On a recent Thursday night, during a game against Saint Mary’s, Mark Tollefsen uncoiled his 6-9 frame and rose up for a rip-roaring dunk off a three-quarters-court lob. So emphatic was this jam, it was featured as the No. 8 play on SportsCenter’s Top 10.
But Tollefsen, a redshirt-sophomore forward for the University of San Francisco, didn’t see his highlight right away. There was still work to be done. Within minutes of the Dons’ 73-62 victory, which snapped a 17-game losing streak against their cross-Bay rival, he was back on the War Memorial Gymnasium court, hoisting jumpers with student manager German Srulovich.
Tollefsen has done this after every game for three years, shedding his jersey for a baggy performance t-shirt and shorts. Sometimes, USF coach Rex Walters will look up from his post-game radio interview at the scorer’s table, and there’s Tollefsen, shuttling this way and that, rising and shooting to the clean-up tune of plastic bottles being crinkled and seats slamming down.
“Shots I miss in a game, I can shoot again and knock down and get my confidence back,” Tollefsen said after practice on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “It clears my head. I do it if I have a good game, but after losses I really want to get extra workouts in and own the day.”
Back to the dunks for a moment more. The Saint Mary’s exploit went viral, but Walters—and anyone who’s closely followed Bay Area basketball in recent years—knows that this is nothing outside of the norm when it comes to ‘Tolly.’ “I guarantee you, two to three times a week during practice he has a SportsCenter play of the day,” Walters says over the phone. “He had a dunk the other day where he rocked the cradle, and made it look so easy, and it was a dunk on somebody. I have to put my game face on and not react, but everyone’s kind of looking around. It’s just one of those things.”
During his time at USF, Tollefsen has played as a center and power forward, but Walters says that this season the Dons staff came to the realization that Tollefsen is a 3, “pure and simple.” The explosiveness showcased on a near-nightly basis hints at his versatility. This is the type of kid that Hall of Fame NBA coach Don Nelson would’ve watched, cigar in hand, and called a quintessential point-forward.
Tollefsen is one of the best ballhandlers on the Dons. He’s averaging 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and a block per game, while hitting 54 percent of his shots. He’s 39 percent from three for his career. In the Dons’ final two games, wins at Pepperdine and LMU, he accumulated 10 assists against just 2 turnovers.
Walters can stick him on to an opponent’s top perimeter player, as he’s done against West Coast Conference foes including LMU’s Anthony Ireland, BYU’s Matt Carlino (who’s 6-2) and Tyler Haws (6-6), Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge and USD’s Johnny Dee.
For Tollefsen, whose foot speed resembles that of a guard, it’s simply a new challenge. He relishes them, and often sacrifices his offense to complete the task at hand. “Whatever helps the team—I’m there,” he says.
“That’s just in his makeup,” Dons junior guard Matt Glover said after a Jan. 2 home win over LMU, during which Tollefsen had repeatedly stifled Ireland in a 75-61 win. “If that’s his assignment, he’s getting it done.”
The performance against Dee two weeks later may have been the most impressive of the bunch. In the second half against the Toreros, Tollefsen chased Dee this way and that, through the sharp-shooting guard’s endless series of cuts and curls off of screens.
When Dee did catch the ball, Tollefsen was there with a hand in his face. After hitting four three-pointers in the first half, Dee went 0-3 from the field the rest of the way. Threat: stemmed. USF won the game on a last-second jumper from sophomore point guard Avry Holmes.
Tollefsen will request video clips of potential assignments ahead of games, then head to his room and study those players’ tendencies and habits on his iPad. “I love this game, so watching anything basketball is just fun for me,” he says. He even incorporates some of the best moves he sees into his own offensive arsenal.
USF has won its last five games, and nine of 11. They’re 20-10 (13-5 WCC), the second 20-win season of Walters’s six-year tenure. (2011-12 was the other.)
There are a host of reasons for the surge, many of which were set in motion back in late November, when senior point guard Cody Doolin left the team. After a brutal weekend stretch that included close home losses to Nevada and Idaho State, Doolin supposedly became embroiled in an altercation with a teammate during practice. (Doolin remains enrolled at USF, and is scheduled to graduate with a degree in business this May. It has been reported that he will head to UNLV next season with hopes of recouping a final season of eligibility.)
