Santa Clara Basketball: What to Make of Kevin Foster and Co Giving Duke a Scare

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Santa Clara Basketball: What to Make of Kevin Foster and Co Giving Duke a Scare
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Nobody expected Santa Clara to defeat No. 1 Duke on Saturday.

The Broncos were coming off a season when they went 0-fer in the West Coast Conference and Duke had won 100 straight non-conference home games going into the contest. By all measures, a 90-77 loss to the Blue Devils was pretty respectable.

Santa Clara can go into their WCC schedule, which will take them to Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU, knowing that none of those venues will be as crazy as Cameron Indoor Stadium. On the other hand, they could have been better prepared for this contest if they had beefed up their nonconference schedule a little bit.

Preparing for a game at Duke by playing University of South Carolina-Upstate, Utah Valley and Eastern Washington is akin to preparing for a date with a supermodel by having a tea party with a couple American Girl dolls—they just aren’t the real thing.

South Carolina-Upstate, Utah Valley and Eastern Washington are scheduled as easy wins and may make Santa Clara look better in the standings, but they do nothing to help the team get into the NCAA Tournament come March. Seeing as though the Broncos have not won the WCC Tournament since 1987, it would behoove of head coach Kerry Keating and his staff to schedule difficult opponents to boost their RPI and improve their chances of getting an at-large bid at the end of the season.

There is no reason that Santa Clara cannot be able to compete with Duke. That’s right: the Broncos should be able to make this a game.

Both schools are of similar size: Santa Clara admits roughly 5000 undergraduates a year and Duke admits just over 6000.

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Both are private schools in prime real estate: Santa Clara has a bucolic campus near San Jose, Calif. and Duke is located in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

Finally, both schools have a great history in college basketball.

We all know about Duke. We all know about Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Shane Battier and all the other great players that come out of there. We all know about Coach K and the championship banners and the rivalry with University of North Carolina.

What people have forgotten is that Santa Clara was the first college basketball team to be placed on the cover of Sports Illustrated (they made the Final Four in 1954) and that Kurt Rambis and Steve Nash played there.

The problem is that the statute of limitations is running out on their history.

Nobody remembers the Final Four appearance and SI cover because 1954 was a long time ago. Furthermore, Rambis is probably remembered more for his recent struggles as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves* than for his role on the "Showtime" Lakers. Nash may still be a premier player in the NBA, but his playing days have to be numbered.

As soon as Nash retires, which could be as soon as next year, the school can’t play the “We-had-Steve Nash” card anymore.

*I’m sorry Kurt. Really, I am. At least you got that nice ESPN gig.

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Therein lies the problem. Former head coach Dick Davey had Nash fall into his lap and never capitalized on it. The team had four good years while he was on Mission Campus, culminating in their defeat of No. 2 seed Arizona in the 1993 NCAA Tournament.

It then laid back and watched Gonzaga go to the Elite Eight, lose their coach Dan Monson, hire Mark Few and take control of the WCC for the next 20-plus years.

In short, a small school from the middle-of-nowhere Washington (Spokane is known colloquially as Spokompton) outrecruited a university in the Silicon Valley.

***

So how does Santa Clara make up for this mistake?

The first place an administration always looks is the head coach.

If you ask school officials, Dick Davey stepped down in 2007. Ask anyone with intimate knowledge of the situation, however, and they’ll tell you, off the record, that a wealthy alum paid off the rest of his contract and he was “encouraged” to retire.

The next year Davey would join Stanford as an assistant coach in 2008. If he was fatigued, (Davey coached at Santa Clara since 1992) taking another coaching job a year after “retiring” is an odd way of showing it.

He left his position at Stanford last season. He did not take another job this season.

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It is well documented that the team looked at two coaching candidates—former Golden State Warriors coach Mike Montgomery and Cal assistant Louis Reynaud—before going with UCLA assistant Kerry Keating. Keating had made a name for himself by recruiting superstar players—most notably Kevin Love in 2007.

I arrived at Santa Clara a year after Keating. During a freshman event held in the Leavey Center, the team’s home court, Keating took the microphone and declared “We’re going to the NCAA Tournament this season!” while stamping his foot on the ground.

