Thursday, May 13, 2010

If the Butler did it...why can't we?

Well Spot fans, its been over a month since the new “America’s team”, the Butler Bulldogs, almost went all Hoosiers on us, and that evil empire known as the Duke Blue Devils almost got “caught watching the paint dry”.

Of course now with the day to day excitement of the Madness over, it has given the spot an opportunity to sit back, analyze and ask the question, “If Butler can do it, why can’t we?” Now when I say we, I’m referring to the 5 Division one basketball teams that’s call the Central Valley Home: University of the Pacific Tigers, Fresno State Bulldogs, UC Davis Aggies, Sacramento State Hornets and CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners.

Now its easy for the Spot to dismiss three of the five without even blinking an eye:

CSU Bakersfield: you have to be a member of a conference, plain and as simple as that…you aren’t there yet Bakersfield...(plus it's umm...Bakersfield!!)

Sacramento State: forget their record on the court, it’s their “record” off the court that makes a trip to the final four a pipe dream for Sacramento State Basketball.  Sacramento State is, unforunatley, a commuter school, with absolutely no fan base, no corporate sponsor base that gives you the budget that allows you to recruit a tournament caliber team, and plays in a 1200 seat gym that can easily be put to shame by several high school teams in the area.  With those obstacles, Coach Katz deserves a medal or saint hood if he can just bring the Hornets up to respectability. 

UC Davis:  They have a great facility for a mid-major in the Pavilion (capacity nearly 8K), are starting to get some better players and even transfers (Joe Harden from Notre dame), but they are still extremely young program wise.  That being said, UCD was still an NCAA Division II team about 10 years ago.  Give them a generation or two to build the traditions and customs of the UC Davis Aggies sports programs and maybe then they can dream of making a deep NCAA tourney run.  It might also help if they get t heir current house in order.

So that brings us to the final two, the Pacific Tigers and Fresno State Bulldogs.  And No Spot fans, this is not the Spot’s version of the Bachelor, where one school will get a rose, the other crying in the limo that is waiting outside for It.  Both schools have the ability to make a Butleresque type run…but what exactly DOES it take to make such a run…well…glad you asked…

Contrary to what might be popular belief, Butler’s success this past year wasn’t a one year flash in the pan.  It was the pay off for years of continued success and program building by a team that has been consistently viewed as one of the better mid-majors in the nation.  They had already come into the season being nationally ranked 10th in the pre-season polls and had set up a schedule that lent itself to success during the tournament with regular season games versus the likes of Clemson, Minnesota, Georgetown, Xavier and Ohio State.  According to Emily Newell, the Sports Editor for the Butler Daily Collegian, Coach Brad Stevens has during his tenure, recruited players that would help build a team, not superstars , or the best 5-star recruits he could get, but players that each fit into the mold of what Coach Brad Stevens see’s as “Butler Basketball”.  Her sentiments were echoed by fellow sports writer for the Daily Collegian Steven Peek, expressing that this year’s success was the result of a trend of increasing success that Butler Basketball has shown over the past ten years.   Both he and Emily also felt that Butler’s success is doable at other like schools, because, in their opinion, their success doesn’t come from having the nation’s best recruits and facilities, or the biggest budget, but instead came from using what resources they had at their disposal in the best way possible, and (as Emily stated before) recruiting players that best fit into your program, even if that means passing over a more heralded recruit because he isn’t the right fit program wise.

Now while we might have already been able to guess the generalities of Butler’s success (making do with what you have, recruiting the best players for your program, etc.) one wonders, is there some formula, some exact equation,  that equals Butler’s success?  Well, according to the Indianapolis Star there is.  Shortly after last month’s championship game, the Star listed the factors for Butler’s success as follows:
·         A brilliant young coach;
·         A national profile;
·         A region where basketball is important;
·         A program that can produce NBA quality players;
·         Astute University leadership;
·         An ally in sports giant ESPN;

That being said, let’s take each factor and apply it to both Pacific and Fresno State:

·         A Brilliant young coach:  Well Pacific fans, Coach Thomason isn’t going anywhere for a while, and he isn’t exactly the youngest guy on the block either. With that though, he has proven that he can beat the majors during tourney time (the Big Least…err I mean East Conference knows this first hand) and has proven over the years to be one of the better X’s and O’s Coaches in the nation.  He does have younger assistants (Adam Jacobsen, Ron Verlin) who have definitely helped with the recruiting efforts to bring in players the last couple of years that fit Coach T’s system.  This combination has proven successful for staying competitive in the Big West, it now just needs to take the next step it seemed poised to take back in 2004-06 and not only reach, but remain, competitive on the national level.

As for Fresno State, Coach Steve Cleveland (formerly of BYU) has proven that he can recruit talent, but having a sub .500 record the last three years isn’t exactly awe inspiring.  As has been proven time and time again in College Basketball, great recruits doesn’t always lead to great teams, something that’s being proven in Fresno during the Cleveland tenure.

·         A national profile:  This is where it gets tricky and rumor, speculation and innuendo come into play.  As it stands right now, neither school can really say it has a national profile when it comes to basketball.  Pacific had the chance to get to that level during it’s three year tournament run from 2004-06, but let the opportunity slip through it’s hands.  While Fresno State’s football coach Pat Hill might have taken his program into the national consciousness, the same can’t be said for the basketball team, which last had a national presences back in the Jerry Tarkanian years (and all for the wrong reasons).  So just how does one get on the national radar?  Is it up to the individual school?  Does it depend on the school’s conference affiliation? 

