Seattle University coach Cameron Dollar shares a light moment with freshman guard Sterling Carter. Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com.
With their 95-91 loss to Eastern Washington last night, Seattle University fell to 0-7 playing in their opponents' arenas. Nevertheless, Cameron Dollar is laying the groundwork for success in the future with a coaching style that blends accountability for high expectations with a sense of humor.
It was never reasonable to imagine Seattle University's transition to Division I without a few more marks in the loss column than second-year coach Cameron Dollar had experienced as a player at UCLA or assistant across town at the University of Washington.
And even after last year's historically good first season in Division I, the Redhawks are enduring a few more losses than their young head coach would like.
"We need to be checking kinda all our systems and let's keep getting better and keep pushing and keep doin' what we're doin' so that we're not mediocre," said Dollar after the team's third home victory against the Idaho Vandals last Saturday. "I'm not into that."
However, with their 95-91 loss to Eastern Washington last night, Seattle University fell to 0-7 playing in their opponents' arenas. And as much as one might want to attribute that to growing pains of a young Division I program, it's somewhat confounding in juxtaposition to the team's 3-1 record at KeyArena. And it hasn't been that they're necessarily playing weaker teams or blowing anyone out at home either - it's that they seem to be finishing off exactly the type of comeback they need to finish in Cheney.
"A lot of it is mental," said junior forward Aaron Broussard about their road struggles, echoing junior guard Cervante Burrell's sentiment. "You're on the road, some of the calls we thought we could get didn't go our way. And some people don't know how to react to that that well. So the older guys got to let them know you need to expect it and just keep playing through when it's happening."
Yet as much as players need to rally around each other to change this sort of home-away roller coaster, there's definitely also some responsibility at the top. And in trying to avoid mediocrity, this pattern stands out as one of the biggest challenges for Dollar as the architect of a program that's new to Division I basketball. And the most consistent message from Dollar and his players is that it's a mental thing.
What makes Dollar a great fit for a Seattle University Redhawks men's basketball program in the second year of its transition to Division I basketball is that he finds ways to add a dose of levity to a situation in which setbacks - perhaps even many at a time - are to be expected.
And at least in media interactions, that's most evident with the little nicknames and catchphrases that he injects into his post-game commentary.
From characterizing a play as an "Evil Kenieval" play to nicknaming leading scorer Broussard the "reluctant warrior" or Alex Jones "the silent assassin", he seems to come up with something fresh after each game without much prompting.
After the Redhawks' (4-8) 66-56 win against the Idaho Vandals on Saturday he described the concept of "touchdown turnovers", a phenomenon not often applied to basketball, but as useful as it is provocative to describe a problem that an occasionally over-aggressive team.
"Offensively, we were just choppy," said Dollar. "We slowed it down a little bit obviously because we've been playing fast but we turn it over. And not only would we turn it over, but we would turn it over and they would score easier. So we would get a stop, go fast, and then they score quicker than they did when we got a stop. So I call it 'touchdown turnovers' and I've said we can't do that - at least you gotta get a shot off."
Despite moments of laughter while discussion the concept of touchdown turnovers it's also clear that his communication with the players about the problem has been effective - they are both familiar with the concept and Dollar's remedy for it.
"Oh, he'll stop it," said Burrell. "You're just going to hear the horn. He'll make a substitution."
Dollar has shown signs of something that all great teachers strive for - it's not difficult to imagine Dollar building relationships with his players involving a mix of playful critique and high expectations. But most of all, it's obvious that Dollar has instilled a sense of individual accountability to the unit's effort in all of his players and the player's have bought in.
But aside from Dollar's approach to the game as a teacher, his unique charisma is no less important to this team and perhaps why the personality of the team so strongly reflects the personality of the coach.
Dollar is one of those coaches that looks like he wants to throw on a uniform and play, even after the game during post-game press conferences. From throwing an elbow at an imaginary opponent to demonstrate what he meant by wanting his team to be tougher after losing to Cal Poly to the consistently sharp emphasis he puts on the word "aggressive" every time he utters it his intensity and passion for the game is evident from hearing him speak even for a few minutes.
And it's contagious - the intense passion that Dollar exudes has shaped the personality of this team as a scrappy team that never seems to quit regardless of the odds.
"Sometimes we have our rebounding challenges obviously, but our guys scrapped, fought, clawed - all five guys were in there digging it out and that's what you want every possession," said Dollar, in reference to the Idaho game.
There is little doubt that the 4-8 Redhawks have assumed the personality of their second-year coach and whether it's because of his championship playing experience at UCLA or simply his infectious passion, the team has responded. The challenge - particularly after having to do some measure of adjusting to life after transfer-and-done star player Charles Garcia - is finding a way for the team to grasp what it means to bring together that sense of accountability to their coach's vision and response to his charisma into a consistently winning package regardless of where they're playing.
"I think we still just gotta be anxious to finally get that first one, knowing that when we do win that first one you kinda know how to win on the road and it's easier from there," said Broussard. "So I think we're confident and ready for the challenge and ready to go get one."
And underlying Dollar's humor and my touchy-feely ed school rhetoric is a clear message that has been reinforced in spurts throughout the season on the court: Dollar is not lowering his standards for this team just because their a transitioning Division I team. He's holding them accountable for competing to win every night, regardless of what opponents or outsiders might expect.
It's just a team that is continuing to grow as a Division I unit and working out some growing pains.
Unfortunately, after Saturday's game against San Jose State at home, the Redhawks finish off 2010 with a road game against the Virginia Cavaliers, who have gotten hot since Seattlites probably may have last watched them against UW.
It's a tough way to end the year, but at some point, the groundwork Dollar has laid will pay off on the road and right now he just hopes to see continued improvement.
"I think you have two things happen as you get into December," said Dollar. "You see teams fade and start fading away quick and think their season is over and they get down. You see the other type of team that momentum is coming and they keep improving, keep pushing forward. And my mind with this December, that's what we need to be doing.
"That's our whole focus is every game, each game, playing right, pushing forward. So that's what we're going to keep doing."