Even after becoming the most successful first-year Division I team last season, what makes Seattle University men's basketball most interesting to watch is the rare opportunity to watch the process of building a Division I program from the ground up.
Within that rare opportunity is also the oddity of moving into the second year of Division I play without a star NBA prospect like Charles Garcia, who chose to go pro early.
So the obvious focal point for the team clearly becomes coach Cameron Dollar, who will be growing along with the entire athletic department as a second-year coach.
Contrary to what making a big first-year splash with a NBA prospect might suggest, Dollar described patience as the key factor to building this program during his live chat with the Seattle Times last Wednesday.
Seattle University | Live chat with Seattle U.'s Cameron Dollar | Seattle Times Newspaper
Dollar: It takes time to develop a program from scratch. I have been pleased with our progress from year one to year two. We have brought in some talented young men that will set the foundation for years to come. In playing them (Gonzaga and UW) year in and year out, we will get a chance to see how we stack up. I will say I like my team.
At last season's Senior Night, forward Mike Boxley described everything the transition entailed in detail, ranging from dietary plans to playing games in a former NBA facility. And yet they excelled with hard work and discipline led by a strong leader who knows what it takes to be successful as a player (who won a NCAA national championship at KeyArena in 1995) and assistant coach across town at the University of Washington.
But measuring success in the second year of this transition is about more than merely looking at wins and losses, although nobody enjoys losing. With a stronger schedule that will ramp up quickly with a road game at Maryland next week, it might be unfair to judge success by wins and losses. Instead, the key for the Redhawks will be looking at signs of progress on the court that might not show up in the final record of a conference-less team.
So what type of progress might we expect to see from this growing program?
1. Will they be able to continue their up-tempo style consistently?
Aside from Garcia, part of what made the Redhawks fun to watch last season was that they played an exciting brand of basketball: a lot of transition at the second-highest pace in the nation (79.6 possessions per 40 minutes). Although they weren't among the top 200 most efficient teams in the nation, one of their relative statistical strengths was that they generally managed to win the turnover battle.
Part of running an uptempo system like that is having guards who are willing and able to push the tempo and to the Redhawks' credit, they are returning two of their three most efficient ball handlers from last season in junior Cervante Burrell and senior Garrett Lever. In addition, the aggression that the team shows in transition continues from their guards in the halfcourt: both Burrell and Garrett had free throw rates above 50 percent, demonstrating that they will drive hard to the rim and know how to draw contact to get themselves to the free throw line.
However, the other part of running an uptempo system is obtaining the ball which obviously requires rebounding.
2. How well will the Redhawks rebound without Garcia?
What the Redhawks will likely miss most from Garcia's absence is his rebounding. As an agile 6-foot-10 forward, Garcia was unquestionably the team's strongest defensive rebounder. What made their transition game so strong is that Garcia could get the ball off the boards, turn around, push the ball up the court, and score or set up others.
If we set aside the claim that Garcia was the least efficient draft-eligible big man last season, having a dynamic player like that was a huge asset in setting the tempo and keeping the defense on its heels - controlling the defensive glass limits second-chance opportunities for opponents which allows a team to run. The Redhawks are not simply going to replace that and it might stand to reason that forcing more turnovers will be the answer for continued success in transition.
However on the other end of things, offensive rebounding was among this team's biggest strengths last season and while Garcia was a large part of that, he was neither as dominant on the offensive boards nor the team's best - junior forward Aaron Broussard was their strongest offensive rebounder by percentage with junior forward Gavin Gilmore and senior forward Alex Jones right behind Garcia. While Garcia dominated the boards on the defensive end, their offensive rebounding strength was a team effort and the key contributors still remain on the team.
3. What progress might last season's underclassmen make this season?
If the goal is to build a foundation for the future, then the development of last season's underclassmen is essential to the team's progress.
Burrell and Broussard were arguably the team's most significant contributors behind Garcia, with Burrell's speed helping the team push the tempo and Broussard's toughness on both ends - his strength allowed him to guard bigger players on occasion - complementing what Garcia brought to the floor. Making the transition from community college (Scottsdale Community College, Arizona) like Garcia, Jones improved as the season wore on showing an outside shooting touch as well as a defensive tenacity that helped against bigger teams.
With those three returners, the team returns three category leaders: Broussard led the team in offensive rebounding percentage, Burrell led the team in assist to turnover ratio (along with sophomore Garrett Lever) as well as being second in field goal percentage and Jones led the team in field goal percentage.
