zags a true test until the NCAA Tournament. Yes, St. Mary’s is good and an offensive machine. But on individual matchups alone? There isn’t a single Gael who may be better than what the Zags will put on the floor.

I have seen the Zag hype train before. I grew up and was educated in it. The Dan Dickau era. The Blake Stepp era. The Adam Morrison era. The Jeremy Pargo-Matt Bouldin-Austin Daye era (i.e. they all were good, but no one established himself as the star, which is why they were disappointing). The Kelly Olynyk era. The Pangos-era. The Wiltjer-Sabonis era. All those eras had hype. Final Four hype. National Championship hype.

And they all fell short. They all in varying ways disappointed the irrational, bubble-encapsulated Zags fans, including myself.

The cautious or irrational Zags fan in me would say to “take time” with this year’s Zags team and wait until the first St. Mary’s game. He would tell me to know history. Remember the scars. Remember BYU and the hockey goon Kafusi. Remember the NCAA Tourney is about matchups and luck.

The inner Zags fan in me tells me not to believe the hype…not just yet. Give it a little bit more time, perhaps halfway through the WCC slate.

But I have grown more seasoned and level-headed over the years with basketball in general. All basketball at all levels. Not just Gonzaga basketball. I’ll be 30 in six months. I’m not the same Zags fan I was when I was 21-22 years old and drinking pitchers of Kokanee at the Bulldog when it actually was still a bar and not whatever the hell it is now.

That inner, irrational Zags fan doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. Superstition and “fandom” don’t run my life or how I feel about Gonzaga basketball or the sport as a whole. Data. Matchups. Talent. The system. The process. The growing evolution of college basketball toward the professional game.

That’s what matters more to me now. Not collapses in Oakland or buzzer beaters over Western Kentucky or “they always choke” mantras from college basketball fans or analysts who still believe the 3-point shot is overrated.

The inner Zag fan in me is not dead. But it just doesn’t have the voice it used to. And I’m glad it doesn’t. He was a bitch to put up with anyways during those years.

So fuck it. I’ll say it without holding back:

This team is for real. This team should be a Final Four and National Championship contender.

Don’t overthink it…

Just believe the Gonzaga hype.

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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.

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.

Mike Dunlap, the 1-1-3 Zone, and a Different Approach to LMU Basketball

mike-dunlap-charlotte

Mike Dunlap, a coaching lifer with stops in D2, D1 and the NBA, employs a unique 1-1-3 that will be interesting to follow at Loyola Marymount

If there was one coaching hire that probably didn’t get as much praise as it should, it had to be LMU’s decision to hire Mike Dunlap. While the early nature of the hire (they literally hired Dunlap a day after they decided not to renew Max Good’s contract; though to be truthful, Good was dead-man walking from the middle of the WCC season on) probably hurt publicity (didn’t stick out among all the other “bigger hires”), Dunlap’s hire could be an under-the-radar move that could provide a spark for a program that has failed to get much going since their Paul Westhead “Run and Gun” days.

First off, Dunlap’s pedigree is impressive, though I think his recent NBA stint with Charlotte unfortunately is what lingers on the minds of the most common basketball fan. Yes, the Bobcats were not good in 2012-2013 as they finished 21-61 and last in SRS and defensive rating (-9.29 and 111.5, respectively) and second-to-last in offensive rating (101.5). Yes, he was fired after only one season, and the Bobcats significantly improved this year in his absence (they went 43-39 and made the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history). But coaching in the NBA is a difficult tight-rope to walk. We have seen all the time coaches find success in the NBA only to fail in college and vice versa. Sure, there are success stories of coaches who managed to do both (Larry Brown for example), but evidence shows that some coaches are meant for the college or the professional game and not necessarily both.

Dunlap falls into the latter category because he is at the heart a “program builder”. While critics of the hire point to Dunlap’s failings in the NBA, they fail to recognize his immense success with Metro State, a commuter school in Denver that has no football team in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. At Metro State, Dunlap tallied a 248-50 record with two Division II national championships, and four DII Final Four appearances. Those kinds of numbers at any level are incredible, and to do it with challenging circumstances (less recruiting budget, less tradition and fan fare in a primarily pro sport metro area) only makes it more impressive. As evidenced by Mark Few at Gonzaga and Randy Bennett at St. Mary’s (and to some extent Rex Walters at USF), in order to be a successful program in the WCC, a coach needs to be in it for the long haul and really build things from the ground up. Dunlap has done that before with Metro State and with even lesser resources than what Few and Bennett had when they came into their positions.

