A Look at What Broncos Fans Can Expect from Herb Sendek

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

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

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

Positives of Sendek at Santa Clara

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

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

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

Negatives of Sendek’s hire at Santa Clara

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

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

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

What to expect from Herb?

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

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

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

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Can a NIT Championship Redeem BYU’s Season?

A NIT Championship would be big for senior Kyle Collinsworth (above) and the BYU Cougars after missing out on the big dance. However, they will have to get by a good Valparaiso team in the NIT Semis first.

It has been a bit of a disappointing season for Dave Rose and the BYU Cougars, who failed to make the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since 2007 (the other time they missed was in 2013). Considering they had all-around Swiss Army knife Kyle Collinsworth returning, many figured the Cougars would at least challenge Gonzaga and St. Mary’s for the WCC crown or at least an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Unfortunately, though the Cougars posted a respectable 22-9 record and 13-5 mark in WCC play in the regular season, their campaign was marred by some head-scratching losses.

On November 16th, their second game of the year, they lost 66-65 to a Long Beach State team that ranked 90th overall according to Ken Pom. However, that was only the tip of the iceberg as the Cougars also lost to Portland (ranked 212th according to Ken Pom) 84-81 and Pepperdine (139th) 71-65 on the road and Pacific (233rd) 77-72 at HOME (safe to say, the loss to the Tigers, who were playing with an interim coach, pretty much sealed the deal when it came to their candidacy as an at-large selection). The Cougars had some good wins on their resume, including beating Gonzaga in Spokane and St. Mary’s in Provo, and over New Mexico and Northern Iowa (a tournament team) on a neutral court. But the bad losses just haunted them throughout the year, and that was a key reason why they weren’t even hoping for an at-large spot on Selection Sunday.

Luckily for Cougar fans though, BYU did not take participation in the secondary-tournament as a slap in the face or a measly consolation prize. Unlike St. Mary’s, who was throttled against Valpo on the road in the third round of the NIT, the Cougars made the Final Four of the NIT at Madison Square Garden, where they will face the same team that easily dispatched the Gaels a week earlier. Let’s take a look at the Cougars’ prospects and what a NIT championship would mean to BYU going forward.

NIT Championship Outlook

BYU has gotten some good wins in a NIT tournament that was loaded with worthy opponents who certainly deserved at-large consideration. They easily beat UAB, who was the regular season Conference USA champion (and whose coach is now the head man at Stanford) 97-79 in the first round of the tournament, and won an 80-77 nail biter against a much improved Virginia Tech team that will look to be a dark horse next year in the ACC under Buzz Williams, the former Marquette coach who will begin his third season next year. But the biggest win was over a Creighton team that looked a whole lot better statistically (ranked 40th in Ken Pom) than their record (20-15). In an up-tempo shootout (76 possessions) in Provo, the Cougars outscored the Jays 88-82 to clinch a Final Four spot in Manhattan.

Now, the Cougars will go against a Crusaders team more known for their defense than offense, something that the Cougars really didn’t see so far in the early round of the NIT (all the teams had higher adjusted offensive ratings than defensive ones). Valpo’s 92.7 points per 100 possession adjusted defensive rating was 8th best in the nation, and was key in big wins for them this year over the Gaels, Oregon State and Iona (the last two being NCAA Tournament teams). Unlike the Cougars, who like to push the tempo and get off quick shots as evidenced by their 74.2 adjusted tempo (11th fastest in the nation) and 14.5 second average possession length (7th fastest in the nation), the Crusaders prefer a slower, more half-court-oriented approach. Head Coach Bryce Drew’s (yes, this same Bryce Drew) squad posted a tempo of 67.2 (263rd fastest in the nation) and had an APL of 17.6 (206th fastest). That being said, just because they are slower in their approach doesn’t mean the Crusaders are a “throw it in the paint” kind of team. Instead, they are a very perimeter-oriented squad that can torch teams from beyond the arc. 32.4 percent of their points come from 3-point land and they play a pretty deep bench, as their 36.1 bench minutes percentage is 71st highest in the nation. Add that with an experienced squad (they are the 31st most experienced team in the nation) and some key players in combo forward Alec Peters (his 129.5 offensive rating was 13th best in the nation) and senior guard Keith Carter (his 29.3 assist rate was 98th highest in the nation) and the Cougars will certainly have their hands full tonight. The matchup between Peters and Collinsworth will be an interesting one to follow as whoever has the better night could be crucial in whether or not their team will garner a berth in the NIT Championship game.

