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Thursday, January 16th, 2014 at 4:51 pm  |  no responses

Energy Bus

The Santa Clara Bulldogs are building toward a conference championship.

by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14

When New Year’s Day rolled around, Santa Clara head coach Kerry Keating called his team together. Forget resolutions, he told them—the Broncos had already made those last summer.

After winning the College Basketball Invitational championship, in thrilling fashion over George Mason last spring, the Broncos bid adieu to a group of seniors who’d riddled the record books. Kevin Foster left as the program’s all-time leading scorer and, alongside the likes of Marc Trasolini and Raymond Cowels III, helped lead the way to 26 wins in 2012-13, the second-most in SCU history. Trasolini and Cowels III were fellow starters 1,000-point career scorers.

A slump would be expected, but Keating decided to settle upon a word that reflected his perception of the 2013-14 season: Build. Dogged work and preparation in the offseason could help dampen the gulf in production. It could serve as a key stepping-stone, generating momentum toward one of the team’s goals, a conference championship.

Jon Gordon’s book Energy Bus was required reading for the whole team. One of Gordon’s chief rules calls for a person to create a word that serves as a condensed mantra, reflecting a goal. Each Broncos player picked his own, and in a team meeting, explained his reasoning. True freshman Jalen Richard picked Ten, since he wanted to do everything 10 percent better; Jerry Brown, a fifth-year senior transfer from Fresno State, who’s entered into the Santa Clara Communication master’s program, chose Preparation.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who stopped through Santa Clara this summer to speak with the Broncos, loved the idea. He told Keating he wished he’d had something like that when he’d played at Duke. The exercise gives insight into a teammate’s character. It helps bring a team closer together.

Keating took down the player nameplates in the locker room and replaced them with those chosen words. When they filtered in before practice, the Broncos were afforded a daily reminder of what they were working toward. During practice at the Leavey Center, the words course across the video screen.

This was the second consecutive summer that Santa Clara had been locked in. The Broncos had seen their 2011-12 season end before March had begun (they lost in the opening round of the West Coast Conference tournament on February 29.) For Keating, it had been one of the most trying times in his coaching career. Foster had missed the final 12 games after he was suspended for DUI; Trasolini had been lost to injury (ACL tear) before the campaign. After starting 8-4, the Broncos dropped their final 18 games, including all 16 in conference play.

So Keating enacted an immediate detox. He gave the team a month to collect themselves, to do anything but basketball. It worked. When they returned in April, the players’ minds were fresh, and they attacked the offseason with zeal. The ’11-12 season had made this program stronger, Keating maintains. The subsequent, steely preparation fueled that charge toward the CBI title.

Now, Keating must build once more. Thankfully, he’s got some impressive pieces assembled to do it. Though some weren’t on that ’11-12 team, they were still affected by it. As Santa Clara sifted through the rubble of that ignominious campaign, several recruits in the class of 2013 committed to the Broncos.

One of them was Jared Brownridge.

There is a tendency, especially in recruiting, to notice the here and now. With all eyes trained on splashy, often-televised announcements, the hours spent by coaching staffs scouting, identifying talent and building relationships can get lost in the thrum. Fans see a freshman, but they often don’t know the story that motivated him to commit to a school.

Brownridge, a 6-2 guard who ranks first among WCC freshmen in scoring at 15.8 points, committed in September 2012, on the heels of that dour season and before the more prosperous, previous campaign had begun. Keating loves that. When he recruits, he’s not just identifying talent, but looking for a specific mindset. Brownridge had it.

They had conversations about community service, about family, and what it means to lead. “His mentality and toughness are about as good as we’ve ever had, for a freshman, and as I’ve ever had, coaching,” Keating says.

Santa Clara was the only school outside the Midwest that recruited the Chicago-based Brownridge (several Missouri Valley Conference teams extended offers), but that’s nothing new for Keating, who counts eight players on his roster that hail from a state other than California. There’s also Yannick Atanga and Emmanuel Ndumanya, who attended high school in California but came from Cameroon and Nigeria, respectively.