In addition to being a “program builder”, Dunlap brings in an identity as a defensive-oriented coach, something that is quite antagonistic with the history of LMU basketball. Since the days of Westhead, the Lions have been known for offense and points, and that is something LMU fans have come to expect to varying levels of success. If there was a positive of the Good-era at LMU, it was that he brought in talented players who could light it up on the offensive end. Anthony Ireland and Drew Viney were Good recruits who excelled as offensive-oriented players who could entertain fans and put points on the board. Good’s teams ranked in the top-200 in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com 4 out of his 6 years, and ranked in the top-120 in tempo in 4 out of 6 years as well (including Top-50 in 2010 and last season). Good wanted his Lions to play fast, play loose and focus on putting the ball in the basket. In an offensive-oriented conference, his philosophy seemed pretty in-line with many other programs in the WCC (the conference ranked 6th in offensive efficiency last season).

But being similar doesn’t always bode well for success. Good only produced two winning seasons (2010 and 2012) in his time at LMU and while injuries did ravage his Lions throughout his career, his teams’ struggles on defense always compounded things as well. Good’s teams ranked in the Top-150 in defensive efficiency only twice in his career (2012 and 2013), and last year, despite a promising start which included an upset of BYU at home, the Lions struggled on the defensive end, finishing with an adjusted defensive rating of 112.4 in conference (9th) and 106.3 for the overall year (202nd in the nation). Good’s teams may have been entertaining at times and showed flashes of brilliance (their win against BYU last season in Los Angeles was a thing of beauty), but it was obvious that the team needed a new philosophy and fresh face to help turn things around for a once proud program. (Seriously, how many WCC schools have 30 for 30’s that feature them?)

Dunlap at the very least brings something different. His most recent college experience was at St. John’s where he served as an assistant for the Red Storm under Steve Lavin. Dunlap found success as somewhat of a defensive coordinator for Lavin, much in the vein of Tom Thibodeau for Doc Rivers during the Boston Celtics’ 2008 title campaign. With Dunlap’s expertise, the Red Storm primarily applied a 1-1-3 matchup zone, a defense that he developed from his days as an assistant at Arizona (Dunlap was an assistant in 2008-2009), where Lute Olson regularly employed the defense with his athletic guards. The 1-1-3 matchup zone basically is a combo defense that takes the 2-3 zone and meshes it with some man-to-man principles. The result is a defense that allows teams to keep the “zone defense” identity that they wish, while at the same time allowing them to apply more pressure on defense without switching completely (most zone defenses struggle to create turnovers). The defense also has to potential to create a “junk defense” effect, as it confuses defenses and contains teams that heavily rely on one perimeter player that creates most of the offense.

At St. John’s, the Red Storm found success on the defensive end employing Dunlap’s 1-1-3 approach, especially in the 2010-2011 season. That year, the Red Storm ranked 45th in the nation in adjusted defensive rating at 95.2, and had a steal percentage of 12.3, 26th best in the nation. The result was a 21-12 record and their first NCAA Tournament since the Mike Jarvis days (shout out to Ron Artest and Erick Barkley!) despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation (10th hardest according to Ken Pom).

So how does the 1-1-3 matchup zone work? Here is basic look at how the defense initially sets:

