If the Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball team (1-3) manages to put together a successful run in this 2002-03 season, then all those promises of raising this team from the doldrums of the loser’s column would be validated.
But the Titans haven’t relished in such glory since ‘92-’93 when they went 15-12, a year highlighted by an 83-82 victory over UNLV.
Back then, San Antonio Spurs guard Bruce Bowen wore number 12 on his Titan jersey and coach Brad Holland was at the helm.
Now led by NBA prospect, Pape Sow, and a slew of raw first time Div. 1 players, the Titans hope to shed the school’s reputation of losing. However, they know that they will venture through the season with their backs against the wall, carrying doubters, critics and a long history of disappointment on their shoulders.
Such adversity doesn’t even faze this year’s squad, because the program has been injected with new life.
“We’re new here, so we’ve blocked out the past,” said 6’4 guard Ralphy Holmes, a sophomore transfer from Allan Hancock JC. “We’re here to start over and to make are own identity. It’s a challenge.”
Holmes along with Anthony Bolton, Zakee Smith and Bron Groomes, round out the junior college transfers that have made the greatest impact already this season, with Holmes, Bolton, and Smith having slipped easily into starting roles and Groomes a lock as a key contributor off the bench.
Amir Bar-Netzer, who head coach Donny Daniels considers the biggest surprise on the team, has earned an early starting position at forward but even he was a walk-on then red-shirted last year.
Four of the five starters had never played a minute of Div. I basketball before the start of this season but that didn’t deter them from setting some pretty hefty expectations.
“Our goal is to win the Big West,” Holmes said. “I think we have the talent to compete with anyone on the West coast.”
Visions of championships are running sky high in Titan Gym and Daniels is quick to bring all of it back to ground level.
“We look at this year as a learning process,” said Daniels who is entering his third campaign as head coach.
The back-to-back five win seasons on Daniels resume are somewhat misleading leaning on the fact that CSUF has been unable to recruit from junior colleges for the past three years. Daniels has mentioned many times he looks at this season like it is his first, because many of the sanctions imposed by the NCAA have been lifted.
If this year is the beginning for Daniels, then the goals he has set for his team are reasonable.
Before the Titans start hanging banners from the rooftops, a double-digit win season is more realistic in his eyes. The last time that happened was in 1998-99 when the team ended with a 13-14 record.
The Titans also need to keep their defensive field goal percentage between 40-46 percent, Daniels said. In the Fullerton’s first two losses in Hawaii, the Titans allowed Texas A&M Corpus Christi and Arkansas-Little Rock to average a combined 54.5 percent from the field.
Finally, the main goal is to bring back a healthy returning team for next year to solidify some type of consistency with the program. The only significant loss due to eligibility would be fifth-year senior Brandon Campbell.
Campbell has struggled with injuries his entire career and walks around practice and before games without a smile mostly due to the fact he rarely is able to participate in games.
The uncertainty and mystery of Campbell’s foot injury hasn’t brought down the morale of the team. The Titans have played tough in the face of deficits this year showing the ability to come back. They hustle and rebound. They play with energy.
“All that depth, energy and athleticism need to translate into wins,” Daniels said. “Every day, every pass, every rebound, every shot, our guys are will learn and hope to not get discouraged.”
If the Titans play the way they did against Morris Brown on Dec. 2, where they defeated the visiting Wolverines by 18, then they have nothing to worry about.
It also helps to have a promising superstar in Sow, a 6-10 250 pound forward from Dakar, Senegal, who began garnering attention from NBA scouts after averaging a little over 15 points and eight rebounds last season to lead the team. Plus, he dropped 36 points against Sacramento State last December. (two points shy of CSUF’s Div. I school record for most points by a single-player in a game.)
“I don’t think about that right now,” said Sow of his chances of playing in the NBA. “If it’s coming, it comes. All I’m worrying about is helping my team.”
Sow, who’s athleticism and big body have scouts drooling over his potential, admits he has struggled with all the attention opposing defenses have shown him early on with double and triple teams; a defensive trend that will continue throughout the year. It has made him even more persistent in accomplishing his goal.
“I want to be the best big man not only in the West but in the entire nation,” Sow said. Not to mistake confidence with arrogance, Sow is all about team basketball and his teammates understand.
“He’s the cornerstone of our team,” Holmes acknowledges, but so does every school on the schedule.
It is no secret the Titans will go where ever Sow will lead them, putting that much more pressure on him to make the right plays at the right times.
“He’s going to have to find different ways to score,” Daniels said. “It’s not going to be that easy for him to score just through the post (because of double teams). He’s going to have to work that much harder.”
Junior Denver Lopez will see time at the point behind Smith, who has surpassed even what Daniels dreamed he would bring to the team. The 6’1 guard is quick and elusive, while dishing out assists. He also penetrates the lane, driving the ball into the big men down low.
“Where I’m from we don’t call no fouls,” said Smith, who spent his childhood on the playgrounds of Philadelphia. “I’m used to the contact.”
Last years point-guard Derrick Andrew will see most of his time at the two, giving him the freedom to get out and make plays.
Other additions include Fedric Holm-Hadulla a 6’2 guard from Germany, who because of a contract agreement with his professional club team in Germany, will not suit up until Dec. 28.
Daniels can’t stress enough that this year is a learning process for his players. Despite the inexperience, the Titans have shown a confident attitude on the floor with flashes of team cohesiveness and a little bit of flair.
But all that promise doesn’t mean anything if in the end the win column still reads zero. The Titans have already thrown that notion out the window showing signs this might be a successful season.
Or will it?
“I’m not trying to predict nothing,” Campbell said. “I’m just here to play.”
And everyone is watching.