There was hope that the return of coach Johnson would bring prominence and a post season to the team. It looked like he would deliver, too: He re-recruiting of Carlton Baker and Brett Lilly, recruited a top high school players in Antonio Lawrence, and added two solid JC players in Keith West and Eric Walton.
Plus, with veteran player Brandon Hawkins leading the team—Dreams of challenging the WAC and possibly going to a post-season tourney—NIT, at the very least—seemed possible.
But, boy, did things fall apart. Not placing blame, but it was obvious that Baker never bought what coach Johnson was selling. Lawrence played for the coach, but never really bought into the program, either.
I think coach Johnson, having to deal with adults (the Bulls?!), might have been out of practice in dealing with younger athletes.
Plus, some returning players might have been sour on the departure of coach Barnes. Yes, on paper, it looked good. However, it was a bad cocktail that simply did not mix well.
And the worst-case scenario did happened.
But the team played well towards the end: Great wins against top-ranked Hawaii and Tulsa—Heart breaking loss to the hated Fresno Bulldogs in double-overtime. They were competing each and every night, and they were beginning to believe in themselves.
But wipe that away, right? No returning player who averaged more than 7 points a game. Prized recruit—gone. The versatile Keith West also gone. By all accounts, not the recruiting class that was the stature of just the year before.
On paper, it just doesn't look good for the Spartans, does it?
Most publications have the Spartans finishing at the bottom of the WAC. No player is on the preseason first, second, or third WAC team. In the words of Dr. Smith: "We are doomed!" Right?
I don't think so…
This year's Spartans are a better and deeper team than the one last year. Yes, still a little on the small size, but players are playing their natural position—you won't see a guard playing power forward.
But the great thing about this team is that every player brings something different to the floor, plus every player has an opportunity to show their stuff. None of the players have the huge ego of Lawrence or the bad attitude of Baker (it seems).
As a whole, the unit is tight, they like each other, and they are ready to fight.
It really is coach Johnson's team, so I expect the team will pick up where they left off at the end of last season—playing hard and competing every night.
They will play tough defense, but struggle to score. They will get out-rebounded, but not out-hustled. And, someone will get an opportunity to shine—first team all WAC.
The best thing about this season is who will step up and be that player. D.J. Brown, Eric Walton, Brett Lilly?
Sizing up UOP and the Spartans: (Analysis)
UOP provides a great test for the Spartans. A win on the road would be an upset, and the Spartans come in with a bit of an advantage, since the Tigers have no idea who will be showing up at the Alex Spanos Gym (however, at the EA game, I did see a guy in the stands taking notes.
He was definitely a scout, but for whom?). There will probably be a nice size crowd of 4,000 at the game. Very cozy arena, so noise will be an issue for the Spartans.
Possible Match Up's:
Center: Guillaume Yango (6-8, 240) vs. Eric Walton (6-8, 215)
Advantage: Spartans (slight)
The French born Yango (West Indies) is agile and powerful. He averaged 17 points and 15 boards a game at Southern Idaho JC last year. He is as athletic as Walton, but maybe not as quick. Walton's edge on Yango comes on experience and a new lease on life.
Last year, Walton seemed to have been affected by nagging injuries and the team's soap opera. But in the EA exhibition game, he was a new man. He dominated every aspect of the game—playing against taller (Brewer) and wider (Wiedeman) players.
Forward: Tyler Newton (6-10, 210) vs. Demetrius Brown (6-6, 230)
Tyler Newton will be playing the part of injured Christian Maraker, who is a legitimate NBA prospect. But Newton is not half bad. Tall and lanky, Newton has a nice mid-range game, but he more of a garbage man—aggressive to the boards and seems to position himself nicely around the key.
But I think Brown could simply have his way with Newton. Brown has a more complete game and is the stronger player; he can post Newton up (Newton is not much of a shot-blocker), he can take him off the dribble, and he can force Newton to come out on him when he sets up for an outside shot.
This could be a coming out party for D.J. Brown and a true indicator on our season.
Main Off Guard: David Doubley (6-2, 170) vs. Phil Calvert (6-3 212)
While Maraker remains out, Doubley will be the main man for the Tigers. He is simply the Tiger's best player right now.
An off-guard in a point guard's body, Doubley is always on the attack. Fast and strong, when Doubley goes to the hoop, he is looking to score and not dish off. I'm thinking that coach Johnson will go with the veteran Calvert for this assignment.
Not one on the team is tougher than Phil. He'll never back down from a fight. And guarding Doubley will be a royal rumble. Phil had a tough game offensively against EA, but he is still getting his legs back.
Once he does, then those shots that were rimming out—will start rolling in. Bottom line: If Phil shuts down Doubley, the Spartans win.
It's that simple.
Davis is one of the few returning players for the Tigers. He is another off-guard in a point guard's body, but not as talented as Doubley. He is probably the fastest guy on the team—he likes to lead them out on the break and pull up to shot a three.
He is a streak shooter, but he will mainly shoot threes. If they start to drop—look out. Bim will probably get the call against Davis: Speed on speed.
I don't expect Bim to run the point or be expected to score; however, I do expect Bim's to shut Davis down. Bim seemed faster (if that is possible) and he seemed to play more in control against EA.
He didn't try to do too much, but he sure was a pest on defense.
Myree Bowden 6-1 185 v. Michael McFadden (6-5, 215)
Bowden is slated to play a lot off-guard, but I think he is a more fundamentally sound player than either Doubley or Davis.
Where those players are looking to score; Bowden is looking to contribute. He is a solid leader and player. He reminds me a lot of the old Spartan R.J. Powell. Doubley and Davis may lead the break, but Bowden will set up the half court offense.
McFadden is similar player in that he is so fundamentally sound. He does everything well and really gets everyone involved. I think he will be the point guard for the Spartans until Miller and/or Wilson returns. Then he can move to off guard or small forward or power forward (center?).
Pacific will hit you with some beef in Matt Kemper (6-9, 250) and Miguel Flores (6-8, 240), but they are relatively a small team.
Highly regarded wig players in Marko Mihailovic (Yugoslavia) and Jasko Korajkic (Swedan) are very effective players.
In fact, both could be playing Europe right now. Tom Cockle provides senior leadership and Allen Purnell is also a capable player coming off the bench. Don't be surprised if freshman Michael White gets a lot of minutes.
He played well in the preseason.
The advantage the Spartans have up front will be depth and athleticism. They have a good rotation at the 4 and 5 position. Brett Lilly will be the designated 3-point assassin.
Playing wing again, Lilly seems to be back to his old-form. His defense was simply outstanding against EA. Lance Holloway also had a nice game against EA.
It will be very special to watching him grow up and grow out. The Spartans are a little light in the backcourt (for a change), Kareem Guilbeaux led the team with 6 assist against EA, and he really seemed to grow up from a year. Played more in control and is a better ball handler.
The Spartans caught a break when Maraker went down. But Pacific is a good, good team. And they have one of the top coaches in the West in Bob Thomason (16th season. Wow!).
When Maraker comes back and the team starts to gel, I expect the Tigers to challenge for a Big West title. But until then, they are finding out what the rest of the team can do. The Spartans don't have to play a perfect game, but they do have to play a solid game.
They will have to hit their free throws and limit second shots. They will also have to keep the crowd out of the game. But most importantly—shut down Doubley.
I like our chances—but, again, a win would be an upset (slight).