Recruit Report: Domantas Sabonis, PF, 6-11, 200 pounds, Gonzaga Commit

Though it’s been almost a couple of months since he has signed, no player has been more fascinating this recruiting class than Domantas Sabonis, a power forward prospect from Lithuania. Sabonis comes with all kinds of fanfare already, as he is long, lanky athletic power forward who arrives to Gonzaga with an impressive basketball pedigree. Let’s take a look at why Sabonis should be highly anticipated by Zag and WCC fans this upcoming season.

Solid International Experience

Sabonis has been a long-time product of the Lithuanian national basketball program, a major power in the FIBA universe. Remember, this is a country that has recently produced NBA players like Linas Kleiza, Donatas Montiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas. Additionally, as a national program, the Lithuanian team earned the silver medal in the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket tournament, and the bronze medal in the 2010 FIBA World Cup in Turkey. The fact that Sabonis is involved in such a international powerhouse program means that he has had the proper development in his younger years, especially in comparison to other national basketball programs, where coaching and development is a little more uneven.

As for his actual playing experience at the international level, Sabonis has excelled representing Lithuania on the court. He averaged 14.1 points per game 14.4 rebounds per game and 2.6 assists per game for Lithuania in the 2012 U-16 FIBA World Championship (the team finished 11th), and 14 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game for Lithuania in the 2013 U-18 FIBA World Championship (his rebounding mark was a high for any player in the tournament). In terms of international competition, not only has Sabonis faced some of the world’s best young talent, he has displayed he can excel against the top international talent at his age level as well.

But, the international experience doesn’t stop there, as like many international talent who end up playing in college in the United States, Sabonis played with a competitive international club last season (you can play for a club as long as you do not sign a professional contract; this is touchy since some try to test how much compensation they can receive, as was the case with Kentucky recruit Enes Kanter, who didn’t sign a professional contract, but earned more money playing than allowable by the NCAA and lost his amateur status and didn’t play a minute for the Wildcats). Last year, Sabonis played for Unicaja Malaga, one of the top Spanish teams in the ACB league (a league Ricky Rubio also played for before coming to the NBA) that also qualified for the Euroleague (basketball’s answer to the Champions League in Soccer). While Sabonis did not play much (he played 10.5 minutes per game in ACB league action and 9.3 minutes in Euroleague play), he was one of the youngest players in the league in general (playing mostly as a 17-year-old) and earned rave reviews from coaches and players for his work ethic and development in his time with Unicaja Malaga. Watch the video below to see some interesting interviews with coaches and players about Sabonis (many interviews are in Spanish, but there are some English ones too).

Furthermore, one of the more endearing traits of international coaching and play is their willingness to “experiment” with young players in terms of positions. Unlike in the United States, where players are primarily placed at a position early on depending on their size and athleticism, Europe is known for having players play at multiple positions regardless of height or size. This has led to taller players displaying skills that is more expected of perimeter players (such as Dirk Nowitzki for example). It sounds like the coaching staff for Unicaja Malaga was willing to try Sabonis out in different positions to improve his development as an overall player, according to this report by Eurohopes, a Euroleague scouting site. Here is a quote from the writer of the report:

“After dominating European Championship U16 as a clear-cut up-front player, Unicaja’s coaching staff has decided to transfer him into tweener, so not surprisingly that in Rome Sabonis is seeing his playing time mostly at SF spot in Unicaja’s packed with sized lineup.”

For Gonzaga, this bodes well considering that small forward may be a position of need for the Zags, and they should be in good shape in the post with center Przemek Karnowski returning, and Kentucky transfer power forward Kyle Wiltjer being eligible right away. It is certainly in the realm of possibility that Few could throw out a huge front line with Sabonis at the 3, Wiltjer at 4 and Karnowski at 5. Now, whether or not Few would employ such a lineup on a regular basis is to be determined, but from the report listed above, it seems like Sabonis has worked on playing at the small forward position in his time in Europe, and this should give him a chance to earn minutes and be an impact player immediately for the Zags.