As you can see, the defense looks like a 2-3 zone below the free throw line, but things get different once the ball swings to the perimeter to one of the wings. Let’s say the point guard passes it to the right wing to the 2 man. Here’s is how the defense rotates:
This isn’t a “Box and 1” where the 1 stays on the opposing 1. Instead, the 1 sags to the free throw line on the left elbow on the pass to the wing (to take away skip pass opportunities), and the two and three swarm to pressure the opposing two. In many ways, that is one of the benefits of the 1-1-3: it causes a lot of pressure on the offense with double-teams and traps (characteristic of pressure man-to-man defenses), while preventing penetration and easy passes in the post (characteristic of traditional zone defenses).
In 2011 early in the season with Dunlap still on staff, the Red Storm played Arizona in the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden (pretty much a home game for the Red Storm). Let’s see how the first possession played out as they employed their 1-1-3 zone defense
As you can see, the Red Storm are in their 1-1-3 set while Arizona is in a 4-out set themselves. The guard on the opposite end is on the wing, while two guys are taking away the post. Let’s see how the defense reacts when the ball is swung over to the other side.
As the ball is swung to the post player, the zone forces him into the corner, which for him is not a high-percentage shot and out of his comfort zone. The defense is looking to trap, and they are taking away the pass into the middle at the free throw line as well. Because of the angle, the skip pass would be difficult as well, and thus, the only option for the Wildcat post player is to shoot the jump shot or pass it back out to the wing (which he does).
After a couple of passes, the ball comes back to the same player, who pretty much receives the ball in the same position. This time he has a 1-on-1 matchup, and feels comfortable with the shot. That being said, the athleticism of the defender (the 1-1-3 succeeds with athletic players, not necessarily size) catches no. 14 for Arizona by surprise.
The Red Storm get him to shoot this time, and not only is he forced to take a difficult shot, but it is blocked as well. Furthermore, there is nobody in the post when he takes the shot. Arizona is backed out to the perimeter, and though they crash and get the rebound, it does set the Red Storm up well for the rebounding position (lack of size hurt the Red Storm in rebounding, as they finished 342nd in the nation in offensive rebounds allowed percentage that year). On the same position after getting the rebound, the Wildcats try to set it up on the other side and look to get a better shot to their player in the block.
If you’re an Arizona fan, this looks like a better scenario. The post player is in the block and looks open as well. The wing player shot fakes and looks to pass it down to that seemingly open player. But the benefit of the 1-1-3 is that it is established on pressure and producing turnovers, and to do that, the players need to be ready to swarm and entice passes to which they can get the steal or force the turnover. That is the case here: no. 4 (player in the middle of the key for St. John’s) is giving the look that he is fronting 44 for Arizona in the post. But, by feigning this coverage, he is setting up to pounce on the Arizona post player who thinks he is going to have a high percentage shot when in reality, he is going to be jumped on by the Red Storm defense. Which results in…
no. 4 for St. John’s pouncing on the player, denying and batting the ball off the Arizona player and out of bounds for the turnover. And just on that first possession, the Red Storm, through their 1-1-3 matchup zone are proving to the Wildcats that shots aren’t going to come easy, and that the Red Storm not only have speed on the perimeter on defense, but in the post as well (to make up for their lack of size).
Dunlap is an interesting character for sure. In the year off of coaching, he maintained a blog and is well known for his appearances in coaching videos promoting his 1-1-3 matchup zone as well as writing articles on general coaching philosophy (in his 10 keys to practice, he advocates the use of clear water bottles so he knows how much water his players are drinking in practice). But, he has found success with the 1-1-3, especially at St. John’s, as it caused turnovers and made up for teams that traditionally lacked size and depth (both problems the staff dealt with in his two seasons with the Red Storm). The same problems are most likely going to be true at LMU: he is going to have a tough time recruiting elite size to a WCC school (most WCC teams do), and it is going to take him a while to develop any depth with his roster (Good was around average as a coach when it came to bench minutes percentage, hovering around 30-32 percent in terms of bench minutes). His 1-1-3 philosophy on the defensive end will take advantage of the players that have traditionally come through the Lions program (usually smaller, but athletic players), while also conserving their energy and getting maximum efficiency from them, especially on the defensive end.
It is going to be interesting to see the progression of the Lions under Dunlap. Traditionally, coaches have been more offensive-oriented in their time at LMU and focused on pushing the pace, not surprising considering that was the most exciting and successful basketball played at LMU. But, a more-defensive approach could be the shot in the arm this Lions program needs. It never really seemed to be a strength of Good’s, and this kind of style would be a change of pace that could be a competitive advantage in a conference where most teams were average or below when it came to defensive efficiency (only Gonzaga and San Diego bucked this trend last season, and Gonzaga was flat out dominant thanks to Przemek Karnowski in the paint). While Westhead was available and would have been the most glamorous hire, Dunlap and his pedigree will help provide a distinct identity to this Lions program and could get them on their way to becoming a more legitimate squad in a WCC that is rising in terms of popularity as well as competitiveness.

