In praise of former coaches

In my career I’ve probably written more than 50 stories involving coaching changes, with many of them not involving USD, or even college sports.

Many have not involved one person wanting to keep a job and his/her boss not making that possible, either. Some have been about moving on to a better job, some involved genuinely wanting to do something else; and then there have been family issues, location issues, personality issues – the list is a long one for why people stop coaching a particular team.

Not enough wins and too many losses, though, is always going to be No. 1 on the hit list.

I have to say my professional treatment – I’m not implying any level of expertise here, just saying I’ve paid bills with the fruits of my labors – of coaching changes has changed over the years.

When you ask athletes how things are going, they’re going to be extremely positive about coaches and teammates. This does not depend on the situation, it’s just the way college sports teams and college kids are expected to do things. At the pro level it can be different with stature and long-term contracts giving athletes the confidence to cross that line, but even then it’s an odd occurrence when someone other than an NFL wide receiver goes off on a rant that includes indictments of coaches and teammates.

When a sportswriter covering a coaching change asks the innocent question “How are things different now?”, the answer from the player will inevitably sound as if the question is “How are things better now?” because of the way sports work.

In most instances the first time this question is asked, it comes before the team has played a game for its new coach, and in some instances, athletes are being asked to answer that question before they’ve even practiced. Hell, I asked Casey Kasperbauer on Monday to talk knowledgeably about his impressions of Craig Smith — which he did very capably — even though I was well aware that the two had not even met yet.

I’m not criticizing here. If I’m on the other side of this, I don’t know how else you can approach it. It is ingrained in the competitive fabric of teams to project optimism about next games and about the next season and, in some instances, about the next coach. And it is nothing short of a college athlete’s job to speak of these things with a good attitude, just as they’re asked to show up for weightlifting, or get good enough grades to stay eligible. I do think, however, that in some ways the manner in which we ask these “new regime” questions — and the context in which we place the answers in our stories — can often give people the wrong impression about how bad things were before and how good they are now. So I try not to do it that way anymore.

I’m quite confident that when Gene Bartow replaced John Wooden at UCLA that there were players who paid their verbal respect to the legend but also spoke glowingly of Wooden’s replacement and his new way of doing things — while optimistic boosters stood by nodding their heads in agreement. I would also guess there was a part of this inevitable changing-of-the-guard public ritual that made John Wooden uncomfortable.

On Monday, athletic director David Herbster was wise to publicly credit the contributions to the program made by Craig Smith’s predecessor Joey James and – by extension – Dave Boots.

The days following Boots’ sudden departure last September were strange, no doubt about that. Regardless of circumstances, basketball coaches don’t often retire the day after Labor Day, and it would be safe to say there were hard feelings then and hard feelings now about how it all went down.

But it put James, the former USD player and longtime assistant coach, in the top spot and the new coach and his staff moved forward positively, as coaches and players are trained to do. It remains unclear as to what kind of target James was going to have to hit to keep the job permanently, or even if there was any target to hit at all. The season wasn’t a train wreck, however. They won the most games any USD team has ever won in the Summit League and the league mark was very close to being much better than it was. 

Watching the team consistently underwhelm outside the Dome was a persistent issue, however, especially over the last weekend of the regular season. The Coyotes lost one-sided games in Fargo and Brookings that weekend, places where almost nobody wins these days,  but the daunting road swing represented an opportunity at that juncture in the season for USD to play tough in tough spots. A pair of competitive games would have shown that they were indeed ready to be considered a strong contender in the upcoming conference tournament.

In the end, Smith’s hiring on Monday showed that the Boots regime came very, very close to surviving the competitive inconveniences of the transition to Division I in men’s college basketball but, in the eyes of the administration, didn’t quite pull it off. Not much was mentioned about the transition years on Monday at the podium but later Herbster said that Boots/James contributions made it possible for USD to attract a coach of Smith’s caliber to take over. It’s probably of little consolation to James, but it’s also probably true.

