Kerry Keating entered the 2010-11 season knowing that he had to win.
Since replacing longtime coach Dick Davey after the 2006-07 season, the former Tennessee and UCLA assistant had yet to have a winning season. After going 11-21 (3-11 WCC) last season, Keating took a step forward this season. His team finished 19-14 (8-6 WCC). Both were career highs for the coach.
With the improved record, Santa Clara participated in the postseason for the first time in 15 years after accepting a spot in the 2011 CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT). They won five straight games in the tournament, including a notable 95-91 victory over rival USF, and finished with a 76-69 win over Iona College in New Rochelle, NY.
“[It’s] something I’ve always dreamed about,” said senior Troy Payne, in reference to winning a championship. “It feels awesome.”
“I’ve been really adamant about our guys setting precedents both individually and as a team,” said Keating of his team, which won 24 games, matching a record set during the 1968-69 season. “For us to go through a 38-game season, to play until the last week of March and be healthy and be academically strong, it speaks volumes to where we can go and it’s a good base for us to build on.”
The next step is an NCAA Tournament berth.
“[We] want to be a postseason team,” said Keating. “That’s always going to be our ultimate goal.”
Three things need to that need to happen in order for the team to build off its championship run, win the West Coast Conference and earn a ticket to the Big Dance.
1. The team must close out games against non-conference opponents.
The team learned to win close games this season.
It all started with its last-second win over Rice in November. It was an emotional game for redshirt sophomore Kevin Foster, whose older brother Rodney played for the Owls from 2005 to 2009. The younger Foster had missed the previous contest in Houston, near his hometown of Katy, due to injury last season.
With precious seconds ticking off of the clock, Foster, who was 1-3 from three-point range that night, identified the play in front of him breaking down and launched a shot from the corner. His desperation shot gave the Broncos the first lead of the night.
“I had more incentive,” said Foster after the 66-63 victory, “because my brother played there and they didn’t recruit me.”
Before the victory, Keating’s teams had a reputation of relinquishing leads in the last second of big non-conference games. In the previous season, the Broncos had lost to a ranked UNLV team, 66-63. This year, they lost to USC, 86-73 in LA after entering the second period with the lead, and had an opportunity to beat Washington State (85-79 OT) and Delaware (54-53) at home.
“We have to win all of our games in Leavey, or, at least, be closer to doing that,” said Keating. “Now that we’ve raised that awareness of who we can be when we play well…everyone’s going to be coming at us right from the start.
“We’re going to be the biggest game on some early season schedules. We’re also going to have a chance to play some bigger games if teams feel like they can play us now.”
Wins against non-conference opponents will go a long way to boosting RPI rating and building a tournament resume.
2. The team must remain intact and make progress in the offseason.
This season, sophomore Robert Smith joined James Rahon as another high-profile guard to leave Keating’s program. Smith made an immediate impact at Santa Clara, setting a freshman record for minutes played. However, after starting in 10 games for the Broncos this season, the disgruntled guard left the program.
Smith has yet to commit to another school. Rahon is currently playing for San Diego State, a program that won the Mountain West Conference and lost to UConn as a member of the Sweet 16.
Fortunately for the Broncos, freshman guard Evan Roquemore made a major impact this season despite receiving limited recognition coming out of high school. With his playing time in the postseason, the Nevada point guard topped Smith’s record for minutes played as a first-year player and made the All-WCC Freshman Team.
His major focus in the offseason will be adding weight to his 165-pound frame.
“It’ll help me a lot,” says Roquemore of adding muscle in the offseason. “I’ll be able to defend better, take contact better, and not [have] as many injuries.”
In fact, all three of Santa Clara’s top returners will have to hit the gym in the offseason.
“Evan, Marc, and Kevin have significant work they need to do on their bodies to get stronger and better,” said Keating. “All three are going to come back with significantly different bodies so that everybody knows how hard they worked in the offseason.”
3. Underclassmen must step into bigger roles.
Graduating seniors Troy Payne, Ben Dowdell, and Michael Santos leave big voids to be filled for the returning players.
All three were leaders on the team.
“I’ll have to step up and be a leader next year,” said Roquemore, a freshman who describes himself as a natural leader. “[Just] being a point guard and a leader naturally. It’s what I need to do.”
Payne and Dowdell provided defensive prowess on a nightly basis. Payne, a junior college transfer from LA, was named Defensive Player of the Year. Dowdell, a product of the Australian pipeline originally tapped by Saint Mary’s, has spent four years at Santa Clara and leaves the program having played the most games in school history.
“Ben and Troy added a lot on defense and with rebounding,” said Trasolini. “John [McArthur] and Yannick [Atanga] and, next year, big Rob (recruit Robert Garrett) are going to need to step up their level.”
Santos was used as a backup point guard this year and provided timely scoring late in the season. Keating has a verbal agreement from Brandon Clark of Merrillville, IN to fill that role.
Santa Clara basketball has undergone significant change.
For the first time since Steve Nash donned Bronco red, Santa Clara expects to win.
Tom Schreier is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the Santa Clara Broncos.