A Slower, Defensive-Approach Separates San Diego from the WCC Pack

A defensive, slower approach by Bill Grier (arms apart above) has been a key reason why San Diego is a dangerous opponent for WCC teams

No team generates more interest with me than the San Diego Toreros. They are 12-10 and 3-6 in conference, and according to Ken Pomeroy, they are most likely to finish the year hovering at .500 at 16-15 (with a projected 7-11 conference record). So, at the surface, there is nothing really to like about San Diego or really glean from them in a major fashion. Most fans think, “Oh, hey San Diego, they can surprise you, but when push comes to shove, they’re just another WCC team that is fighting to avoid the cellar with Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara and Pacific.” But, I think the Toreros are a team that WCC fans should take notice of for the remainder of the year

I am not here to say that San Diego is going to jettison to the top of the WCC standings. That being said, what I like about San Diego and coach Bill Grier is that he has the Toreros playing a style of ball that is remarkably different from most other teams in the conference. As typical of years past, most schools in the WCC prefer a more “offensive-oriented approach” and for good reason: they are pretty good at it. When it comes to Adjusted Offensive Efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy, four schools rank in the Top-50 (Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, San Francisco and BYU), two more rank in the Top-100 (Pacific at 89 and Pepperdine at 100) and two MORE rank within the Top-150 (Portland at 111 and Loyola Marymount at 123). As a conference, Ken Pomeroy rates the WCC as the fourth best conference in the nation when it comes to offensive efficiency at 108.1 (which is helped by a conference-wide 3 point percentage of 38.1 percent, best of any conference in the nation). This isn’t 80’s Big East basketball. The WCC is known for scoring, lots of it and in an efficient way, and that has been a primary reason why the WCC has achieved its highest conference ranking ever on KenPom.com at No. 9 (though I believe the Mountain West and Missouri Valley getting gutted due to conference re-alignment severely weakened those conferences, which were typically ahead of the WCC but now fell this season; but that’s being nitpicky, as the WCC is the strongest its ever been top-to-bottom).

But, San Diego is a team that does not fit that “offensive-emphasis” mold. The Toreros rank last overall in Adjusted Offense in the conference ranking 183rd in the nation. In conference play, while they have played better, they still linger near the basement with a rating of 102.8, ninth-best in the conference play (ahead of only Loyola Marymount, who has struggled efficiency-wise after a strong start). While they do excel in the three-ball (they have the best three-point percentage in WCC play at 43.5 percent), they struggle inside the arc (9th best two-point percentage at 45.4 percent) and turn the ball over way too much (WCC high 20.2 percent turnover rate).

And yet, even though they rate as a pretty sub-par offensive team by WCC standards, the Toreros have been the most competitive team as of late, nearly knocking off Gonzaga on Thursday in Spokane, and upsetting Portland in the Rose City after the Pilots made national headlines with a 3 OT victory over a scorching BYU squad. They are nine points away from being 6-3 (with close single-digit losses to Pepperdine, USF and Gonzaga) rather than 3-6, and they suddenly look to be the kind of team that could ruin many WCC teams’ postseason hopes. How are they doing it?

While you could credit it to a variety of factors, I think two major playing trends emerge: their slow tempo and defensive approach.

First off, San Diego is not the only squad in the WCC that plays at a slow tempo. St. Mary’s has done this for quite some time under Bennett, and they also run a slow tempo to maximum offensive effectiveness (they rank second in offensive efficiency in conference despite playing the fourth-slowest tempo in conference play). Gonzaga, which originally started the year playing at a faster tempo, has slowed down considerably in conference play (third-slowest in conference), which has worked to their advantage in some games (BYU) and not so in others (San Diego). So, slowing it down and playing a more half-court approach isn’t exactly ingenious or ground breaking on Grier’s end, since many teams do it when they feel they lack depth or the faster perimeter players to do so. Furthermore, Grier’s teams have typically played a slower tempo in his career at USD, as he has had only one team average over the 65 possession mark in his tenure at USD (the 2012 squad which averaged 66.1 possessions per game).