I remember my first conversation with Joey James. He was sitting at Pro’s along with family members who were either waiting to eat or just getting done. I recognized him – this was early in the season and he was a new juco on the roster – and I introduced myself. He was polite and confident. It was easy to see that this son of a military man had been set straight on how you deal with adults.

And that was always the way it was in my dealings with him. Polite and confident. As I got to know him better, I could add funny to the list. I could also add he was a blast to talk basketball with.

When Smith begin talking to the crowd on Monday about the academic efforts expected of the Coyotes, he was saying what coaches need to say. He has a great history – even at Mayville State – of delivering on the claims he made on Monday on that count, so that’s very likely the way things are going to be at USD.

There were likely people in the crowd who heard this and assumed that this was meant as a “crackdown” – that the clowning around was going to end with the new sheriff in town. I do not think Smith meant it that way and I know for a fact that the Boots/James regime did not build the program that way. Whether or not Smith is inheriting a core group of young players who can win a conference title remains to be seen, but it’s not like this is a ragtag group of academic misfits, or an impolite group, or a group that looks for and finds trouble. The reason this is the case is because  Boots, James and staffers Chris Kassin, Lloyd Williams and Eric Johnson wanted a team made up of good guys.

Of the transitions to Division I endured at USD, the transition to Division I men’s college basketball was obviously the toughest. This is something that bears itself out at most of the other places that undertake the project, not just an idle opinion directed at how it worked with the Coyotes.

Respecting the difficulty of that challenge and the classy way the previous staff addressed that challenge is something USD fans should try to appreciate now that a new coach is in place. I’m guessing that as Craig Smith gets more entrenched in working with the team the previous coaches left behind, he’ll understand that as well as anybody.

One last look….

One final breakdown here…..I anticipate it being very difficult for the Coyotes to get decent looks under the basket today. With the oft-mentioned (by me, anyway) Chiney Ogwumike one of the best defenders in the nation —- three-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year – it’s difficult to envision the Coyotes getting much done under the hoop. Polly Harrington and Margaret McCloud have done a great job of battling with strong inside players the last few weeks, but I suspect they’re going to be dealing with something entirely different today.

So that means if the Coyotes are going to get some points, they’re going to have to get them from the perimeter or in transition. I would expect USD is going to have to look to Nicole Seekamp for a lot of shots today because of that. USD was getting transition hoops in some cases after made baskets at the Arena last week. Pursuing that one clean shot early in a possession will be important against a team that is going to be taller and quicker at most spots on the floor. Start passing it around here and there against a physically superior team and pretty soon there are five seconds left on the shot clock and you’ve passed up two decent looks in exchange for a desperation heave over three 6-2 players.

It will be interesting to see the level of quality shots USD will get, given the anticipated matchup issues. If they can get some clean looks, they’re going to have to make a high percentage of them.

Avoiding the rout will also necessarily have to include avoiding bunches of turnovers while at the same time overachieving on the boards. I don’t see offensive rebounding as being a realistic difference-making goal against Stanford, but restricting the Cardinal to one shot per trip as often as possible is a must to stay in the game.

USD is a 28.5 underdog according to one gambling website. Earlier today Duke, another of the No. 2 seeds, beat Winthrop 87-45. If the Coyotes turn the ball over often and give up a lot of offensive rebounds, that’s the sort of scenario we’re looking at. No one said it was going to be easy.

Some things out there regarding the tournament, USD and Stanford…..

Here is a ranking of all 64 teams in the tournament.

Here is a case being made on the ESPN site for Stanford getting a No. 1 seed.

Here’s this deal. Viral videos involving Stanford athletes, most prominently Cardinal star Chiney Ogwumike, a 6-4 post player who has more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.

A little more on Ogwumike.

You’d think it would be tough for Stanford to muster up any more than your standard pregame ‘tude for a first-round game against the Coyotes, but this story seems to indicate the Cardinal has a bit of chip heading into Ames.