However, even with two of their most accurate shooters returning in Burrell and Jones, a rather significant weakness for the team - as alluded to previously -- was their shooting efficiency, where the team ranked in the bottom half of the nation (188th).
One problem was that although they didn't shoot 3-pointers excessively, they didn't shoot them very well either - their 33.33 percent 3-point percentage was 207th in the nation. The problem was not so much that 3-pointers are vital to success as much as the fact that the lack of a strong outside threat allowed teams to collapse in the post on Garcia with double- or triple-teams at little cost - even if Garcia passed out to the perimeter, there wasn't much out there to keep the defense honest.
Although they return their three strongest 3-point shooters in Burrell, Broussard, and Jones, they also lost two of their most aggressive shooters from beyond the arc in Boxley, Chris Gweth, and Taylor Olson to graduation.
Nevertheless, with Burrrell and Broussard in place for at least another season, the team has the ability to establish a core around them and start to establish an identity for the young program.
4. How will the newcomers fit?
Not that there is a whole lot we can take from an exhibition against a Division III school, but there was one encouraging sign from yesterday afternoon's 121-91 exhibition win against Pacific Lutheran University: they were led by newcomers Mark McLaughlin who attended Inglemoor High School and Franklin High School alum Frederick Wilson. They shot a combined 4 of 5 from the 3-point line - making two apiece - which bodes well for adding to the team's long-range efficiency. But there was certainly more to it than that.
McLaughlin showed off his scoring ability against PLU, scoring a team-high 25 points on 9 of 12 shooting and getting to the line five times. Although Wilson had a team-high six turnovers, he was also able to score efficiently with 14 points on 4 of 5 shooting from the field and 4 for 4 from the free throw line in addition to a team-high three steals. But again, the key in a blowout against an opponent they should beat is not that the gaudy numbers but that they came in and contributed when given a chance. With McLaughlin standing 6-foot-6 and Wilson at 6-foot-2, they also add height to the relatively small backcourt combination of 5-foot-10 Burrell and 6-foot-0 Garrett Lever.
Making the leap from contributing against PLU to contributing against Maryland next week is another story, but down the line it looks like they have added players who can score efficiently as high usage players.
5. How important is making a post-season tournament?
Dollar has made it clear that the Redhawks' goal this season is to make the NIT, which is the highest goal they can currently reach given that they are not eligible for the NCAA tournament until the 2012-13 season, as written by Bob Condotta.
Seattle University | No NCAA tournament doesn't mean no hope for Cameron Dollar's Seattle U. basketball team | Seattle Times Newspaper
"Our goal every year is to win the NIT," he said. "We set that goal last year and we came a couple of games short of getting into the NIT, I think (going 17-14). I think we were probably three games away from being in the NIT at 20-11. And even with the rigorous schedule that we have I thought that was doable. So this year, we want to get there."
For a team just looking to make progress, post-season play can be significant simply as a form of additional success to reward strong performance and learning what it means to respond to the pressure of elimination that is unique to tournament play. It's an intangible described by Seattle Times reporter Jayda Evans regarding the value of the Washington women's basketball team earning a bid to the new Women's Basketball Invitational, a tournament attempting to compete with the WNIT.
Huskies | Washington accepts bid to Women's Basketball Invitational | Seattle Times Newspaper
"There's some new life put in us," said the Huskies' Tia Jackson, who is making her first postseason appearance as coach. "I don't know that we've gotten over the Oregon State game. It kind of sits in our stomach a little bit, and it should. "This reminds me of our men, when they were invited to the CBI (in 2008). They got an opportunity to extend their season. They might not have gotten what they wanted out of the tournament, but the next two years, they're Pac-10 champions. You want your players, especially the young ones, to experience it."
Although it remains to be seen whether the experience benefits Jackson's team, she makes a fair point about the men's team that Dollar used to coach: certainly there are other factors involved, but there's some inherent value in learning to respond to pressure as a unit.
On the other hand, Dollar also clearly acknowledges that building a program will take time. It's not unreasonable to imagine a scenario where the focus on building a foundation for the long-term that might mean that "progress" is not reflected by post-season success, but steady improvement across the roster that might lend well to future success at the Division I level. Of course you play to win the game, but the most successful college and professional basketball coaches will tell you that their focus is on performing well and improving their performance game to game.
Based on what we saw from Dollar last season, the team is poised for success either way you define it.