That year they went 16-17.

The next year they went 11-21.

By the time they started playing my junior year I had spent a year at the school paper and was covering the team as my primary beat. Immediately my friends suggested that I write a column lambasting Keating.

It was tempting.

While working at Bleacher Report that summer I had had an enlightening moment. I was sitting in the car of a former Santa Clara employee, let’s call him Mike, while he was driving me back to my off-campus house following a day of work. He asked me about the basketball program.

“You know,” I told him, “I think they could really turn it into something. Keating now has had four years to recruit his own team. If he wins this year and stays for the long run, Santa Clara basketball could really be something special.”

He stared at me for a couple seconds and then broke into laughter.

“C’mon,” I offered, “it could happen.”

“As soon as he has any success,” Mike told me, “Keating is as good as gone. Face it, Santa Clara is a stepping stone.”

This shouldn’t have been enlightening for me.

Keating was born in Massachusetts and grew up on Long Island. He attended Seton Hall and had two stints as an assistant coach at his alma mater before making a name for himself at Tennessee and UCLA.

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What’s to say that he doesn’t come to Santa Clara, make a big tournament run and then leave for Seton Hall* or another big-time program? It worked for former Providence coach Rick Pitino (Louisville), former UMass and Memphis coach John Calipari (Kentucky) and countless others. Why shouldn’t it work for Keating?

*Seton Hall is a member of the Big East and while it appears to be breaking apart, at the time it was a big deal to be a member of that conference.

It was tempting to come out and blast Keating. I could have written a column about how he had never had a winning record and how he had seen big recruits like James Rahon (San Diego State) and Robert Smith (UC-Riverside) transfer. Most pertinently, I could have speculated that if he managed to win here he was probably going to leave for a bigger program.

But I held my tongue.

The team went 24-14 that year, but still finished fourth in the WCC.

Lacking a bid to the NCAA and NIT tournaments, the team entered CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. Unlike the former two, the 24 entrants must pay to participate in the CIT and word on the street was that an alum covered this cost as well.

The event paid off, however. Santa Clara defeated San Francisco, SMU and Iona, three recognizable programs, en route to a championship.

Nobody is going to write home about how his or her team won the CIT. Many students and alumni scoffed at the victory, equating it to a participation prize. But I stuck with the company line: The team had a 20-win season, the postseason experience was good regardless of how it was attained and, hey, Virginia Commonwealth had made the Final Four a year after winning the CBI, a similar tournament.

During my senior year I snapped.

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Keating had gotten an extension through 2015 for winning the CIT. VCU’s Shaka Smart, Butler’s Brad Stevens and Saint Mary’s Randy Bennett had all gotten massive extensions recently, but they had gone to the NCAA Tournament. It’s smart to lock up a good coach before he leaves for a bigger school, but only if he has proven he can win.

To add insult to injury, the team had lost to Washington State, Houston Baptist and Wagner in nonconference play. The team had lost senior Marc Trasolini to injury the summer before the season had started. They were spinning his loss as the reason why things had gone so poorly.

Never mind that they had much-hyped big men like Yannick Atanga from Cameroon, East Bay Player of the Year John McArthur, Mercury News Player of the Year runner-up Niyi Harrison and 7’0”, 270 lbs. Robert Garrett on their roster—without Trasolini apparently you lose to Houston Baptist and Wagner.

At that point I had heard every excuse in the book on why the team couldn’t win: They’re too young, it’s hard to recruit with tough academic standards, it takes a while to build a program, et cetera.

Never mind that many of college basketball’s best teams are made up of young players (Kentucky being the biggest example) or that Cal, Duke, Notre Dame and Georgetown all have competitive admission rates (remember, Santa Clara admitted me) and that Butler, VCU, Creighton, St. Louis University, George Mason and Richmond have all had success as small schools in mid-major conferences.*

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*Quick advice for Santa Clara: SCHEDULE THESE TEAMS. Stop traveling around the nation playing Wagner, Houston Baptist and Bethune-Cookman. Play Cal, Stanford or UCLA! Get a couple games against mid-major powerhouses like Richmond, George Mason or Creighton! Travel to Notre Dame, Duke or Georgetown! These are fun and exciting and get your team ready to play Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s! They bring people back to campus! I’m fine with a feel good win against Houston Baptist every once and a while, but please, please, please I want to see you guys play real teams!