Impressive Basketball Lineage and Skills

Another aspect that should entice Northwest WCC basketball fans is the fact that Sabonis is the son of Arvydas, the legendary Lithuanian player who dominated in his time with the Soviet Union basketball squad and carved out an impressive career with the Portland Trailblazers. While his son Domantas doesn’t have the size of Arvydas (Sabonis was a bear literally speaking at 7-3 and 279 pounds) and it is to be determined if he has the overall skill prowess of his father (Arvydas would constantly dazzle fans with his soft shooting touch and excellent passing skills), he does come to the United States at a much younger age (Arvydas was 31 when he came to the NBA).

While some may not agree, basketball pedigree is an important trait that bodes well for player success. Having a father who played at a high level usually results in some of those skills and “instincts” being passed down to the younger generation. The Zags saw this with David Stockton, who while not physically gifted, inherited the excellent passing skills from his father and hall of famer John. Furthermore, the WCC has seen many talented players who came from NBA families carve out good careers at the college level including Luke Sikma of Portland (son of Jack who played for the Sonics), Austin Daye of Gonzaga (son of Darren who played for the Celtics) and Mychel Thompson of Pepperdine (son of Mychal Thompson who played for the Blazers and Lakers). While Sabonis will obviously have the help of the coaching staff to aid his development at Gonzaga in preparation for the next level, having his father’s input most likely will also be key in terms of adjusting to life and basketball play in the United States.

But, while having a NBA father has some intrinsic value, it also is a good sign physically as well, as players usually inherit many of the physical gifts of their fathers. That seems to be the case with Sabonis, as he is a tall athletic player and has the same excellent footwork, rebounding skills and tenacity that was characteristic of his father. If you watch the video below, Sabonis finishes especially well at the rim, and is able to display a flurry of post moves and drives that constantly results in easy points. Furthermore, he is able to get rebounds at a good rate, and isn’t pushed out easily by opposing players. If there was one quality that was endearing about Arvydas, it was his toughness, strength and tenacity in the paint that complemented his dazzling passing and ballhandling skills. While the strength isn’t totally there yet, it seems like Domantas has the motor and the toughness to handle himself at the college level. As he continues to develop muscle strength and fill into his body, it is possible that he could garner the strength down the road as a player that could resemble similarly to his father. Check out the video below and see how Domantas as a 16-year-old held his own and then some in International competition for Lithuania.

What CCH Overall Thinks of Sabonis

There have been a lot of ballyhooed recruits that I have gotten excited about at Gonzaga. Daye came in with an impressive high school pedigree and lofty recruiting rankings. Karnowski was known for his international experience as well as his participation in the Nike Hoop Summit, which in my opinion, is the best high school showcase currently (I think its more competitive than the McDonald’s All American Classic or Jordan Brand Classic). Kevin Pangos got on the map for holding his own against future Top-3 pick Andrew Wiggins in Canada. But Sabonis could possibly top all of them in my anticipation of him simply based on his physical skills, international experience and basketball pedigree. I can’t remember a player from Gonzaga who had this much development at such a young age, and faced so much elite competition as well before they even set foot in Spokane. Yes, he hasn’t gotten the hype that Daye or even current Top-50 recruit Josh Perkins received in the Recruiting media, but Sabonis probably went under the radar because I’m sure many didn’t think he was going to college initially. I’m sure many felt that Sabonis would play for Unicaja Malaga for a couple of more years and then make the jump to the NBA like most international players. Instead, Gonzaga gets an interesting player who could potentially have an impact on an even more loaded squad next season.

And I’m not alone in this feeling. Here is what Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports said in a piece that mentioned that Domantas Sabonis will have an impact for the Zags next season:

“One person that watched Sabonis in the past said he would have been a McDonald’s All-American had he played in the United States. Sabonis is only 17, but will be relied upon right off the bat for Mark Few and the Bulldogs.”