Doolin’s departure sent USF scrambling. Sophomore Avry Holmes shifted from shooting guard to running the point. Walters tinkered with lineups for more than a month. After a rough loss at Gonzaga in the conference’s first weekend, he settled upon a starting rotation. Kruize Pinkins, a 6-7 junior college transfer, came in at center, shifting Tollefsen to small forward. Steady senior Cole Dickerson remained at the 4.
“Our guys are playing despite not having a lot of reps at their new positions,” Walters said after one of the first games with the new rotation. “Mark’s gotten very few reps at the three. But after the Gonzaga game, we decided that this was a route we needed to go. Our guys are 6-7 (Pinkins), 6-7 (Dickerson) and 6-9 (Tollefsen). We don’t have the 6-11 freak body type. But the switch gives us better paint protection, rebounding, shot blocking and length. You just can’t teach length, and that’s what I like about it. You have to guard our forwards everywhere.”
The shift back to the wing meant Tollefsen was learning new routes on the fly, mid-season, despite limited practice time. He’s accessed video clips of different players around the country to better learn his new position. Firing up Kevin Durant’s exploits on YouTube remains a favorite pastime. “He’s a helluva player, and he’s tall and lanky, like me,” Tollefsen says. “He plays on the wing, but he’s really a shooting guard/point guard. I can pick up stuff from him.”
Tollefsen likes to be in the gym, working on something new. Walters’s offense system emphasizes motion, facilitated with flurries of passing around the perimeter and into the post. Flexible options thrive. Walters says that every so often, you’ll see this light go on in Tollefsen’s head, when he colors in another shade in the spectrum of his potential.
There’s this uncanny defensive ability where he lets the man he’s guarding get past him off the dribble. After spotting him a step or two, Tollefsen recovers from out of nowhere to swat the ensuing shot into oblivion. Walters shakes his head. He’s not a big fan of the approach, yet it falls into a list of reasons why he’d throw Tollefsen’s hat in the ring for conference defensive player of the year.
“There’s so many things he does that you just can’t teach,” says Walters. “I’ve never had a player with that combination of size, feel and athleticism. As he stays healthy and keeps getting better, he’ll continue to find out things he can do—that he doesn’t even know about yet.
“To me, that’s pretty exciting.”
Tollefsen isn’t sure, but he thinks his first word was “ball.”
He had one in his crib, and quickly fell in love with the game. When Space Jam came out, Tolly, then in preschool, divided his time between shooting jumpers and racing into the house to watch his favorite player, Michael Jordan, fly on the screen.
He loved heading to basketball camps, where he could shoot to his heart’s content.
Even during middle school, he stayed a step ahead. His coach through elementary and middle school worked as an assistant with the nearby San Ramon Valley High varsity team, and he implemented sets used by the Wolves. When Tollefsen began his San Ramon Valley career, he became a star for a team loaded with talent.
Walters had just one scholarship for the 2015 class, but he wanted to spend it on a center. “We needed a 5—and Mark’s not a 5,” Walters says. He’d seen Tollefsen during the July evaluation period in 2010, and was familiar with his AAU team, Lakeshow. He became intrigued by this skinny kid’s ability to run, shoot and attack the basket.
As the summer wore on, Walters wasn’t sold on of the big men he was pursuing. Then, during a circuit of Bay Area high schools, he headed to an open gym at San Ramon Valley. Something clicked as he watched Tollefsen run riot during the series of scrimmages.
Within minutes, Walters had one of his assistants on the phone. “This was the kind of guy we want—long, athletic, can shoot it, has a good feel and can cover ground. I said, We need to get this guy.”
Walters ratcheted up his recruitment of Tollefsen, who visited the USF campus, taking a tour and playing in open gyms. He was also considering San Jose State and UC Irvine—he’s a beach-going guy, so Irvine’s proximity to Newport’s sandy scene appealed—but in the end, USF won out. He took an official visit to the Hilltop and committed. He could enjoy the bustle of San Francisco, with the option of suburban quiet in his Danville home just a half hour away. His parents and grandparents could come to all his games.