More tomorrow from Ames. USD got a practice in Thursday and will have their official pre-game practice Friday at Hilton Coliseum along with a meeting with the media.

A quick look at Stanford

We’ll have more as game day nears, but a few things about USD’s first-round opponent Stanford, which has a 29-3 record and was ranked sixth in the nation in the last women’s poll.

No. 1 is Chiney Ogwumike. She’s 6-4 and has more than 2,000 career points and 1,000 rebounds. She was the Pac-12 player of the year this year. She came out of high school in Cypress, Texas, as one of the nation’s top prospects and has done nothing to disappoint since then. Her sister was also an All-American at Stanford and now plays for the Los Angeles Sparks.

Stanford has been to the final four in six of the last seven seasons. Coach Tara VanDerveer has been at Stanford since 1985 and has won more than 900 games. On Tuesday, Williams called VanDerveer a personal idol and said that coaching against her was going to be a special moment in her career.

Stanford has eight players who are 6-2 or taller and you’d have to assume all of them can play ball. My experience covering elite women’s college basketball teams is limited but I did cover a North Carolina team that was close to being a top-10 operation in the Coyotes’ first year as a transitional team. USD came damn close to winning that game at the Dean Dome, but I couldn’t help thinking at the time that every single player on the opposing roster would be a star at USD.

 I also covered a pair of games against Nebraska, including this year, where the Cornhuskers were in the thick of the rankings. You could count South Carolina vs. SDSU last year, as well. I remember thinking that there would not have been a player on the Gamecocks’ roster who I saw play who would not be a star in the Summit League. In that game it wasn’t so much the starters who made an impression as it was the  bench — and that was a 4 vs. 13 game.

That’s what USD is up against. And not just USD, but any 15 seed playing a 2 seed. Every single player on the other team is better than every single player on your team. There might be some exceptions to that in some cases when comparing seniors to freshmen, but it’s essentially going to be true almost every time and it puts in perspective how really difficult it is to pull off an upset of the magnitude the Coyotes are up against.

Other players who get serious minutes for the Cardinal are Amber Orrange, a 5-7 junior guard and Mikaela Ruef, a 6-3 senior. Obviously, the offense all goes through Ugwumike, but there are 10 players who average 9.8 minutes a game or more.

Louisville a first-round opponent?

ESPN has the Coyote women playing Louisville as a 15 seed in a first-round game in Ames to open the NCAA tournament. If that were to happen, it would include some connections between the two teams.

Louisville coach Jeff Walz was an assistant coach at Nebraska when Amy Williams was finishing up her career there as a player. It will make for an interesting story line if the game actually comes to fruition.

The other deal is that Polly Harrington, who is finishing her career strong at USD, began her college basketball playing at Louisville. Harrington, a native of Kansas City, Mo., played 16 games for the Cardinals during a season where they advanced to the Sweet 16. Harrington actually played in the first two Louisville games in the tournament but did not score.

So that’s the trivia question that you can use to win candy bars and the like from your friends today: Which USD player will be participating in her second NCAA tournament?

The tournament pairings will be announced on St. Patrick’s Day.

Again, if it would be Louisville, USD would be in for a handful. Not that that should be news. If the Coyotes are indeed a 15 seed, they’re going to be playing a top-10 team whether they enjoy any previous connections or not. The aforementioned Walz has guided the Cardinals to two Final Four appearances and national runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2013 along with four Sweet 16 appearances. Last year the Cardinals pulled off an incredible upset by beating Brittny Griner-led Baylor in the round of 16.

This year Louisville is 30-4 and lost to UConn in the finals of the American Athletic Conference in its most recent game. The Cards have absolutely mauled anything resembling a mid-major this season.

Tags: win

USD women at home against the Bison

The USD women deal with a struggling team tonight and finish off the regular season on Sunday afternoon with a Jackrabbit team that has flattened almost all in its Summit League path. As one of 37 teams in the conference with a 6-6 record, a home sweep this weekend could make that first-round tournament game a little tastier, but USD has a 1-1 record against all of its likely first-round opponents. Denver hasn’t had the season that Fort Wayne and Western Illinois have had, but they beat USD once this year.