Kevin Foster had been signed out of Texas in 2008—and the only real competition Keating had faced was Vanderbilt, who showed some interest, but didn’t extend an offer. Given his prodigious scoring ability, Brownridge has inevitably drawn comparisons to the departed all-time points leader, but Keating tries to maintain a more measured approach. He’s not one to place a player on a pedestal, yet there are times he can’t help but marvel. “He’s special. You only come around kids like this every so often,” Keating says.

Brownridge played AAU for the Illinois Wolves, a national program loaded with Division I talent—Keating counted seven Division I players on their roster. Steve Weemer was Brownridge’s coach at Waubonsie Valley High in Aurora, IL, and Keating credits the former Southern Illinois assistant for teaching Brownridge to “play the right way.” Brownridge moved up to the Waubonsie varsity team as a freshman, and each season looked to implement something new to his offensive arsenal. Like, the dribbling ability to create space and separation. Or adding range to his jumper. Both have been seen in spades this season.

That initiative is shared by his fellow starters in the Broncos’ three-man backcourt, 6-0 junior Brandon Clark and 6-3 senior Evan Roquemore. The trio combines for 61 percent of the Broncos’ total scoring output.

They have led the charge in WCC play, and continued that trend this past Thursday, in a conference road game against Saint Mary’s, when the Broncos allowed the Gaels to charge out to a 29-20 lead. Santa Clara was off its rhythm. Roquemore was in foul trouble. Brownridge had just four points.

But Brownridge is no ordinary freshman. Clark marvels at his motor, and the way he lets the game come to him. “Most scorers want to get their points as soon as the ball tips, but he trusts we’ll get him the ball. We do, and he delivers,” Clark says.

Brownridge was sensational in a back-and-forth second half against the Gaels. He had 19 points for the period, including the Broncos’ final 10. Keating entrusted him with the ball down the stretch. Coming out of the final timeout, with SCU down 55-54 and 5 seconds to play, Keating noticed his players surrounding Brownridge, building him up. Brownridge, for his own part, sidled up to Keating and asked for a few final pointers on the play. Keating chuckles at this, such a very freshman thing to do.

Keating had two Broncos show for the ball before Brownridge cut up from the baseline to midcourt. He received the pass ahead of Gaels defender Jordan Giusti, crossed over to his right, then to his left and, in perfect rhythm, sank a deep three to win the game. It was his 53rd trey of the season (he currently sits at 54.)

He finished with a game-high 23 points against the Gaels, following a career-high 29-point outburst in an OT win over LMU the previous weekend. As of Jan. 10, he ranked eighth in D1 for three-point field goals, and second among freshmen.

Brownridge wears No. 23, and after his game-winner against Saint Mary’s it seemed logical that the Chicago kid had been influenced by a certain winged legend who also had a flair for the phenomenal. But no. A quick search reveals that Brownridge wears No. 23 because of his older sister, Lauren. He’s as humble as they get — when asked about that game-winning shot, Brownridge credited the SCU staff for taking the time to work with him.

That he’s playing right away (32.7 minutes per game, tops on the team) should come as no surprise. In a RealGM article by Dan Hanner this summer, Keating tied for third among college coaches with at least five years of DI coaching experience based on the average game time they afforded freshmen. In the past five seasons, freshmen have accounted for 27 percent of Santa Clara’s total minutes.

Keating raved about Brownridge’s summer, and called the four-man freshman class, which also includes Ndumanya, Richard and Jarvis Pugh, one of the best he’s had. They bought in to the Energy Bus dynamic, as did the rest of the team.

Already, it is having its intended effect. On the night before Santa Clara’s November 2 pre-season game against San Diego Christian, Brandon Clark sat in his apartment, wondering what to do. In previous years, he’d have fired up his video game console, but this time, he sat and reflected.