But no: This situation was different. Why? Because that was a convenient storyline.

After two bad conference losses to Portland and Gonzaga I torched the team. I tried as best I could be to fair and reasonable, while also being honest about their poor performance.

Although I got a couple fist bumps walking to class, the PR staff criticized me and I had my access restricted.

As much as my peers liked the article, they also gave me the “I told you so.”

***

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As freshmen I came to Santa Clara brimming with excitement about the basketball team. My fellow classmates and I went to the first few games decked out in red Santa Clara gear and yelled at the top of our lungs as though we were at The Phog or the Carrier Dome. I believed in Keating. I believed the team was going to the tournament, that they would become a legitimate rival to Gonzaga, that they could even beat powerhouse California programs like UCLA, Cal and Stanford.

Most people that apply to Santa Clara hold allegiances to universities with winning programs: Notre Dame, Stanford, Cal, Duke, Georgetown, et cetera. A lot of us come in thinking that every Division I college basketball experience is pretty similar; that you had to be present on gameday or else you were missing out.

Eventually everyone wizened up.

Why would you spend your Friday night watching your school get pummeled by Houston Baptist and Wagner when you can be out at the bars or a house party knowing that there is an absolute certainty that you will get drunk and a decent chance you will get laid? Who in their right mind chooses sloppy basketball over sloppy sex?

Well, me I guess.

By the time you’re a junior you learn that the place to be on Tuesday night is The Hut and on Thursday you’ve gotta make an appearance at Blinky’s. These local bars offer drink specials and yet another opportunity to hook up with a person from class.

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It’s not as though these were nice bars. As my friend Eric Bates so eloquently put it, “being the best dive bar in Santa Clara is equivalent to being the smartest child in the Palin family.” Still, it beat going to a Santa Clara basketball game.

Apparently, the basketball team eventually caught on too.

Although many of them were underage, many members of the team would be seen out at house parties or The Hut and Blinky’s—even on the night before the game. Point guard Evan Roquemore was cited for an open container on the 900 block of Bellomy Street, where a large concentration of off-campus housing is located. He and two other starters, Niyi Harrison and John McArthur, were benched for the first three minutes of a 74-62 loss to Loyola Marymount late in the season.

Worst of all, star forward Kevin Foster, who was the WCC’s leading scorer at the time and had led the nation in three-point shooting the year before, was arrested for drunken driving.

The things that made the Santa Clara program special—the fact that the players were encouraged to stay on campus for three years and live with other students, that they played pickup basketball after their season and that they were, in general, pretty good guys—vanished within a matter of weeks.

We were just like every basketball program with delinquent stars. The only difference is we lost at a significantly higher rate.

The team finished 8-22 and went winless in the WCC.

***

I expected yet another rash of transfers. I thought this core of players would give up and go elsewhere. After all, it’s not uncommon for players to transfer schools in college basketball—and most don’t need a complete fiasco to do so.

The team started out the season well.

They entered the Duke game 11-2. Following a monumental win over then No. 25 St. Louis University in Missouri, they lost in overtime to Utah State (who had only lost to Saint Mary’s). They only had one bad loss: to UC-Santa Barbara (4-7) again in overtime.

After a drought in the middle of the first half, Santa Clara rallied back, trailing Duke 44-42 at halftime. My Facebook blew up with statuses about the game and a couple friends texted me. Everyone was excited.

For the first time since I had started following Santa Clara basketball, the team was relevant.

In the end, Santa Clara was overmatched. Blue Devils guard Seth Curry dropped a three-point dagger in the Broncos early in the second half and try as they might, they died a slow, painful death.

This team will have to win the WCC to make the NCAA Tournament to become relevant again, but it’s hard not to think this win gave this team and its fans a little bit of hope on Saturday.

 

Tom Schreier writes a weekly column for TheFanManifesto.com.

 

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