According to Pacific Athletic Director Lynn King, while conference affiliation does play a factor, it’s mostly up to the individual school and it’s surrounding community that has the biggest say in whether a program can achieve national success, pointing to Gonzaga as the perfect example.  The similiarities between Gonzaga and Pacific are striking.  Both are private schools on the West Coast, both play in similar size arenas (Gonzaga has the Dog Kennel, Pacific has the Spanos Center) and both play in mid major conferences (Pacific does beat them out on famous alumni, Gonzaga has  Bing Crosby, Pacific has Dave  Brubeck, Chris Issak and Bubba from “In the Heat of the Night”).  So why was Gonzaga able to make the jump to national prominence after their deep NCAA run and Pacific couldn’t after three straight NCAA appearances, including two trips to the 2nd round.  The answer, it seems, is community involvement.   Gonzaga easily sells out it’s home games.  The ‘ Zags ARE Spokane’s team, the community is tied into the program.  As A.D. King put it, If Stockton wants a national program, then it has to invest in and support the program.   Lynn King made a point of stating that playing in front of a packed house solves a lot of issues on the road to becoming a national program.  It makes recruiting that much easier (who doesn’t like to play in front of a packed house), helps with increased financial resources to assist with greater recruiting and marketing capabilities in order to project a school onto the national stage.  King also makes the point that for the past 10 years Pacific has been investing in it’s basketball program.  Looking at the facts its hard to argue with him.  There is the brand new, state of the art practice facility.  Increased emphasis on marketing and outreach to the Stockton/Central Valley community (Just this past year we saw the Cal game held at the Stockton Arena,” take a time out for reading” and Pacific’s first “White Out” night) and last but not least, an upgrade in the non-conference schedule.  Gone are the days of playing two Division II schools per year.  In it’s place are games versus the likes of Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and San Diego State.  Indeed Lynn King has a very strong case for the argument that, Pacific has invested in it’s own basketball program…isn’t it time for the local community to invest in Pacific?

As for Fresno State…their path to national recognition depends on two things, football and conference realignment.  Football already has it’s foot in the door vis-à-vis national exposure…so it’s safe to say the more exposure the Bulldogs get nationally for football, it can only help basketball with their recruiting efforts, name recognition, etc.  As for conference realignment, well, it will take some time to see where those pieces fall.  Does Fresno State change conferences?  Will they be invited to the PAC-10?  Will they move to the Mountain West?  Either move can only help improve Fresno State Basketball’s accension to a national level program with better competition and increased media exposure (The PAC-10, that’s self explanatory, the Mountain West has it’s own TV network, so there ya go!).

·         A region where basketball is important:  lets face it, both schools strike out on this one.  The Central Valley is football country, be it high school, college or the pros.  Will producing a consistent winner help change that?  Absolutley, but for the time being both schools will just have to take a back seat football when it comes to the popularity and importance of each.

  • A  program that can produce NBA players:  Both programs have shown the ability to do this in the past.  For Fresno State, Paul George is destined to be a mid first round pick in this year’s draft.  For Pacific, Michael Olowakandi was the former #1 pick in the draft.  Fresno State also has the advantage of touting pro athletes in other sports too…Tommy  Mendoca, a high round pick in the annual Baseball draft by the Texas Rangers and Ryan Matthews, the #12 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft…’nough said.

  • Astute University leadership:  In her first year on the job, new Pacific President Pamela Eibeck seems to be doing all the right things.  Her most important project so far has been reaching out to the community on behalf of Pacific.  This can only help the basketball program as the more people who become invested in Pacfic, the more who become invested in the basketball program. 

  • On Fresno State’s end, the past has shown that University leadership is clearly lacking.  From the Stacy Johnson-Klein fiasco, to the firing of former coach Ray Lopes to the now long and drawn out contract negotiations with football coach Pat Hill, the University’s ability to deal with messy situations with the least negative public impact has been clearly lacking.

  •  A willing television ally in ESPN:  This is one area where both schools are clearly lacking.  The WAC and Big West clearly aren’t your power conferences, so they don’t get a seat at the ESPN table when deciding what schools/games to televise.  If anything, both conferences are just happy to get the scraps off the table TV wise, a Wednesday game here…late, late Saturday game there, you get the picture.  It also doesn’t help that both schools have the inherent east coast biased working against them.  After all, lets face it, if you’re west of the Mississipi River, ESPN, Duke…umm, I mean Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas could really care less about your program.  Yes both teams get the occasional games picked up here and there by ESPN or Comcast Sportsnet, but what is needed is a consistent, on going TV package for either school.  Espn, Comcast, Versus, all those are likely targets and would make excellent partners for our local schools to have continued success and help raise the programs in question into legitimate national powers.

So there you have it Spot fans, all the factors that can help lead Pacific or Fresno State Basketball into the new decade.  Which school has the best chance to climb its way onto the national landscape first?   The Spot would have to say Pacific.  Their increased involvement in the community, new facilities and school leadership that just seems to ‘get it”, give them a leg up over Fresno State in the race to become the first valley team to become a national fixture…

That’s all for now….so remember…stay classy Central Valley….

1 comment:

  1. For the same reason as "high major" programs can only take so much from North Carolina's experience.

    Butler, like North Carolina, is at a different level. One that has taken 20 years to get to and some luck. Its not just something you fall into