Evaluating the WCC Open Coaching Positions

San Francisco’s Rex Walters was one of four WCC head coaches let go after this season.

If you could characterize the 2010’s in the WCC as one thing, you could probably describe it as a decade of stability. Since 2010, there haven’t been many major coaching changes, something that contrasted to the Mid 2000’s, where it seemed every school other than Gonzaga or St. Mary’s suffered from major and dramatic coaching changes. Other than LMU replacing Max Good with Mike Dunlap two seasons ago (a good decision which I think will come into major fruition next year), Marty Wilson taking over for a retiring Tom Asbury in 2012 and Lamont Smith replacing Bill Grier in 2015, things have been relatively quiet on the coaching carousel front in the WCC.

That changed this off-season, as Pacific, Santa Clara, Portland and San Francisco decided to fire their current head coaches and look for new leaders to “change the direction of their programs” (common AD talk whenever there is a coaching change). Pacific has quickly made one of the biggest splashes not just in the WCC, but nationally as well in the hiring of former Arizona Wildcat, NBA veteran and Memphis assistant Damon Stoudamire. (More on that hire in another post.) Yet as of this moment, the Broncos, Pilots and Dons remain without coaches and it’ll be interesting to see who can resurrect these once proud programs who have been unable to maintain consistent success despite sporting strong basketball history and being in talent-rich recruiting areas.
So, let’s take a look at each program, what they have to offer and what the next guy will have to do to make those programs successful in the near future. While the WCC has improved competitively since the addition of BYU (mostly) and Pacific (not so much), as Mark Few “hotly” noted in an interview shortly before the NCAA Tournament, the WCC will only get more recognition for at-large berths if the middle-to-bottom tier programs “pick it up”. Considering their major market status (San Francisco and Santa Clara being in the Bay Area and Portland in the Pacific Northwest), a coaching turnaround would not only benefit these long-struggling programs, but would also help the WCC become a better-recognized conference in Mid-Major circles in the near future as well.
Portland Pilots
Last Year:
12-20 overall, 6-12 in WCC play (tied for 6th). 4th in conference play in offensive efficiency and 9th in conference play in defensive efficiency. Ranked 214th in Ken Pom ratings.
The Previous Coach: 
Eric Reveno. Coached 10 years at Portland. Total record 140-178. Best season: 2010 where he had a 21-11 record, 10-4 mark in WCC play and was ranked 82nd in Ken Pom. Worst season: 2012 where he went 7-24, 3-13 in conference play and ranked 284th in Ken Pom ratings.
Why Reveno is gone:
No offense to Reveno, but the program really plateaued in 2011, where he really rode forward Luke Sikma to lasting success. Since then, the Pilots have remained in the middle of the pack in the conference (sans 2012), not really bottoming out, but not really competing in the upper echelon either. The Pilots kinda were what they were under Reveno: scrappy, usually good offensively but never a real serious threat to compete with the Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s triumvirate.
Reveno came as a highly-regarded assistant out of Stanford under Mike Montgomery and replaced Michael Holton (hat tip to Pilot Nation for the correction, I always get Brad Holland of San Diego and Holton confused), who had NBA ties.  He looked like he had the potential to build something lasting after he finished year two of his tenure, as the Pilots won 19, 21 and 20 games from 2009-2011. Unfortunately, that success proved to be the peak of his tenure, as the Pilots only enjoyed one more winning season in his tenure from 2012-2016 (a 17-16 campaign in 2015).  Reveno tried to employ a more free-wheeling style of play this season that relied on a blistering tempo (72.6 adjusted possession per game, 35th fastest in the nation) and emphasis on the 3-pointer (38.9 percent 3FGA), but it didn’t translate into wins, and a 12-20 record was just not enough to salvage his job.
Why this job is enticing:
Portland is the only other school beyond Gonzaga to be located in the Pacific Northwest, and that is an advantage. Oregon and Washington are fertile recruiting states for talent, and Idaho and Montana also have potential for under-the-radar talent that often gets overlooked. Portland the city is also one of the coolest cities in the United States, with all the major amenities and culture of a major American city but with the laid back lifestyle typical of communities in the Pacific Northwest. And lastly, Portland is a basketball hub of sorts, especially considering the city’s affinity for the Blazers. A legitimately good Pilots program will be recognized and lauded by the community, especially considering there is no NFL or MLB team in Portland (though the MLS team certainly has its strong fandom).
Why this job is difficult:
The Blazers are the main game in town when it comes to hoops, so that doesn’t help. But Oregon and Oregon State have legions of fans and alums located in Portland, and when those teams are doing well, they pretty much dominate the college basketball scene in the city. Much to the Pilots’ chagrin, it was a banner year for both the Ducks and the Beavers, as Oregon won the Pac-12, earned a No. 1 seed and made it to the Elite 8 while Oregon State made their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1990. Considering Ducks coach Dana Altman and Beavers coach Wayne Tinkle aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, the two programs look to be primed for continued success in the coming seasons, which makes the Pilots’ chances of making a splash in the Portland and Pacific Northwest media scene extremely difficult.
