Growing Together

The USF Dons are poised to make a run for the West Coast Conference title.
by August 13, 2014

Let’s start with the facts.

The University of San Francisco men’s basketball team finished the 2013-14 season with a 21-12 record. It was the most wins for the program in 37 years. Their 13-5 conference mark tied for second-best among West Coast Conference opponents.

Head coach Rex Walters was named WCC Coach of the Year. At the conference tournament, in Las Vegas last March, the Dons came within an Avry Holmes missed three-pointer in overtime to sealing a date with perennial powerhouse Gonzaga in the championship. An automatic NCAA Tournament berth would’ve been within their grasp.

They earned an NIT bid, and lost at home to LSU. Before those final two losses, the Dons had reeled off nine wins in 11 to close the regular season. Now, consider where this team had come from, and the surge becomes all the more thrilling. It’s no coincidence Walters’ WCC colleagues so appreciated the work his staff had done.

Because they knew what had happened in November.

Back-to-back home losses to Nevada (92-90) and Idaho State (93-90, OT), the second of which Walters called “the worst loss of his career.” Then, just before a swing through the hinterlands (Montana), Dons senior point guard Cody Doolin, a veritable bedrock coming off one of the best offensive performances seen last season against the Wolfpack, announced he was leaving the team. The announcement triggered seismic reactions. Another program departure, after the mass exodus following the ’11-12 season? What was going on at the Hilltop?

And yet, there was no time to linger. The Dons were off to Oregon. They tried to run with the Ducks, and were beaten 100-82. A mid-December trip to the Big Apple resulted in a crippling 81-57 defeat to St. John’s, shown on Fox Sports 1.

It later emerged that Doolin had become embroiled in an altercation during practice with a teammate. Fodder for journalists, including Jeff Faraudo of the San Jose Mercury News, who unleashed an article late in the season, asking if the Dons’ late run “masked other issues?”

Many saw one side of the story, and ignored the rest.

And didn’t they miss something remarkable. In the final months of this past season, a team came together, and began playing basketball as well as anyone in the West.

There was the loss at Gonzaga in the opening weekend of conference play. USF was outhustled and outmuscled, while the Zags ran riot. But before they braved the biting cold of Spokane, and the bus ride back, the Dons stayed behind in the McCarthey Athletic Center locker room and hashed out their issues. Everyone felt he could speak up. A mark of a team, growing together.

Of responsibility taken, and the places you can go when that bedrock is set. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Steve Kroner last March, Walters admitted he should have stepped in to stop the early season altercation that sparked Doolin’s departure, that too many players had transferred from the program during his tenure.

And the whole time, Walters and his staff tinkered, and began to get a feel for how they might unleash this team’s considerable talent. They had tried to run with the Ducks in Eugene, to near-disastrous effect. OK. Offensive sets, with Walters’s trademark “Let It Rip” focus upon rapid ball movement and paint touches, became increasingly efficient.

The Dons buckled down on defense and, after those high-scoring, thrilling affairs that marked the early season, they began to impose their will against opponents. No coincidence that late win streak was flecked with opponents’ frustration. Each Don took his defensive assignment personally. Top opposing scorers found no joy. In the last eight conference games, they held opponents under 63 ppg.

Now, just wait for next season.

Gone are steady senior forward Cole Dickerson (team-best 15.1 points) and sophomore point guard Avry Holmes, who transferred to Clemson last April. But four players who started in ’13-14 are back, and they are joined by a very good supporting cast, in addition to six talented newcomers.

There is considerable reason to be excited about these Dons. Junior 6-9 swingman Mark Tollefsen is one of the most versatile players in the country, as well as one of its most electric dunkers. Senior post Kruize Pinkins (12.2 points) became a force in the paint as the season wore on. Senior Matt Glover, whose nickname of “Jumbo” rings out, courtesy of the USF announcer, after he scores during games, will play a vital role running the point. Junior Tim Derksen, a 6-3 wing known for his hard-driving forays into the paint and steady range from deep, will pair with Glover in the backcourt.

They are among the players who finished last season so thrillingly.

It’s what allowed Walters to lean into his microphone in a room at the Orleans Arena, after the loss to BYU, and reaffirm his belief to reporters that his team was the best one at the conference tournament. It rankled feathers, but that’s a frequent response to unflagging belief. Cougars coach Dave Rose told reporters he felt “fortunate” his team had prevailed in that particular game.

Despite the loss, Walters had the Dons stay in Vegas. They took in the final and visualized where they wanted to be next season. Hoisting that trophy, heading to the Tournament. All part of the growth process.

That might just come full circle this season.

“This is my team,” Walters told reporters after that BYU game. “I’m proud of my team. No coach will be prouder of my team. I love this team, I would go to war with them, I’d be in any foxhole with them. I wouldn’t trade any one of my guys for any player involved in this tournament.”

It’s what he tells them before any game. Play for each other. Be the aggressor.

Oh, and the kicker?

“Absolutely—absolutely, let’s have fun.”

SLAM: Last season ended with a trip to the WCC tournament semifinals, where you lost to BYU in overtime. You went toe-to-toe with LSU in the NIT. How did those experiences contribute to this team’s growth?

Rex Walters: It was big for us. It was big to play in those types of games against those types of teams. BYU and LSU, those are high-major body types, with physicality and finality. We were in a WCC semifinal, where you feel you have a chance to win that game and go to NCAA Tournament. So close. That was really, really big for us. It’s something that made our guys more hungry. They see now that we’re good enough to achieve some great things. It was a great learning experience for us.

SLAM: Has that momentum carried over into the offseason?