After starting the Summit season 0-4, USD has won six of its last eight and will be a heavy favorite at the Dome tonight to beat a Bison team that is looking for a new coach. The Bison were at the front of that turnaround when the Coyotes beat them in Fargo on Jan. 30.

Since then, the Coyotes lost at SDSU, where everyone loses, and at Omaha last weekend. USD defeated the Mavericks easily in their previous meeting at the Dome so that effort was both surprising and disappointing for a team that had shown consistent improvement up to last week. The Coyotes resumed with the turnaround, however, last Saturday by beating Western Illinois.

“They were the only team that came in and beat us at the Dome this year,” said junior Lisa Loeffler. “It was nice to take one right back at them. Now we have some momentum going into the week, which definitely helps.”

USD leads the Summit in scoring and is second in rebounds per game, so the numbers are beginning to add up after the dreadful start. Game-by-game, however, the Bison represent another opportunity to show that issues in Omaha were a blip and not a sign of regression.

“The big thing for us is to use that Omaha game as a learning experience,” USD Amy Williams said this week. “We have to understand we have to come out with an energy and intensity about us that has to last 40 minutes. I thought we did that at Western and played with a little more sense of urgency.”

It’s a lesson that can be applied to this evening’s game with the Bison. It’s an opponent that has not fared well against the Coyotes or pretty much anyone else this season, but any trail to earning the third-seed would necessarily include a win tonight.

“The big focus for us has got to remain on NDSU,” USD coach Amy Williams said. “It’s sometimes tough to do that when you have SDSU and the Summit League tournament coming up and senior night coming up, but out team has been really good about locking in a focusing on the next game and that’s not going to change here.”

Tough weekend for USD men

The truth is that as it applies to the upcoming Summit League tournament, winning tonight and/or Saturday for the USD men’s basketball team probably doesn’t mean a whole lot. You’re looking at that fourth- or fifth-seed with Fort Wayne or Denver as the opponent and an opening round game a week from Sunday.

Some other dude: “Yea well if they do this and those other dudes to this…”

No, not going to happen.

But like farming and having a child, there’s more to basketball than the seeding process. The Coyote men have the Summit League’s toughest road trip in front of them and playing well in Fargo and Brookings would give the team and the coaching staff a nice jolt headed into the tournament. Conversely, playing poorly in uncomfortable conditions the last weekend of the regular season would hint that the squad isn’t yet good enough to mess with the big boys on an everyday basis.

The men will play a Bison team that will be the No. 1 seed next week in Sioux Falls and the No. 4 vs. No. 5 seed winner’s semifinal opponent. So in that sense, you could say this is a good prep, though I think the familiarity is such at this point that the Coyotes already know what the Bison are all about.

“There is a reason why they’re in first place,” USD coach Joey James said. “It’s a veteran team that knows how to play well together. Defensively, they’re very tough. We’re going to have to go out there in a hostile environment and make sure we take care of the basketball – we’re going to have to pick up where we left off here, where we guarded them very well in the second half.”

Knowing the Bison’s personnel – in terms of college games played it’s one of the most experienced teams ever assembled anywhere – has not been a huge advantage for opponents, obviously.

“They’re the same guys but they’re a year smarter, a year older and a year bigger,” James said. “They’re just a really good basketball team that executes at a high level. The offense is a little different this year but it fits them really well.”

As far as the potential for making the last weekend a confidence-building enterprise, a couple strong games would definitely give them a charge, but back-to-back old-time country beatdowns are also a possibility.

“We was headed for Fargo with the tournament in our sights, but then the Bison done turned out the lights….”

I swear I could write country western lyrics for a living.

Anyway, the crowds will be a little revved up on the road against a pair of natural rivals.