If the Cougars do get by Valpo, a potential old-school MWC matchup with San Diego State is a possibility, as the Aztecs face George Washington after the BYU-Valpo tilt. Much like the Crusaders, Steve Fisher’s squad relies on defense, as they ranked 2nd in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.9). Without a doubt, whether it’s tonight or in the Championship, BYU will have to make their shots and pick it up on the defensive end against two very good defensive squads. The Cougars like their fast pace-style, as they have only played in 5 games this year where the possession mark was under 70. In order for the Cougars to maintain that pace, they are going to need to own the glass and generate turnovers on the defensive end, since Valpo (and maybe San Diego State) won’t exactly feed into BYU’s “early shot” tendencies.

What a NIT Championship Will Mean

The NIT isn’t the NCAA Tournament, make no mistake about that. However, while BYU’s chances seemed shot after their loss to Pacific, Valpo and San Diego State were two teams who had legitimate beefs with the NCAA Selection committee. Valpo beat Oregon State and was ranked 31st in the nation (almost 30 spot higher than the Beavers) according to Ken Pom. San Diego State was the best MWC team by far and was ranked 32nd in Ken Pom Ratings. If BYU can beat both of those teams on a neutral court, not only will it be a satisfying end for Rose’s squad and make up for a disappointing campaign in the regular season, but it would be a nice way for Collinsworth to end his Cougar career after missing out in the Big Dance his senior season.

Of course, this won’t be easy. As stated before, Valpo beat St. Mary’s by 16 and held them to 0.75 PPP, one of their lowest totals of the season. The Crusaders can get after it defensively, and if the Cougars struggle to hit shots, that will make things very difficult at MSG. Collinsworth is the key sure, but the Cougars will need perimeter players such as Vandy transfer Chase Fischer and freshman Nick Emery to step it up offensively and defensively if they want to have a shot at winning this thing.

Yes, the WCC only gained 1 NCAA Tournament berth this year. But a Sweet 16 appearance and a NIT Championship? Well, that would be something to build on for next year and not just for Rose’s program (he will still have returners in Emery, Kyle Davis, Corbin Kaufusi, and Zac Seljaas next season, meaning they have a good shot to compete for a WCC title next year), but the WCC as a whole.

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.

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.

Transfer Tape: Desmond Simmons, 6-7, 225 pounds, St. Mary’s (via Washington)

As with most teams in the college basketball universe, many teams in the WCC will be experiencing a plethora of incoming transfers this upcoming year. Thanks to the “senior rule” (where transfers do not have to sit out a year if they already have their degree), it is becoming more enticing for squads to get that “free agent” for a year to help boost their team’s chances for a NCAA Tournament berth for the upcoming season. The big squads that will be reliant on some big-time transfers are the usual suspects like Gonzaga (who will be depending on Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer and USC transfer Byron Wesley) and San Francisco (who will be relying on a plethora of transfers that are too many to count), but St. Mary’s is a surprising squad that will be more transfer-heavy than usual. One of the more interesting players they bring to campus this fall is Desmond Simmons, a local Bay Area kid from Vallejo, California (a city that produced talent like DeMarcus Nelson and MLB great CC Sabathia) who went to Salesian High School, but ended up playing for a talent-stacked Washington Husky squad for three seasons. Now a senior, Simmons has returned to the Bay Area to play for Randy Bennett, hoping to not only help the Gaels return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season, but also to experience his first NCAA Tournament game as well (the Huskies never went to the Tournament in his time there despite playing with such highly-touted players like CJ Wilcox, Terrence Ross, Tony Wroten, and Abdul Gaddy).

If you watched the video above from Simmons’ time with Drew Gooden’s Soliders AAU team based out of the Bay Area, its obvious that Simmons brings athleticism to this Gaels squad. While the Gaels have had their fair share of athletic forwards in Bennett’s time there (Diamon Simpson being the most prime example), Simmons may be one of the most athletic players to make his way to Moraga. At 6-7, 225 pounds, Simmons has the potential to play in both the post and the wing, and his combo ability should help out post centerpiece Brad Waldow, who while a talented offensive player, has struggled on the defensive end against more athletic and talented post players. While Beau Levesque, the player Simmons most likely will be replacing in the rotation, was extremely talented as a shooter and defensive rebounder, Levesque also struggled physically against bigger power forwards, as his offensive rebounding rate was meager at 7.7 percent. Look at the three year numbers for Simmons in his time at Washington, playing in a more talent-heavy roster, and in a more competitive conference (Pac-12).

Via KenPom.com

Though his offensive rebounding rates went down in his last year there, his offensive rebounding rate average is 11.1 percent, which is a significant upgrade over Levesque. Add that with already good offensive rebounders on the squad like Garrett Jackson (16.7 in 21 percent minutes played), Matt Hodgson (13.1 in 25 percent minutes played) and Waldow (13.7 percent last year) and Simmons should make stronger an already good offensive rebounding Gael squad from a year ago (35.8 percent offensive rebounding rate, 54th in the nation).