But San Diego has slowed it down considerably so, and that has worked to their advantage in many games. In two out of their last three games, the Toreros have played two sub-60 possession games (USF and Gonzaga). Both those games went down to the buzzer, as the Toreros lost by a buzzer beater to USF and they had a chance to tie at Gonzaga. For a team that lacks offensive consistency like the Toreros, shortening the game has proven to be a strong competitive equalizer for them, especially against better offensive teams (as was the case with USF). While they do have some talent in guard Johnny Dee and center Dennis Kramer, they do have some efficiency killers (Jito Kok may be the worst offensive player in the conference by far as evidenced by his 72.8 offensive rating) that’ll keep them from being better than average overall. So, by limiting possessions and relying on the three point shot, the Toreros give themselves a fighting chance against the better teams in conference play. And it has worked, as the Toreros seem to be trending upward as a team, and still have valuable opportunities for possible upsets on the horizons with seven of their next nine games being at home (only St. Mary’s looks to be the daunting one, and that could be tougher because the Gaels are in their element in slower-tempo games).

Contrast San Diego’s approach with LMU, who has taken a higher-tempo approach to offense (second highest tempo at 69.2 in conference play). While the Toreros are 3-6 against primarily road-game loaded first half of the schedule, the Lions are 3-7 and have lost to conference leaders USF, St. Mary’s and Gonzaga by double digits. While they did pull off the upset against BYU in their first conference game of the year, the higher tempo has exposed the Lions’ poor offensive efficiency as a team, while the slower tempo has hid or at the very least minimized the Toreros’ woes on the offensive end (remember, both teams rank 9th and 10th in conference play offensive efficiency). And how has this strategy of play affected to coaches’ futures? Well, it looks like Grier may be on the way to finishing the season strong enough to merit another season, while Lions coach Max Good will have to do a lot to earn an extension at the end of the year.

So, tempo has been a key factor to the Toreros surprising success, though not the only key. The improved defense has also been a reason why the Toreros have also remained competitive, and since those two approaches complement each other nicely (defense and slow tempo) it’s no surprise that they have transitioned to success on the court for San Diego. In terms of defense, numerically it’s not all that impressive, as the Toreros’ 110.7 defensive efficiency rating ranks seventh in conference play. That being said, their overall rating sits at 100.9, which is 108th best in the nation and the Toreros have had some really bad performances that have hurt their conference rating thus far (they gave up 1.31 points per possession in a 23 point loss at BYU). Going back to that rating though, the 100.9 mark, if the season ended today, would be the best mark for Grier since the 2009 season, when the Toreros finished with a defensive rating of 97.6, 77th best in the nation.

The mark is a nice wave of progression for Grier and the Toreros over the past couple of seasons. Grier made his mark as a defensive-coach as an assistant at Gonzaga, and he carried that in his first two years at the helm in San Diego. His first team, which went to the NCAA Tourney and upset UConn as a 13 seed, was a stout defensive squad as they ranked 49th in the nation in defensive efficiency at 95.9. However, after two seasons where his teams ranked in the Top-100 in defensive rating, they took huge steps in years three through five, as they posted mediocre defensive rating rankings of 162, 224 and 230, respectively. Suddenly, the strongest aspect of Grier’s ability as a coach (the defensive side) looked to be a weakness after the initial wave of success.

However, Grier made one key hire after the 2011 season that has helped the Toreros defensively: he hired former LMU coach Rodney Tention as an assistant. Now, Tention was far from “good” as a coach at LMU. His 30-61 overall record looks bad in a variety of different lenses. But, Tention was a much better coach than people gave him credit for. For starters, Tention was actually a very decent defensive coach, and if you want to know why or how the Lions, despite being a 12-win team, came within a tip-in of beating an Adam Morrison-led Gonzaga team in the WCC Championship, the Lions’ defense was the answer (remember, the Lions went 9-6 in conference play that year). In 2006, the Lions posted a defensive rating of 96.2, 60th best in the country, and in his second year, the Lions, though 13-18, still remained in the Top-100 in defensive rating at 93rd in the nation with a rating of 99.1. While things fell apart for them as a whole in 2008 (only six teams were worse overall than the Lions in 2008), Tention was actually a good defensive coach. The only problem was that he struggled to find consistency with his offense, and he opted for a style that didn’t necessarily play to his teams’ defensive strengths either (they ranked in the top-100 in terms of fastest tempo in his three years). And so, it made sense why things never worked out for Tention as the head man at LMU. Under Grier’s staff though, Tention has seemed to help the Toreros and Grier find their mojo again on the defensive end. They have steadily improved the past couple of years, and I’m sure Tention’s expertise on defense has meshed well with Grier’s philosophy on defense and slowing it down (rather than speeding it up, as Tention did at LMU).