Who do the Pilots need?
The Pilots need a flashy hire, plain and simple. As consistent as Reveno was, he just never really generated a ton of excitement about this program. To be fair to him, that’s never been his MO. He came from a program that was known for excellence, but being boring in doing so. (Seriously, remember Mark Madsen and Brevin Knight guys?) The Pilots need a guy who can recruit the Pacific Northwest as well as the West Coast with reckless abandon, and find guys whom Oregon and Oregon State are missing out on. In this article by Oregon Live, a bunch of assistants such as Oregon State’s Gregg Gottlieb and Gonzaga’s Tommy Lloyd were mentioned, as well as mid-major coaches like Eastern Washington’s Jim Hayford and Weber State’s Randy Rahe (though don’t know if Portland is a step enough for them to leave their current posts), but the name I like the most? Former Blazer legend Terry Porter, who still resides in Portland. Yes, he doesn’t have the experience, but they need flash and a name to bring some attention to this program. There could be some growing pains in the first couple of years, but Porter is the kind of big name, high risk, high reward hire that could be a big boost to a program that has remained synonymous with anonymity under Reveno.
Santa Clara Broncos
Last year: 
11-20 overall, 7-11 in WCC play (5th in conference). 7th in conference in offensive efficiency. 10th in defensive efficiency. Ranked 245th in Ken Pom ratings.
The previous coach: 
Kerry Keating. Coached 9 years at Santa Clara. Total record 139-159. Best season: 2013 where they went 26-12 overall with a 9-7 mark in conference play and won the 2013 CBI championship and were ranked 73rd according to Ken Pom. Worst season: 2012 where they went 8-22 and went 0-16 in WCC play and were ranked 283rd according to Ken Pom.
Why Keating is gone:
Keating had big shoes to fill when the administration pushed out long-time head coach Dick Davey to hire Keating, a former UCLA assistant under Ben Howland. Keating’s tenure could be one characterized by some massive highs, but mostly lows. In terms of the highs, he did have two 20-plus win seasons and won a CIT tournament in 2011 and a CBI championship in 2013. He also produced one of the conference’s most dynamic players in Kevin Foster. But when you take those two 20-plus win seasons out of the equation, his resume looks a heck of a lot more pedestrian: no winning seasons beyond those two years, and his highest win total in conference play was 9 (and this includes those two seasons). At the end of the day, one has to look at what’s more predominant, and it was obvious mediocrity was more common in his tenure than really lasting success.
Why this job is enticing:
Though most people don’t realize it, Santa Clara has money and a sterling reputation as a school. The school’s endowment is third-highest in conference, behind only BYU and Pepperdine. Furthermore, the school is ranked as one of the best academic institutions in the West Coast. If you take a look at their campus, it is beautiful and rivals bigger and more popular neighbors in the Bay Area such as Stanford in Palo Alto and California in Berkeley. Santa Clara has a lot of amenities to offer to make it a hotbed for recruits who may not be getting looked at bigger school in the West Coast.
Furthermore, the Broncos have some great basketball tradition. This is a school that has produced talent such as Kurt Rambis and more recently Steve Nash. The Leavey Center is one of the nicest venues in the WCC and can get absolutely rocking during big games. Santa Clara really is a sleeping giant when it comes to basketball and it could just take the right coach to channel all these campus and basketball factors to make it a player again in the WCC scene.
Why this job is difficult:
It is common to see many schools in the WCC leverage athletics to entice students to come to their school. Gonzaga is a prime example, utilizing their basketball success to lure students to come to a school that they may otherwise overlook. Santa Clara as a university doesn’t seem to care about utilizing athletics to gain attention because they don’t need to. Look at their school and they have so much to offer that they don’t need a good basketball program to attract potential students. This a great sign for the school, but it makes things difficult for their athletic program since it is common to see student apathy with their basketball team. When I lived in San Jose, I attended many Bronco games, and I was appalled how sparsely attended they were beyond the Gonzaga and sometimes San Francisco and St. Mary’s games (local Bay Area rivals). And it’s not just student apathy, but the community’s lukewarm attitude as well. It would not be surprising if the D-League’s Santa Cruz Warriors had a higher attendance than the Broncos. If a D-League team is getting higher attendance than your school, it may be a sign that you’re not really striking a chord with your community, as often has been the case with the Broncos the past few years.
Who do the Broncos need?
Unlike Portland, which needs flash, I think the Broncos need someone who has legitimate coaching chops. They tried to get flash in Keating with his UCLA ties, but that didn’t prove to be very successful. Herb Sendek, the former Arizona and NC State coach, was reported to have met with the Broncos last week according to AZ Central.com and he would be the perfect candidate to build something viable for the Broncos. He’s a proven coach, he’s proven he can win and recruit in the West Coast, and he’s a big enough name to compete with Mark Few, Randy Bennett and Dave Rose in WCC coaching circles. The big question though is whether the Broncos will “pony up” the money to hire Sendek or someone of his caliber, as their patience with Keating didn’t exactly show that a “winning” basketball program was a major priority at the university.