RW: Our guys have worked hard. Summer workouts, everyone’s in, it’s the most competitive we’ve had it. That says a lot, when you talk about the team we had (in ’11-12) with Rashad [Green], Angelo [Caloiaro], Perris [Blackwell]…that team was very competitive. This team, this year, is a little deeper—a lot deeper, actually. With Angelo and Rashad, we had to fuel the fire with games, we had to separate and divide those two up. They never got to play with each other.

With this current group, we can go 12 or 13 deep. It’s very competitive. Even in the short workouts we’ve had so far, there’s been unbelievable competitiveness. The run from last season has definitely carried over. The younger players got to watch it, and the juniors and seniors have that type of experience now. They’re getting pushed by the younger guys, and the guys who sat out last season.

Our older guys have a better understanding of what we’re doing, but now they’re being pushed. It’s not a walk-over. Today in practice, we skewed the competition with the older guys stacked on one team, and it was one of the first days we saw domination of one team over the other. But they’re still being pushed. Incoming freshmen Frankie Ferrari (Burlingame High’s all-time leading scorer,) Devin Watson (offers from UConn and Oregon State) and Chase Foster (Colorado Class 4A POY as a HS senior) have shown a really good feel. Uche Ofoegbu, Darrell Robertson, Corey Hilliard (transfers from SMU, DePaul and Midland College, respectively) bring versatility, so it’s a great mix.

SLAM: At what point last season could you say that this team really began to “get it”?

RW: I think the loss at BYU (in early February). It re-focused us. We played well, and lost. It really spoke to our group about rebounding, how important that part of the game was. Now, they understood that playing hard wasn’t going to be enough. We had to be really efficient defensively, protecting the paint and rebounding. We got better.

That win at home against Saint Mary’s (on February 20), against whom we hadn’t had a lot of success in recent seasons, was huge. Then, we beat San Diego in the conference tournament quarterfinals. Those two games, where we beat teams we were better than—that we knew we were better than—we didn’t really ‘get’ that until we beat Saint Mary’s. Those games stick out, because we were playing really good basketball.

SLAM: Avry Holmes transferred to Clemson after last season. Does his absence diminish any of the momentum gained at the end of ’13-14?

RW: I think there was always going to be a lot of competition at the point guard spot this season. I just think that both [Ferrari]…and we got really fortunate with [Watson]…there was going to be competition. The way we needed to play last year, Avry was perfect for that. He ran our offense, made shots and was really good at end of the shot clock. We’ll miss that. But these new guys bring a different element.

Jumbo has more of a footing to play point, and he really wants to prove he can do it. It makes for a competitive practice. Today in practice, I thought Glover was fantastic. He really played like a point. That’s exciting for me to see. Physically, he’ll be by far the biggest, most athletic point guard in our league. Obviously, there’s a change with Frankie, who’s a high-feel, pass-first guard who can really shoot. Devin can really score. It gives us…it’s great to look down our bench and have those options. In the past, we might have had one bullet in the holster. Now, we’ve got a couple different guns we can turn to. That’s a nice feeling for a coach.”

SLAM: Last season marked the most wins for a USF team in 30 years. You were on the brink of a shot at an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. That thrilling run late in the campaign was fueled by cohesiveness and self-belief. And yet, the story of Cody Doolin’s transfer seemed to dominate the headlines. Was there a sense that the perception of the program, from those outside of it, didn’t mesh with the reality of the situation?

RW: Yeah. It’s difficult, I’m not a guy that is gonna…reach out to everybody and play the political game, be the news writer’s best friend. I’ll tell the truth. The tough thing about the Cody Doolin situation was, I always want to protect my players. Any guy that transfers, I’ll protect him—not that they necessarily need protection, but I don’t want anything misinterpreted and thereby hurt a guy who’s 21, 22 years old, and about to start his life.

Now, when you do that, it allows rumors to grow. Innuendo. And I can take that. I get paid well to do my job. But it didn’t serve our players well, in that they thought our program had a dark cloud hanging over it. We have great kids in our program, we work hard, we do things the right way in recruiting, our administration supports our players and our staff. It’s a little bothersome, but it united our team.

SLAM: You’ve alluded before to the significance of fostering a specific culture—a feeling of history—within a program. When you played at Kansas, guys like Danny Manning would come back in the summer and hop into pickup games. Does a season like ’13-14 further that process at USF?

RW: It does. Obviously, you have a guy like (former Dons forward) Jerome Gumbs around our guys, or Angelo Caloiaro (2008-12) working out with our guys—those types of guys permeate the feeling we have around here. I’m buying pizzas at Costco for our basketball camp, and there’s people patting me on the back. The players feel it more than I do, people around this city telling them, “Hey, you guys are fun to watch.”

That’s a great feeling in a place like San Francisco, where there’s so many great, and different, programs—professional as well as college. For them to recognize our guys, that we’re doing it the right way…when we’ve taken a more difficult path. We’ve recruited high school kids and developed them. There have been ups and downs, but we’ve always stayed the course, work and grind.

The best testament is that we see the little things adding up. Our guys are great about what they eat, and they monitor each other. As a staff, that makes us proud and happy. They understand that every little bit helps.

SLAM: Even with three months to go until the start of the regular season, do you have a sense of how good this team could be?

RW: We have some things that obviously need to fall in place. Health a big concern, but in terms of this team’s talent, I like it. Chemistry will play a part, guys accepting roles. It’s not necessarily ‘waiting their turn,’ but instead working like heck. Those will be things that they battle. And those are good things to battle, as opposed to in the past, when we had just seven guys in our rotation that could play. Now we’ve got a group of guys that is really talented and versatile. They’re accepting of their roles; they’re around each other all the time. When the season starts, and we suit them up, guys will really have to accept those roles. And if we can do that, we can be really good.