This season, the Toreros have the kind of squad that fits what Grier wants to do: slow it down, grind out opponents on the defensive end, have certain player (i.e. Gee) make some key shots, and keep games tight against opponents which may be more loaded than his San Diego squads. They still aren’t as elite as his first-year squad, but it is obvious that they are making progress toward reaching that point. Tention’s influence, though under the radar to most people, has been felt, especially when you look at the improvements in defensive ratings over the past three years. And, with this approach complementing their slow, half-court style, the Toreros remain different, an anomaly to what is typically seen from teams in the WCC.

In college basketball, different is good. Different is what worked for Princeton under Pete Carril, LMU under Paul Westhead and Arkansas under Nolan Richardson. And for Grier and San Diego, being different could give them a chance to replicate what they did in 2008 as soon as next season (though you never know come WCC tourney time).

Matt Carlino, Super-Sub, and the Cougars’ Turnaround in WCC Play

Despite his diminished role, Matt Carlino and the BYU Cougars Have Flourished with Him Coming Off the Bench

For many BYU and WCC basketball fans, guard Matt Carlino evokes a wide disparity of emotions. Some love his entertaining, shoot-first, shoot-second, mentality, and it has led to some memorable performances (for example, his 28-point outburst a year ago against Santa Clara and his 26 point performance in the Cougars’ win over Stanford, a much bigger win in retrospect than it was thought at the time). However, efficiency wise, Carlino’ struggles with consistency has often done his team more harm than good. In his frosh season, Carlino posted a 95.8 Adjusted Offensive rating on a usage rate of 26.1 percent. In his sophomore year, he let go of the ball a little bit, as his usage rate dropped to 24.2, but it didn’t affect his rating significantly, as it still remained under 100 (which is usually about average) for the second straight year (99.2). The consensus was simple: as entertaining as Carlino could be, his inefficient style certainly didn’t do the Cougars any favors, and he wasn’t exactly the kind of player the Cougars could build around for consistent success either.

Nonetheless, due to his experience, Carlino remained a mainstay in the Cougars rotation in the beginning of the year. He started the first 14 games at point guard for the Cougars, and they struggled to find major, lasting success on the court. While they pulled off big wins over teams like Stanford and Texas, they also started off poorly in conference play, dropping their first two conference games of the year against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine (both on the road but still damaging losses nonetheless).

After the loss to the Waves, head coach Dave Rose made a gutsy decision: he made the junior Carlino a bench player. The results for the Cougars? They are 5-0 in WCC play since Carlino was removed from the starting lineup. The Cougars have scored less than 1.20 points per possession in a game only once (against USF), and the recent stretch has been a big boost to their conference-only numbers, as they rate as the top offensive team in the WCC according to Adjusted Offensive rating (118.2). They lead in three WCC offensive categories according to Ken Pom (AdjO, Offensive Rebounding percentage and Tempo), and they rank in the Top 3 in four offensive categories as well (eFG percentage, turnover percentage, free throw rate and two point percentage). Furthermore, unlike some teams in conference (such as St. Mary’s and USF), BYU has showed proficiency not only on the offensive end, but defensive end in conference play as well. They are second in the WCC in Defensive Efficiency (103.5) and rank third in categories such as opponent offensive rebounding percentage and opponent free throw rate, and second in opponent two-point percentage. After a stretch where the Cougars lost four straight games and many thought they were definitely NIT-bound, they have turned it around since the lineup-change and could make a case as an At-Large Tournament team if they finish as expected (Ken Pom projects them to finish with a 20-11 record) or slightly better. That was hard to imagine after they started 0-2 in conference after their loss to the Waves in Malibu and looked significantly behind conference favorites Gonzaga and St. Mary’s (now they are ahead of St. Mary’s in terms of getting an at-large bid).