Another area which could be key to Simmons’ contributing to the Gaels squad will be his effectiveness on defense, which has not been a strength of the Gaels in Bennett’s time there. While Bennett has succeeded with strong-shooting, very good offensive-oriented squads, defensively, they have left a little to be desired. After ranking 46th in the nation in eFG percentage allowed in the 2009-2010 season, the Gaels have only cracked the Top-150 in eFG percentage allowed once since (2012-2013). Their main struggles as a team centers around giving up high 3-point percentages (165th, 296th, 274th and 300th in opposing 3P % the past four season), which is alarming considering they usually rank low when it comes to opposing 3-point shots allowed (they’ve been in the top-10 in fewest 3-pointers allowed 5 out of the past 6 years). One of the main issues is that they haven’t had the kind of athleticism in the perimeter or post to defend against that shot. Teams can hurt the Gaels with both on-ball and off-ball screens to free shooters on the perimeter, because the Gaels defenders aren’t strong or quick enough to go through or play around the screens quick enough to properly defend the shot. Add that with Bennett’s penchant for playing a shallow rotation, and the fatigue that sets in also has had an effect in terms of perimeter players losing their man (they are mostly a man-to-man based squad under Bennett) and giving up easy three point shots.

Simmons however could buck that trend. He’s long enough to contest three-point shots, and he has the speed to play adequate defense on the perimeter and the strength to go through screens and not allow space for the three pointer. Furthermore, Simmons comes from a defensive system where they excelled in defending against the the three point shot. Last season, the Huskies ranked 52nd in the nation in 3 point percentage allowed and two years ago when they won the Pac-12 regular season title, they ranked 94th in the nation. While Simmons wasn’t the sole culprit (Lorenzo Romar is known for recruiting athletic wings), the fact that he is been in that kind of defensive system and had the ability to play in it should be a huge boost to a Gaels program that has traditionally struggled in such an area.

The biggest question though is how Simmons’ offensive game will transition to minutes in Bennett’s rotation. As written in a post earlier in January, Bennett is not known for utilizing his bench much, and though this Gaels team will be deeper athletically in years past thanks to the slew of transfers, it is obvious that Bennett prefers a shallow rotation in comparison to most coaches in the WCC. It is also seen that Bennett prefers to have at least one post player who is able to step back and shoot the 3 pointer, and it is yet to be seen that Simmons has the shooting ability to fit into what the Gaels want to do offensively. Waldow is primarily a post player (only 1 3-point shot last season), and Simmons resembles the same kind of profile, as he only took 9 three point shots a year ago, a career low (he took 27 his freshman year). To make matters worse, Simmons overall shooting is pretty mediocre as well, as he sported an eFG percentage of 44.7, which was a career high. Considering Levesque had an eFG percentage of 49.2 percent last year, it doesn’t bode well that Simmons is exactly the type of 4 player that Bennett has typically played or wanted for his offensive system (which is primarily a 4-out style of offense).

But, even though he is not strong as a shooter, Simmons has gone a long way to develop his offensive game. His offensive rating of 104.4 was better than Hodgson (93.4) or Jackson (98.2) a year ago and against better competition (4th best conference in comparison to 9th best conference according to KenPom). And, Simmons is not a player who needs the ball in his hands to succeed offensively either, as his usage rate of 15.1 percent last year makes him more a complimentary piece on the offensive end, which is what the Gaels really need considering their main scoring option will again be Waldow next season. So, even though Simmons may not fit the mold characteristic of 4-position players that have come through Bennett’s system in years past, he is not a ball-killer kind of player (i.e. he doesn’t hog it and need a lot of possessions to be effectively offensively), and if he can put up similar offensive efficiency to what he did in Washington, that might be good enough for Bennett to keep Simmons in the rotation, especially considering the upside he can bring to St. Mary’s defensively.

It will be interesting to see how Simmons fits in the Gaels rotation, a team that initially looked to be in rebuilding mode until they landed high profile transfers such as Simmons and Stanford guard Aaron Bright. While Simmons may not be as high profile as some incoming WCC transfers (such as Wiltjer or Wesley for Gonzaga), he could be a complimentary piece that could help the Gaels bounce back after such a disappointing finish last season. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see how Simmons affects Bennett’s recruiting in the future, as Simmons is very atypical of what Bennett has traditionally brought to Moraga in terms of profile and athleticism. If Simmons succeeds with the Gaels, and helps St. Mary’s to another tournament berth, it could result in the addition of more higher-profile and athletic wing players to the Gaels program, not only as transfers, but perhaps as incoming freshmen as well.

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).