Jan. 20, 2004
There should be some smiles on the faces of Bronco fans after the first three league games, making Santa Clara one of two unbeaten teams in the WCC. However, they've held serve at home and winning the first three at Leavey was a must for a team with hopes of winning the conference title or the very least, earning a high seed in the conference tourney.
There are several reasons why the team has started so well. But remember, it's only a start and there's a long way to go. Let's proceed with caution.
"The home wins are a must if you want to finish in the top two," says assistant coach Steve Seandel. "These are the games you have to win. Realistically, you've got to win at home if it's not Gonzaga and you never know what can happen there. I told our guys we've done exactly what we needed to do and we've got a big one on Thursday because Saint Mary's is really good."
The need to win home games is no revelation, of course. But, looking at how the schedule winds down, there needs to be room for some margin of error. After opening with six of eight league games at home, the Broncos close with five of six on the road with the one home game against contender Saint Mary's.
"These are important wins," according to two-guard Doron Perkins after a 17-point effort in the win over LMU. "We need these to establish a confidence level. Everyone's confidence is pretty high right now and we're going to need that down the line."
The implication of extra pressure in the early season is something that certainly can be debated. Dick Davey in his 12th season says that idea is nonsense because every game of the 14 in conference is significant.
"If you think what I do is pressure, then there's pressure every time you get out there," says Davey. "I really enjoy what I do. Obviously, you're hoping your team is successful but every game has the same value, particularly the same criticalness to it. If we win this one, then the next one is the most important game of the year. If we lose, then the next one is the most important game of the year. So the pressure concept is maybe not quite as big an issue. Maybe the players sense that a little bit. Maybe I've been doing this too long, but that's how I look at it. Each game is just one we want to be successful in."
In every game, rebounding is a key issue. However, that's especially true against teams like Saint Mary's and Gonzaga. Despite the 3-0 start, the Broncos have been outboarded in eight of the last 10 games. That's a stat that hasn't gone overlooked by the staff. Does the team spend extra time on rebounding drills or just stress it during discussions?
Answers Davey: "Early in the week there was a lot more emphasis put on rebounding and we end up losing on the boards by 10 to Pepperdine. Friday, the emphasis was more verbal. Let's take a look at this and what second chance point attempts do for a team and showing them some statistics on second opportunities and how that helps you chances of scoring the ball. "
As long as I've been around the program, no coach has ever said something can be gained from a loss. However, one could argue the Eastern Washington fiasco was a legitimate wake-up call with a splash of water on the face. Eastern has started-off Big Sky play strongly and is in first, but a Santa Clara team that plays with intelligence and passion wins that game at Leavey. Steve Seandel called it the worst game he's witnessed at Santa Clara in 12 years. After checking the mirror that night, the team has played it's best basketball of the season.
So far, there has been no one player a fan could say, "That guy has been the one to make the biggest impact." You could make an argument for Travis Niesen as the WCC MVP after his all-around play through three games. He lights a fire under fans and teammates alike and now is starting to play with the kind of intelligence that's been stressed by the staff.
Bailey holds things together and always seems to make a play at the end of a game. Perkins has been an athlete not seen around here since Lloyd Pierce; his six steals Saturday were one shy of a school record. Rhode is keeping defenses honest and is playing better defense himself. Honest. The bench of Patrick, Rohe, Legge and Denison has done more than just hold down the fort and pushes the starting five daily. Jim Howell has blocked more shots this year than his previous three years combined and is second on the team in steals. He's supplying the leadership you'd expect from an upperclassman in his final go-round.
"Jim has been kind of a rock for us for a couple years," says Davey. "You kind of think you know what you're going to get out of him: six or eight points and five or six rebounds. He's going to play 20-25 minutes a game. I think Jim is performing at a very solid level for us and he's got to feel good about himself in his senior year."
A year ago, Howell was honorable mention all-league as a double-figure scorer and big time guy on the glass. When asked about his numbers, he'll say I don't care as long as we win. Howell doesn't just dream of making the tournament, he wants his team to make some noise and win a couple games if they get there.
"I think that's kind of the feeling for most of our players, hopefully all of them," said Davey. "I don't think Doron Perkins would walk into the team room and say 'I only got four' in our win, like that would bother him. How can we put it together? How smart can we be? Give ourselves a chance to be successful, but at the same time, along with that, you've got to make shots."
2nd is just as good as first
With the format of the conference tourney, the runner-up is in great shape. In the weighted bracket, the first two teams get two byes into the semifinals, seeds three and four get one bye into the quarters and five through eight face the gauntlet of having to win four games in four nights. If Santa Clara comes up just short of Gonzaga, the Broncos would have to win just two home games to make the NCAA tournament. While the team is focused on doing their best to win the league, fans should watch the standings and see what's happening in positions two through four. If I'm a fan, I'd take my chances with two games at Leavey to win the whole thing.
Enough of looking down the road because there are plenty of potholes on the path. Saint Mary's knows the urgency of winning at home after splitting in the Northwest and will be ready. After a few days to exhale, the race resumes Thursday. Let's get ready to rumble.