“We are going to be playing in some tough environments with great crowds,” James said. “That should help some of our younger guys understand what it will be like at the Summit League tournament. We don’t want any ‘Deer-in-the-headlights’ out there. They will have just played two of the best teams in the league at their gyms. It should prepare us.”

Coyote men likely a 5th or 6th seed.

There is still time for a series of upsets to shake things up in Summit League tournament seeding, but it’s most likely the USD men will end up at No. 5 or No. 6 going into the tournament. My foggy forecast of the big show goes like this: 1. SDSU/NDSU; 2. SDSU/NDSU; 3. Fort Wayne; 4. Denver; 5. USD/W. Ill.; 6. USD/W. Ill; 7. IUPUI.

I think USD will end up getting the fifth spot, but either way it sets up a first-round game with Denver or Fort Wayne at the Arena that would be played the night of Sunday, March 9, with the winner facing either the top seed or the winner of the 2 vs. 7 game. There is about a billion percent chance that would be NDSU or SDSU in the semifinals if the Coyotes were able to win that first one against Fort Wayne or Denver.

With at least one win or one extremely competitive game logged against all but Western Illinois in the league so far this year, the Coyotes are not exactly a bargain for one of the higher seeds. Assuming (Perhaps inaccurately based on last year) that USD would bring a decent crowd to the Arena for that first-round game, the Coyotes will be a tough draw in the first round.

More importantly for the Coyotes is establishing genuine competitive confidence over the next two weekends. It starts with Omaha at home tonight and continues with Western Illinois, which slugged the Coyotes around earlier in the season, at the Dome on Saturday at 4 p.m.

The Coyotes played Omaha tough in Omaha the first time through. Like several other games this year, the wrong things happened at the end and USD lost. You could analyze the Coyotes’ series of tight losses dribble-by-dribble if you want, but they’re all essentially the same; the wrong things happen at the end.

As a fan you can look at the following weekend, with road games at NDSU and SDSU, and figure the Coyotes better win a few at the Dome this weekend. As far as the team is concerned, winning is a big deal too, but more important over the last four games is establishing a level of consistency the Coyotes can take into the tournament.

USD is coming off a 1-1 road weekend with three consecutive decent halves of basketball. Against Fort Wayne, the Coyotes couldn’t shoot very well early and when they cleared up that problem it was too late. Against IUPUI they were able to hang in there against a team they were supposed to beat. It’s not a situation the Coyotes have been put in much during the Summit League era but they handled it well enough to break up a road and conference losing streak in the process.

“Defensively we were very good against Fort Wayne, we held a good team to 38 percent shooting, so I was very happy with that,” USD coach Joey James said. “We were good enough defensively to win that game.”

USD started slow again on Saturday but was tied at 32 at half and held it together in the second half. USD got big games from Trevor Gruis, who had 18 points, Tyler Flack (12 points, 7 rebounds) and Tyler Larson (13 points), who was starting in place of a slumping Brandon Bos.

Tonight, USD will be dealing with what is likely the fastest team in the league in the Mavs, whose game is distinctively as quick as Western Illinois’ is slow.

“It’s going to be a track meet,” James said. “It’s either one or two passes and a shot or no passes and a shot. They attack the basket extremely well. They’re a scrappy group and we’re really going to have to control their guard penetration.”

James and others would love to see Bos bust out of his shooting slump this weekend. Bos is averaging 11.8 points a game but has hit just 9 of his last 52 attempts in Summit games.

 Perhaps Canada’s gold medal in women’s hockey will spark the young Canuck this evening against the Mavericks. On the other hand, as you might have noticed, there are several Americans on the USD roster as well. Can they overcome Team USA’s hearbreaking loss? Time will tell, my friends, time will tell.

It’s not a secret to anyone, but the time spent away from the DakotaDome for the USD men has been something resembling a repeating nightmare.

It’s tough to win on the road, particularly with the parity of the Summit League, but it has become one of the defining features of the 2013-14 season for the Coyotes.