Walters stayed on Tollefsen throughout his senior year, stressing the importance of improving his rebounding and putting on weight. If he didn’t, there was a very good chance he would have to redshirt.
Tollefsen says he entered USF weighing “a buck 75.” Going up against the likes of Angelo Caloiaro and Cole Dickerson in the post during fall practice, he got banged around. After a few scrimmages, Walters felt it would be best if he took the redshirt. Tollefsen agreed.
He quickly learned that in order to succeed at this level, he would need to bolster his work ethic. Caloiaro, a Bay Area kid like Tollefsen, helped show him the ropes. Tollefsen embraced the grind of that first season, confident that it would pay off in the ensuing years.
By the following spring, he’d begun to make serious progress. “I knew I had to get so much better to be able to contribute, and be successful, at the college level,” he says. “I’ve improved upon my toughness. In high school, I was a finesse guy. I’m still a finesse-based buy, but when it comes down to it, if there’s a loose ball or a tough rebound, I’m going after it.”
Putting on weight isn’t easy for Tollefsen, but he approached the task with diligence. “His metabolism is so fast, and he’s not a big eater,” says Walters. “But we got him on a weight program, and he’s pushed more weight during workouts. As coaches, we’re always greedy—we always want more—but he’s done a good job.”
Midway through Tollefsen’s redshirt freshman season, Walters decided to simply put his best players out on the court. Dickerson had the four spot locked down, which meant Tollefsen, who was then coming off the bench, started at the 5. He was out of position, but not entirely unfamiliar with manning the post. At San Ramon Valley, he’d switch from the wing to the block during offensive sets to exploit mismatches.
Walters drew up plays to get him shots off of movement. With his length and athleticism, he often made an impact. After posting 7.2 points and 3.0 rebounds in just 19.8 minutes in his first season, Walters felt he deserved a spot on the conference All-Freshman team alongside teammates Avry Holmes and Tim Derksen.
He continued his momentum into the summer. Tollefsen boosted his weight to 210 pounds. Even now that he’s back at small forward, Tollefsen will still shift over to the 4 after certain substitutions. He has that rare quality to make the switch look seamless. And every so often, he’ll pull off the remarkable, that light Walters spoke of flashing once again.
The only games USF has lost in WCC play this season have come against the perennial “Big Three” of Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU, which finished first, fourth and second in the final standings, respectively. They’ve pushed the Bulldogs and Cougars in recent losses.
All of which made the win over Saint Mary’s, Tollefsen dunk included, all the more emphatic. It was followed by three more wins in a row. It gives you the sense that this team is primed for a serious run toward the postseason.
In sixth grade, Tollefsen was playing for four or five different teams, and he began to feel a burned out. He decided to take a break from basketball in seventh grade, focusing instead on baseball.
But even then, it was tough to stay away from the game for very long. So he enrolled in a free throw contest. As he passed successfully through the different levels—community, section, regional, then, finally, on to state—Tollefsen found himself heading to Fresno High School, a title on the line.
Then he got sick.
The night before the final competition, Tollefsen came down with a bad case of the flu—throwing up, the whole awful head-swimming shebang. He couldn’t sleep a wink, but when the time came to head out in the morning, off he went to the gym.
There were kids are warming up at baskets to his right and left, but Tollefsen perched himself up in the stands, a hand covering his eyes. He wondered if he could muster the strength to stand up—let alone hoist a series of shots.
But the time came to begin, and Tollefsen got up and shuffled over to his spot. He was going to get this assignment done.
He hit 24 out of 25 shots for the title.
“That was pretty cool,” he says.
Now there’s a chance for another title. This week, the Dons will head to Las Vegas for the WCC tournament as the No. 3 seed. They’re one of the hottest teams on the West Coast, steeled from a difficult season and fully aware that if they take their foot off the gas pedal, even for an instant, another team in this monster of a league could send them packing.
They’ve grown together as a group. After that crushing loss at Gonzaga on the first weekend of conference play, they hung behind in the McCarthey Athletic Center visitor’s locker room and talked through what was going wrong. A confidence emanates from that level of trust and ownership. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that there’s just one senior on this team.
There’s a very real sense that these Dons might just nab the conference championship and earn that automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Now that would be pretty cool.