Coming off a three-game losing streak that included two winnable home games against Portland and Denver, San Jose State men’s basketball bounced back with two straight road wins to wrap up a three-game road trip at Saint Mary’s, Washington State, and Idaho and evened its season record to 3-3.
These wins provide positive buzz heading into this weekend’s “Clash of the County” rivalry matchup against Santa Clara, which takes place Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Event Center on the San Jose State campus, the back end of a home doubleheader that follows the 4:30 p.m. women’s basketball game against Saint Mary’s. The game will be streamed online for free at www.livestream.com/sanjosestate and broadcast on two local radio stations: 1590 KLIV for the San Jose State broadcast and 1220 KDOW for the Santa Clara broadcast.
Entering the 119th all-time matchup against Santa Clara, who holds a 79-29 advantage in the series, San Jose State’s last win in the series was on Dec. 23, 2009 in Santa Clara, with a score of 74-68. Should San Jose State win on Saturday, it will be the first season since 2009-10 where both the men's and women's basketball teams at San Jose State beat Santa Clara. Also, since the team moved to the Event Center in 1989, San Jose State has never beaten Santa Clara at the Event Center but did beat Santa Clara at the San Jose Arena (now the SAP Center) on Dec. 1, 1996.
On Sunday, the Spartans beat Washington State 88-76 for their first win over a Pac-12 or any Power Six conference opponent since the 2010-11 season. Five San Jose State players scored in double figures, with Ryan Welage leading the scoring with a season high 20 points. Welage also grabbed a career high 11 rebounds, and Brandon Clarke also reached a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Then on Tuesday, the Spartans beat Idaho 58-49. Welage again led San Jose State in scoring, this time with 15 points. Jaycee Hillsman was the other Spartan to score in double figures, with 11 points, including five points off a perfect free throw percentage.
Watching the Washington State game recorded from the Pac-12 Network and the Idaho game live online, I observed some vast improvements in San Jose State’s play in those two games compared to the two home games that got away, in the four factors in winning a basketball game as head coach Dave Wojcik has described:
1. Taking care of the ball: San Jose State had single-digit turnover numbers against Washington State (eight) and Idaho (nine), after committing 10 turnovers in the loss at Saint Mary’s. In contrast, San Jose State committed 13 or more turnovers each of the first three games, including 17 in the season opener against lower-division West Coast Baptist. Also, San Jose State had positive turnover margins in the past two wins, plus-two against Washington State and plus-eight against Idaho. By limiting turnovers, San Jose State controlled the tempo and increased its offensive opportunities. In fact, Idaho’s assist-turnover ratio was a lopsided 4-17!
2. Grabbing rebounds: San Jose State out-rebounded Washington State 50-39 and Idaho 41-39, with the majority of its rebounds being on defense. In contrast, Denver out-rebounded San Jose State 36-31, and Saint Mary’s also had 31 boards to San Jose State’s 26. Similar to how San Jose State limited turnovers, effective rebounding allowed San Jose State to dictate the pace and have opportunities to produce points. Some crucial plays against Idaho came off putbacks, like a Brandon Clarke layup off two offensive boards that gave San Jose State a 49-47 lead with 5:35 to go. San Jose State never let go of that lead, so in retrospect, that putback was the difference between taking back a lead and letting Idaho have its first lead since the first half.
3. Playing defense: Aside from the positive turnover margins mentioned earlier, San Jose State did much better jobs at not just contesting shots but denying shots too. Not as often could opponents speed right past guards as we saw in the first two home games against Division I competition. Also, Clarke made four blocks and a steal in the last 5:30 of the Idaho game. The steal and first two blocks defended two- and three-point leads and prevented Idaho from catching up and regaining momentum. Idaho also scored zero points in the final 4:30 of the game.
4. Making free throws: San Jose State had free throw percentages above .900 for both the Saint Mary’s and Idaho games. With a season .906 free throw percentage, Hillsman has emerged as the most reliable free throw shooter, so he often is allowed to drive in the paint and take fouls. It reflects well on the players if they can make so many free throws in loud, hostile venues, including against a top-25 team in Saint Mary’s.
Opponent overview: Santa Clara
Santa Clara enters Saturday’s game with a 3-5 record and three-game losing streak. The Broncos followed two losses to Power Six opponents in the Las Vegas Invitational to No. 8 Arizona (69-61) and Vanderbilt (76-66) with a 58-55 home loss to UC Irvine (video replay here) on Wednesday. Similar to San Jose State, Santa Clara’s offense relies heavily on three-pointers; 27 of 59 field goal attempts against UC Irvine were beyond the arc. Despite committing 17 turnovers to Santa Clara’s five, UC Irvine out-rebounded Santa Clara 36-24.
Jared Brownridge had 20 points to lead Santa Clara in scoring, Matt Hauser added 14 points, and Jarvis Pugh had 12 points. However, Santa Clara starters Henrik Jadersten and Nate Kratch went a combined three-of-20 in field goal shooting. Kratch missed even close-range layups, and some of his misses turned into points for UC Irvine that peaked into a 55-45 lead with 7:06 left. Hauser and Brownridge helped rally Santa Clara to a 58-55 deficit, but Brownridge missed two three-pointers in the final minute.
Herb Sendek, coming off 20 mostly winning seasons as a major conference head coach, first at NC State from 1996 to 2006 then Arizona State from 2006 to 2016, is now in his first year as Santa Clara head coach after nine seasons of Kerry Keating. It remains to be seen if he can deliver the success Santa Clara was hoping for, beyond the routine fourth place and lower finishes in the WCC under Keating. While WCC head coaches picked Santa Clara to finish in a respectable fifth of 10 teams in this year’s preseason poll, Santa Clara has yet to make the case. In the Cable Car Classic that opened the season, Santa Clara beat Northern Arizona, who finished last season 5-25, just 67-64 and followed that with a 63-58 loss to a UC Davis team coming off an 11-19 season. The two other wins were over Northern Colorado (10-21 last season) and Sacred Heart (12-18 last season).