As stated before, it will be interesting to see how Mark Few will utilize Sabonis considering that Karnowski and Wiltjer are more experienced at the college level and will be more established with Few’s philosophy in comparison (Karnowski will be in his third year at Gonzaga and Wiltjer had a year in the program after sitting out due to transfer rules). But that being said, Sabonis has tremendous upside and potential, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him making a strong impact and making a name for himself in the college game in his first season with the Zags despite how loaded this Gonzaga team already is.

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

Mike Dunlap and his 1-1-3 matchup zone will bring a new brand of basketball to the Lions

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).

Recruit Report: Evan Fitzner, 6-10, 215 pounds, St. Mary’s Commit

The first post player on the recruit report belongs to Evan Fitzner, a 6-10 forward from Francis Parker High School in San Diego. Fitzner signed with Randy Bennett’s Gaels on October, 8th and he should bring an interesting profile and skill set to the Gaels in 2014-2015. He is long, athletic and has very good touch from outside the arc, the perfect kind of player to fit Bennett’s “shooter-heavy” system.

Fitzner was mostly looking at schools on the West Coast, as he also received offers from Arizona State, California, Hawaii, Loyola Marymount, New Mexico, Northern Arizona, Oregon State, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, USC and Washington. Just judging by the four other WCC School offers, there was a high possibility that Fitzner was going to be playing in the WCC somewhere next season. That being said, it appears that his visit and the program in general convinced Fitzner to take his talents up north from San Diego to Moraga.

Let’s take a look at some things about Fitzner.

What they Are Saying About Fitzner

From ESPN.com (71 rating, 3 star recruit)

Fitzner possesses a long and rangy frame with very long arms. He is a good athlete that runs well and his quickness and bounce have improved around the paint area. He has a remarkable touch that extends out to 22-feet and his ball skills are impressive.”

From Full Court Press.net (45th best player in SoCal area)

Skilled forward needs strength and bulk as well as toughness to be a factor in WCC.” 

From West Coast Convo

This is a big time commitment for the Gaels as next season they will lose 6’11 center Matt Hodgeson to graduation and had already lost power forward Chris Reyes this year who transferred out earlier this season. Fitzner is known more for his shooting ability at the stretch-4 position rather than interior play, but none-the-less should get good minutes next season in his first year as a Gael.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

When you watch video of Fitzner, there is a lot to like. He has a good looking shot, and his form and touch has improved greatly from his sophomore season. In fact, as an outside player, he seems very dangerous, as he can find his shot easily thanks to his ability to move around well for a big man, in addition to his height. In many ways, he seems to be a combo of former Gael Daniel Kickert (who was a big man with a strong propensity to shoot from the outside) and Gonzaga forward Austin Daye (who was a good shooter from the outside for a 6-10 player). I am not sure if he has Daye’s defensive ability (Daye was a very good shot blocker at Gonzaga), but he definitely shares the former first round draft pick’s combo skill set of shooting and size.

Much like Daye though, Fitzner needs to add strength, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll be able to get inside to score points or get to the line if his shot is not falling. The Gaels will return Brad Waldow next year, but Fitzner could be a player to take the ease off him in the post, which could not only benefits Fitzner’s game, but Waldow’s as well. That being said, there are going to be some good big men next year in the WCC in Przemek Karnowski at Gonzaga (who’ll be a junior) and Thomas van der Mars from Portland (who’ll be a senior), so it’ll be interesting to see how Fitzner adjusts to the nightly competition after playing at a small school in San Diego (though to be fair he has played against good AAU and tournament competition).  I don’t see Fitzner making an immediate splash, but I think his shooting skill set and height will make him a decent, if not solid contributor for the Gaels in his freshman season next year, which will be sorely needed as the Gaels routinely struggle with depth on their squad.

Recruit Report: Kyron Cartwright, 5-11, 155 pounds, LMU Commit

It’s been a while, but I decided to add another Recruit Report to the list. Keeping with the guard-heavy theme as of late, I am going to profile Compton guard Kyron Cartwright, a 5-11 guard out of Compton High who played AAU ball with the prestigious Compton Magic program. Cartwright is an athletic, lefty-guard who has a strong knack to attack the hoop and score at will. Before committing to LMU in November, the senior guard also received offers from Cal State Fullerton, New Mexico and San Diego.