One of the team’s five road losses in the conference was close, the rest were not. Saturday’s 75-67 loss at Denver wasn’t exactly a rout  but the  Pioneers were in control throughout, save for a scrappy USD finish that closed the margin to single digits.

The Coyotes did not turn in the same defensive effort against the Pioneers that they did at the Dome, where they held them to 54 points. They had no luck trying to keep Brett Olson quiet — he scored a career-high 30, with 18 of them coming from behind the arc — and had little luck getting the ball into Trevor Gruis, who finished with six points and dealt with heavy defensive attention throughout.

USD got solid efforts out of Adam Thoseby, who scored 15 points and Trey Norris, who also had 15, but when the Coyotes needed points to stay in the game, everyone was struggling.

An-end-of-the-first-half last-second heave for three points from Denver’s Jalen Love after a USD turnover sent the Pioneers into half leading 38-26, and things didn’t get any better for USD until the very end.

I have no statistical data to back me up, but it seems like the end of the first half has been a persistent trouble spot for the Coyotes this year. I went back and looked at their games and it’s not quite as bad as I expected, but there have been plenty of incidents.

— In the loss to Wyoming in Rapid City, Larry Nance, Jr., hit a 3-pointer with one second to play.

— Against Kansas State, the Coyotes turned the ball over but the Wildcats missed two free throws.

— Against Cal State-Northridge, they gave up a 3-pointer with five seconds left.

— In the first game against Denver, they turned it over but the Pioneers missed.

— In a win over Fort Wayne at the Dome they turned it over, but the Dons didn’t get a shot off.

— In the loss to NDSU, the Coyotes turned it over with 28 seconds left but the Bison missed two shots in the final seconds.

— In the loss to SDSU, Zach Horstman hit a jumper at the buzzer.

While watching the end of the first half against Denver, it appeared that even if the Coyotes missed their final attempt, they were going to avoid taking a double-digit deficit into half. But that was before another turnover, followed by Love’s running 35-footer.

USD football

What I got….through Jan. 24-25 weekend:

Darrius Shepard, 5-11, 170, WR, Blue Springs, Mo.

Clay Fisher, 6-2, 204, S, Millard North Omaha

Tanner Anderson, 6-4, 235, OG, Derby, Kans.;_ylt=AozlLrj0QJuJGl4KH20x6DNIPZB4

Jared Harkless, 5-10, 170, Hot Springs

Chase Glazier, 6-4, 180, QB, Custer

Isaac Armstead, 5-11, 180, Broken Arrow, Okla.

He is current Coyote Will Armstead’s brother

Nick Jensen, 6-6, 280, OL, Vermillion

TJ Steineke, 6-5, 280, OG, Janesville, Wis.

Anthony Vigneri, 5-11, 195, ath, Gross H.S., Omaha

Brandon Godsey, 6-2, 220, LS, Raymore-Peculiar HS (Mo.)


Dylan Jiles, 6-0, 195, S, Richards HS, Oak Lawn, Ill.

Noah Roberts, 6-3, 200, S, Aurora Christian, Aurora, Ill.

Eric Shufford, 6-0, 190, WR/KR, Jr., San Bernardino

Chris Tyler, 6-2, 195, CB, Iowa Western

Mason Ruiz, 6-4, 275, DE, Jr., College of the Sequoias

 Kray Krolikowski, 6-5, 227, TE/DE, Fr., Winner, S.D.

Ethan Finchel, 6-3, 225, TE, Fr., Hull Western Christian

Shay Bratland, 5-10, 205, RB, Fr., Watertown

Ryan Smith, 6-4, 240, TE, Fenwick HS

Ryan’s grandfather is Johnny Lattner, who won the Heisman in 1953 at Notre Dame

Josh Hale, 6-3, 230, Oak Park River Forest HS (Ill)

Tacari Carpenter, 6-1, 170, WR, Richards HS, Oak Lawn, Ill.

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