While Rose’s decision to move Carlino to the bench has obviously had positive effects for the team as a whole, it has also improved Carlino’s numbers surprisingly. While some players who come off the bench play starter’s minutes, Carlino has actually seen a decrease in minutes and has been used less in major lineups than before. Here is a list of the most used lineups for the Cougars in the past 5 games according to Ken Pom:

PG SG SF PF C Pct
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
12 Josh Sharp
6-7  185  Jr
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
11.0
 
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
10.1
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
6.2
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
20 Anson Winder
6-3  195  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
4.4
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
4.3
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
12 Josh Sharp
6-7  185  Jr
33 Nate Austin
6-11  230  Jr
4.1
 
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
12 Josh Sharp
6-7  185  Jr
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
3.5
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
3.1
 
2 Matt Carlino
6-2  175  Jr
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
12 Josh Sharp
6-7  185  Jr
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
2.9
 
5 Kyle Collinsworth
6-6  210  So
23 Skyler Halford
6-1  180  Jr
24 Frank Bartley
6-3  200  Fr
3 Tyler Haws
6-5  200  Jr
0 Eric Mika
6-9  220  Fr
2.8
 
UNKNOWN 2.5

While Carlino has been primarily used in six of the ten lineups listed, he has not been used in the the top-two most played lineups. Thus, Carlino is not a “Ginobili-type” in the sense that he is a starter simply coming off the bench due to aesthetic or “strategic” reasons. Rose has preferred sophomore Kyle Collinsworth at the point for more of the critical minutes in the past five games, as evidenced by him running the point in the top-two most used lineups. It’s hard to argue with the success as the Cougars are 5-0 in this span and playing some of their best ball of the season during this stretch.

But, this shakeup has turned out well for Carlino in terms of him improving his efficiency on the court. In the 14 games Carlino started this year, he only had five games where he posted offensive ratings in the triple digits. In the five games that Carlino has come off the bench, he has posted four games with ratings over 100, including a 150 rating against Santa Clara where he put up 15 points and 9 assists in only 24 minutes. Thanks to the recent stretch, his adjusted offensive rating has boosted up to 100.7 which would be a career high, and his turnover rate has dropped to 16.9 percent, which would be a career low, if the season ended today.

If you think about it, it is surprising Rose did not resort to this strategy sooner. Carlino, with his high usage rate (team high 28.1 percent) and high shot percentage (29.1), is the kind of player that can really spark a squad off the bench. He can bring instant offense in a short period of time, and he has the potential produce highly efficient numbers in a short period of time. However, when his minutes spread out, his efficiency becomes more inconsistent, because high-shot, high-usage players don’t carry consistent success over a long period of time unless they’re truly elite players (example: Carmelo Anthony can pull it off, but Ricky Davis cannot). While Carlino is good, he is not that kind of player skill-wise or athletically to do it over 30-plus minutes. But in 25 minutes and under? Carlino is the kind of player that can not only boost a team’s offensive output, but also allow the starter’s to get rest without the coaching staff worrying about the offense taking a step back with them on the bench. Carlino’s role when he was a starter was always questionable because he wasn’t the kind of player efficiency-wise that could carry a team, but in more limited minutes and as a sixth man? He’s been the kind of player that has made BYU the most dangerous team right now in the WCC as well as a legitimate threat to challenge top-dog Gonzaga in the WCC Championship race.

Of course, Carlino is not the sole reason the Cougars have experienced success. Tyler Haws has also been a key reason for the Cougars’ wave of success as he is posting a 116 offensive rating with a usage rate of 26.4. Furthermore, Collinsworth, with his size (6-6) and efficient play 109.5 rating and 24.6 assist rate) has filled in admirably in the starting point guard spot as only a sophomore. Despite those standout performances however, it is obvious that Rose has found the right formula for the Cougars to achieve WCC success centering on his decision to have Carlino coming off the bench. Carlino is the kind of player that can not only torch opposing WCC reserve guards, but he can also match up decently well against starters when in a pinch, which makes his role as a reserve more valuable than as a starter. Sure, his minutes have gone down (his minutes percentage has fallen to 68.4 percent, down from 71.8 a year ago), but his role serves the Cougars much better now than it did in the first 14 games of the year, and their record in that stretch has confirmed that. That may be tough to swallow for the former UCLA commit (after all, nobody would outright prefer to be a bench player than a starter), but if the Cougars ride this current rotation to a NCAA Tournament appearance, I’m sure Carlino and the Cougars program will be satisfied in retrospect with the changes that may have tapered from the pre-season expectations (which was for Carlino to probably be the team’s centerpiece).

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”.