Cartwright is currently rated as the 18th best player in the State of California according to ESPN.com, and Full Court Press.net rated him as the 30th best player in the SoCal region. Along with forward commit Elijah Stewart, Cartwright should be able to have an immediate impact on Max Good’s LMU squad next season (especially since long-time guard Anthony Ireland will be gone as well).

What they Are Saying About Cartwright

From ESPN.com (72 rating, 3-star recruit)

Cartwright is a slick left-handed point guard who is tough to stop in transition. He has an excellent pull-up jumper and he gets tremendous lift on it. He has a high-level burst as well and can toss in the occasional runner as well.”

From Scout.com (2-star rating)

Kyron Cartwright, 5-10 JR PG Compton (Calif.) High, is one of the top point guards in the west for 2014. A quick lefty with range to the stripe, excellent vision and very good ball skills overall, Cartwright is perhaps the most under-recruited prospect in the West Coast junior class.” 

From FullCourtPress.net (ranked 30th best player in Southern California)

Speedy PG has no problem evading defensive pressure.  Will be a pleasant addition to Max Good’s Lions next Fall.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

It has been a bit of a rough conference season for head coach Max Good. After starting 2-0 with a big win over BYU to start conference play, the Lions have slumped, losing six straight WCC games. The Lions main struggles have been on the offensive end, as they rank last in offensive efficiency in the WCC, and last in categories such as free throw rate and 3-point percentage. Already, it seems like Lions fans are already looking toward next year, a shame since the WCC season started with so much promise for Good and the Lions.

That being said, next year’s recruiting class has some enticing players, and Cartwright leads the pack. Check out the video above (it’s a scouting video courtesy of Full Court Press.net’s scouting service), and you can get more details about Cartwright’s profile as a recruit. He is very quick off the dribble and he has good touch around the rim as well. His smaller frame is a bit of a concern, but his speed may already be “starter-worthy” as he regularly torched defenders from what I have seen on tape. Furthermore, he is also a left-handed player, and if Manu Ginobili has taught us anything, lefties who are quick off the dribble can be extremely dangerous and difficult players to defend. I think Cartwright has that kind of speed that will make him a tough outing for opposing WCC guards on a nightly basis.

The main issue with Cartwright is he is almost TOO left-hand dominant (as that was noted in the video), as you rarely see him drive with the right in the video above. And, while his pull up jumper looks good, you do not get a lot of looks at it, and I am curious about his range, as it did not have a lot of shots of him shooting from beyond the arc. From the reports I have seen, I don’t think Cartwright is a long-range specialist by any means, but if he can have a decent shot from outside, that will only make his offensive game more dangerous since he is so strong dribbling past defenders and getting to the hoop. He doesn’t need to be Kevin Pangos from beyond the arc, but if he can be simply average, it will help his ability to make an impact on this Lions squad in 2014-2015.

Overall, Cartwright looks to be a solid addition to this Lions squad, and with Ireland gone (as noted above), Cartwright will get a shot to earn major minutes in the backcourt as a freshman next year at LMU along with Evan Payne, who’ll be a sophomore. I am not sure if Cartwright will be as good a shooter as Ireland, but his ability to drive and create fares pretty similarly to the four-year player, so this definitely is a nice pickup by Good. While his on-court success has been inconsistent this year and in the past few years as well, Good has made inroads in his recruiting and really hit the Los Angeles/Southern California area hard this year, as he also got a commitment from Stewart, a Westchester High School product. It’ll be interesting to see if the Lions will turn things around and help Good keep his position at LMU. If he does stick and survive this season, he and the Lions could be very dangerous next year with Cartwright and a solid recruiting class coming to campus next Fall and a more experienced group returning as well (they only lose 3 seniors).

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”.