San Francisco Dons
Last year:
15-15 overall, 8-10 in WCC play (4th in conference). 5th in conference in offensive efficiency. 7th in defensive efficiency. Ranked 194th in Ken Pom ratings.
The previous coach:
Rex Walters. Coached 8 years at San Francisco. 127-127 overall record. Best season: 2014 where they went 21-12 and 13-5 in conference (made CIT) and ranked 90th in Ken Pom ratings. Worst season: 2009 where they went 11-19, 3-11 in conference and were ranked 255th according to Ken Pom.
Why Walters is gone:
It’s amazing to see this job open because Walters seemed like he was doing a good job on the Hill, especially considering where the program was at when he took over. The program stagnated under former Arizona assistant and Louisiana Lafayette Head Coach Jessie Evans, and there was a whole swirl of controversy surrounding Evans’ firing mid-season and the temporary hiring of Eddie Sutton (who pretty much took the job to get his 1,000th career win). Walters seemed to inject some new life into the program, and he had some successful years. In 2014, they were a couple of plays away from upsetting BYU in the WCC semifinals, and the 13 wins in conference that year was the most of anyone on this list by far (and even more impressive since it was when BYU was in conference while Reveno’s 10-win year was without the Cougars).
But, while the .500 record isn’t horrible by any means, Walters was always mired in player issues in his time with the Dons. He had countless players transfer from the program in his tenure (two years ago it was already at 21 and that number went up since then, though I can’t confirm how many exactly), and a controversial story involving former 3-year starting point guard Cody Doolin being forced to fight other players in practice by coaches (Walters especially) seemed to haunt him despite some on-court success. Walters seemed to bring out the most of his teams on the court, but off of it, his antics appeared to be too “Mike Rice-ish” and a .500 record simply isn’t enough for an administration to condone anything close to that behavior (even if it wasn’t full-blown Mike Rice-style). I’m guessing the administration decided to end his tenure before they hit completely bottom, which seemed likely next year with only 1 returning player.
Why this job is enticing:
No school in the WCC (Gonzaga and BYU included) can boast what USF has: two national championships. They also have a history of producing hall of fame players (Bill Russell, KC Jones) and have a campus located in the heart of San Francisco. The Dons also have a passionate fan base and booster and alumni who are willing to do what is necessary to put a successful product on the court (though this got them into trouble in the 80’s). Portland suffers from anonymity. Santa Clara suffers from apathy. San Francisco doesn’t have those issues, for even with the Warriors in nearby Oakland and the Bears in Berkeley, the Dons are always going to have a portion in the SF Chronicle simply due to the fact that they won two national championships in the 1950’s. There’s a lot of city pride in this college program, even if the star isn’t as bright as it once was decades ago.
Why this job is difficult:
It could be said that Dons alumni and fans have an unrealistic expectation of where this program should be. Walters, player issues aside, seemed to have them in a good competitive place. They were a tough-out for the top tier teams on an annual basis, and looked to be clearly above some of the lower-tier teams in terms of present and future outlook. But, in all honesty, that doesn’t seem to be enough for Dons fans and alumni. This is a city that is used to winners like the Niners, Giants and Warriors. This is a program that produced hall of famers. This is school that won two national championships. I am sure that Gonzaga and BYU and St. Mary’s (especially this last one since St. Mary’s for the longest time seemed to be the little brother to USF in both athletic and academic reputation until Bennett arrived) continuously being better than them gnaws at their pride immensely. That doesn’t make things easy for any coach to build success, especially when the resources aren’t what they once were and the Dons’ location in a major sports market where it is hard to generate fan base beyond the hardcore nostalgic types or alums.
Who do the Dons need?
Steve Lavin is being talked about as the potential replacement for Walters. To be fair, every time a Dons coach is fired, Lavin is the first name mentioned. And we get it. His dad, Cap, was former player for the Dons in the 1950’s who was inducted into the Dons Hall of Fame. And he grew up in the Bay Area, and always seemed more like a fit in the West Coast. But Lavin always seemed to turn the gig down, either seeking bigger, greener pastures (St. John’s) or being content in his media lifestyle.
However, Lavin would be a huge boost to this program. He has coached at two major jobs and found some, though not lasting, success with both of them (UCLA and St. John’s). He is charismatic and can bring in recruits who normally would go elsewhere. He has always had a strong relationship with players in his history as coach, and unlike Walters, who seemed more abrasive, or at the very least uncomfortable, with the media, would be able to handle the SF media scene with relative ease.
I know Lavin won’t be easy. He’s turned down the Dons job countless times before. But, he’s not a head coach (nor going to be one) at a major school and he’s announcing Big East games on Fox, not exactly the limelight he once had at ESPN. Let’s face it. USF needs Lavin sure, but Lavin also needs USF too more than ever before. A successful turnaround and Lavin could cement his uneven legacy in college basketball on a positive note.

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”.