Clark’s word is focus, so he decided to do just that. He visualized the upcoming game, breaking it down into manageable parts. He prepared for his role, which would be to facilitate the offense. The next day, he went out and compiled 17 points and 7 assists in a big win. Clark, who in two seasons had never scored 20 in a game, has twice crested 30 points in ’13-14, becoming just the 13th player in program history to accomplish that feat. He is scoring 20.7 points in conference games, second-best among WCC players. (Brownridge is fourth at 18.2 points.)

Before this season, Clark had made just five starts. Now he leads Santa Clara in scoring (17.4 points.) He is attacking the rim and getting to the foul line, where he is an 84 percent shooter. Almost a quarter of his points have come from free throws. He’s hitting 40 percent of his threes.

Clark finished with 20 points on 8-14 shooting in the game against Saint Mary’s, many of which came during a strong start to the second half. But when he saw Brownridge heating up, he ceded the spotlight. “My job is to give the team what we need,” Clark says.

He’s also embracing a greater leadership role. Against Saint Mary’s, Clark pulled the team together in the waning moments. “I told the guys to lock in, that we were going to win this game,” Clark says. “We’d come too far, prepared too well. Then coach Keating drew up a great play, and Jared hit a great shot. I knew he was going to make it. That’s the kind of trust we have in each other.”

Clark has upped his distribution by nearly an assist per game (3.6 this season). He has better than a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. For long stretches of games, he is tasked with instigating the Santa Clara offense.

Becoming a floor general has been perhaps the most taxing process for Clark, who had expected to begin the season playing off the ball. But a lower back injury suffered in preseason sidelined Roquemore, the de-facto point guard, who missed the first four games. Since returning, Roquemore has shown flashes of his all-around dynamism—see: impossible range on his threes—but he admits that his back isn’t quite back to 100 percent.

Last month, Roquemore became Santa Clara’s all-time leader in assists, and he poised to make a run at several more records before his senior year is through.

While he was out, Roquemore took it upon himself to lead. He saw Clark pressing during practice; he understood that the junior’s errant passes stemmed from a feeling that he had to do it all by himself. “I know I had a duty to my team, even when I was hurt,” Roquemore says. “I’d show [Clark] things I see when I’m off to the side. Having three years of experience, I’ve seen a lot of stuff to help out.”

“That helped me a lot,” Clark says. “It gave me more of a leadership responsibility. I learned to let the game come to me, and trust the guys. I think it’s paid off.”

This is the kind of blend—veteran leaders helping in instruction, youngsters pointing to a promising future—that helps maintain momentum on an upward climb. It can attract other players to a cause.

That starting backcourt’s chosen words are Focus (Clark), Resilience (Brownridge), Complete (Roquemore). They are a constant reminder of what it takes to build something special, which may have been Keating’s point all along.

The drive is becoming contagious. Keating says that Pugh and Ndumanya, who are redshirting, are often the best players in practice. They are embracing that particular process, as did Nate Kratch, a talented forward from Minnesota, who redshirted a season ago. Kratch could have come in and played a couple hundred minutes as a true freshman, Keating says, but now he stands the chance to play a thousand minutes as a redshirt senior.

Brownridge will be the lightning rod for the future. Keating thinks he’ll continue to make a case as not only as one of the better freshmen in the conference, but also in the country. The scary thing? Keating knows—and Brownridge agrees with him—that the guard still has a long way to go. “I think he can take this program to new heights,” says Keating.

For now, Brownridge will continue to learn, and try to help boost the Broncos 10-9, 3-3 WCC record. He’ll try and rebound from a tough loss at Pacific, in which he struggled to 7 points on 1-7 shooting. Vets like Roquemore will help lead him. “I just try to breed confidence in him,” Roquemore says. “I let him know what might be coming, so he’s ready for it.

“Then, he goes and makes plays.”

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