Seattle U fifth-year coach Cameron Dollar entered the 2013-14 season facing a unique set of expectations: Understandably low for a team coming off an 8-22 record the season before, and at the same time understandably high for a team with one of the deepest and most talented rosters in a Western Athletic Conference weakened by summer realignment.
So far, so good.
As the calendar turns to 2014, the Redhawks (8-5) have already matched last season's win total and are one of just two teams in the WAC with a winning record heading into conference play.
Dollar recently sat down to evaluate his team's performance ahead of Saturday's WAC opener against conference newcomer Missouri-Kansas City:
REDHAWK NATION: What's your overall impression of the team as you move from nonconference to conference play?
CAMERON DOLLAR: The team has been doing good. Guys have gelled together. I think it's good to see guys that have been in the program really take ownership of it and take it over. Clarence Trent's (10.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg) leadership and the mindset he brings toward defense and rebounding has been great to see, and consequently he's been rewarded offensively. His shot selection has led to him shooting the ball really well and making plays and playing well consistently. He's been one of our best players. Most importantly, he's been one of our best leaders.
Our bigs have continued to develop. Shore (Adenekan), Deshaun (Sunderhaus), (Jack) Crook, (William) Powell ... I'm pleased with their development. (Jarell) Flora has been steady, and obviously (Isiah) Umipig is playing well. It was good to get Emerson (Murray) back and let him get his feet under him. Now we have good guard depth.
As a team, I feel like our guys have grown to where they're playing and thinking as a collective unit. They're playing for each other, defending, rebounding. We've had a lot of games where we've played the right way. We've turned some things that used to be weaknesses into strengths.
Did the teams gel together faster than you anticipated, or are they right about where you thought they'd be at this point?
You know, I really don't put any expectations on it. It's something that has to happen, and you know it's gonna happen, but I wouldn't say I pinpointed or targeted a time when it would come. We've just got good dudes. We have good guys following a good leader, and when you have that, you give yourself a chance to be good.
What areas need the most improvement?
I think we're a good rebounding team, but we can be a dominant rebounding team. I don't think we really just go and put the wood on everybody and just take that thing and make it like, "Whoa, these are guys serious." So that's something I think we can improve.
We can improve on our passing -- getting guys the ball on time and on target. We're a willing passing team, but it's not always purposeful, where you're passing with a purpose of setting guys up for good shots. And that's just another level of basketball IQ and gamesmanship; that game within a game. You made a pass, yeah, but you really could have made a better one that led to a better shot.
So those are two of the biggest areas of improvement. And it's not for not wanting to do it. The guys are trying and they're working really hard at it.
There have been times when you've implemented a full-court press and it creates turnovers and leads to big runs and comeback wins. So one might ask: Why aren't you pressing all the time, or at least pressing more often?
One thing I've learned about coaching is that no matter what you're doing, you'll always get people who want you to do something else. (Laughs) Well, there are times when you use the press and times when you don't. Especially with the new rules, you have to be more selective about when you use it. I can say that it's worked when it's worked because of when it was put on, and just because it works at times doesn't mean it would be successful all the time. And if it working in one area, it's probably taking away from other areas.
Let's say we pressed all the time. Then I'd have to rotate Isiah out of the game more often because he can't play 35 minutes a game pressing that way. We used to press more, and then you'd hear complaints about me subbing too much. I mean, if we could play six guys and press for 40 minutes, I might do it. But there's a give and take with everything you do.
Last season you lost a lot of close games. This season you're finishing more of those and coming out of top. What's been the difference?
The No. 1 thing is just players making plays. Sometimes you just have to go through it. You go through it a few times being on the wrong side of it, and that really teaches you to value each possession and value preparation. A lot of things, when you're inexperienced, you don't quite get it yet no matter what a coach is telling you. But then you go through it and it's like, "Man, that one free throw really did cost us," or "That one box-out really did play a role." You see how one play really does make a difference and it teaches you to value possessions.
A lot was expected of Isiah coming into the season. How has he responded?
Honestly, while I knew Isiah (19.9 ppg, 4.2 apg) had a skill set, I don't put a whole lot of high expectations on what someone will do with their skill set. I've been pleased with what he's been able to do offensively. He's continuing to round out his game as far as setting guys up. I'm pleased with his growth in that area. And defensively, his activity level, the amount of plays he's making, has climbed from Game 1 to Game 13. He's making plays on both sides of the ball.
Talk about Shore Adenekan making the transition from junior college to the Division-I level.
It's always a difficult transition for JUCO kids coming in, and especially for somebody like Shore (5.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) who's being thrust into the starting lineup. But he's continuing to develop and really play the game the right way. He's focused on defending, rebounding and being a force inside. His shot-blocking is coming along, and his scoring will continue to progress as he plays more. I'm pleased with how hard he's been working.
Even when Shore starts, sometimes you look at the box score and he only played five minutes. What's going on with him on those nights?
It's not necessarily something he's doing wrong, we just have other guys that play, too. Deshaun (9.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) plays the four, Clarence plays the four sometimes. When you're not playing, sometimes it's just because other guys are playing well, not because you're playing bad. We've got good depth, and you can only put five guys out there, so sometimes he won't play a lot, and sometimes he will.
Before the season started, you talked about Jarell Flora (9.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg) expanding his game beyond just being a shooter. How has that been coming along?
Flora's been doing really good. The biggest thing we've been on him about, similar to Isiah, is his defense. And he's evolving from a guy that can not only guard his guy, but who can talk and be active defensively. He's been getting in there and rebounding more. He's been doing a good job playing within himself.
Sunderhaus was pretty much a full-time starter as a freshman, but this year he's mostly coming off the bench and has had some big games. What was behind the decision to bring him off the bench?
It's not an individual deal for Deshaun, it's more about how it works out for the team. He's been playing well, whether he's coming off the bench or starting. He's been doing a good job scoring inside and blocking shots.
One player I find particularly intriguing is (6-6 redshirt freshman) Emmanuel Chibuogwu. He hasn't been playing much (8 mpg, 8 DNP), but when he does get on the court, what kind of role do you see for him?
Manny is a versatile guard. He's got good skills, good size, and potential to be a really good rebounder who can defend three spots. He's just going through the same process that young guys go through. Flora went through the same thing. He's developing and earning playing time. It doesn't mean it's a negative if he isn't playing a lot, it just takes time. And there's nothing wrong with that. Just keep getting better.
You lost your first three games on the road before picking up a couple of road wins. Right now your road record is 2-4 going into conference. Is that a concern?
I would say winning on the road is about giving yourself a chance to win and not beating yourself. Your margin for error is slim on the road. Bad shots, turnovers, giving up easy buckets ... if you minimize those things, you give yourself a chance to win. It's just about doing all the right things and getting better with each game. Taking care of the ball, taking good shots and playing together will give you a chance to win.