Call the California State University-San Marcos win a good first impression.
The Cougars easily won their home opener—and first non-exhibition game—Saturday night, besting Vanguard University 86-61 at Mira Costa College in Oceanside.
At the end of October, I talked about how the new Cougars were out to make their name in men's basketball, and there's no doubt that they will.
The opening tip-off saw senior guard Tim Steed take the ball in for a dunk that shook the room—just one sign of what Steed later called their biggest strength: their intensity.
Watching them hustle up and down the court, it was easy to believe that this was the team that hung with NCAA tournament contender San Diego State on Thursday before eventually falling.
The Cougars have confidence in themselves. It was obvious in how they played, ruthlessly scrambling for every loose ball.
At one point junior guard Jacob Ranger—who played with the confidence and brains of a team leader—not only fought off a double-team but still turned the situation into a scoring opportunity.
All five Cougar starters scored in double digits. More importantly, they always seemed to be clawing for something.
It was also apparent in how they were coached. Jim Saia described himself to me as "an emotional coach," but he wasn't constantly yelling at his players from the sidelines. I could hear Vanguard's head coach Rhett Soliday more than I heard Saia, who trusts his players to make the right decisions and has an excellent motivator in assistant coach Josh Dunaj.
Yet the contest was much less one-sided than the final score might have you believe. There are still some growing pains for this Cougar team.
At times, they resembled a runaway freight train, that energy getting the better of them. Fast breaks and thundering dunk opportunities are only good if you finish them—something the Cougars sometimes did not do. At one point, three straight offensive opportunities ended with balls rimming out. Another dunk attempt bounced off the glass.
Perhaps going too fast and furious for their own good, they saw some foul issues and an early double-digit lead narrowed to 37-33 at the half. Learning from their mistakes, they returned in the second half with an 12-2 run and fewer fouls committed.
They also turned the ball over 27 times.
The Cougars also suffered from a bit of a double-edged sword: the crowd. It might have been a packed house at Mira Costa, but the fans left something to be desired.
They spent more time mocking Vanguard and the officiating than supporting the home team, and I heard quite a few profanities throughout the night. The pregame announcement about good sportsmanship apparently fell on deaf ears.
It's unfortunate because a brand-new team can use some real crowd support, and a team as good as CSUSM certainly deserves it. On Saturday night, they played hard for the entire game, never once flagging. They might have a few kinks to work out, but no one can accuse them of not giving their best effort. If they can keep up that intensity all season, they certainly will be a force to be reckoned with in NAIA competition.
Against Vanguard, they felt like a young team with something to prove, not yet settled into competition—something that will change with experience. Only having played two games together, they have had very little time to gel together in the heat of battle, and they're aware of exactly where they stand.
"We're not there yet," Steed told me after the game.
With their intensity and work ethic, they certainly have the potential to get there.