Last night, a new era began at Seattle University. Technically, the Redhawks' return to NCAA Division I after an absence of nearly three decades began last year, and Seattle U did in fact play two road games this season before last night's home opener against Fresno State. Nonetheless, the Redhawks' thrilling 85-84 victory marked a new beginning.
Having made the decision to jump back to D-I after dropping down in 1980, Seattle U spent the 2008-09 season caught between the two worlds. The Redhawks squared off against a number of D-I opponents last season, but spent most of the year playing against other teams in similar states of limbo. This season, Seattle U will play a full D-I schedule and will play all of its home games at KeyArena, having first christened its new venue with a New Year's Day 2009 win over Loyola Marymount. Lastly, there's a new coach in charge of the transition after Joe Callero left for Cal Poly and was replaced by Cameron Dollar, a long-time assistant at the University of Washington.
As a result, it was with no small amount of fanfare that Seattle U hosted Fresno State, the strongest foe on its home schedule, in the opener. For a series of two games called "The Elgin Baylor Classic," the university invited the basketball legend and SU alum back to Seattle and named the floor at KeyArena "Elgin Baylor Court." Baylor spoke before the game, and was honored at halftime alongside other greats from the school's time as a basketball power, which is being played up. Even the intro video relies far more on Seattle U's past than its present.
Fortunately, the current incarnation of the Redhawks offered reason for excitement on the court. Seattle U led most of the way, then rallied late after a brief stretch where the Bulldogs realized that (for the most part) the opposition was playing just one player over 6'5". Using full-court pressure to wreak havoc and force turnovers that also turned into easy scores for an offense that struggled at times in set offenses, the Redhawks prevailed 85-84. Sophomore guard Cervante Burrell not only came up with the winning layup with eight seconds left but also subsequently secured a steal that ended the game.
Seattle U is undersized and young, but there's some potential here. It starts with JC transfer Charles Garcia, who was headed to Washington before the school's admissions office denied him entry. Garcia had a preexisting relationship with Dollar, as well as SU assistant Dwayne Canada, so he decided to move across town rather than explore opportunities at other BCS schools.
At this level of play, Garcia's ability is almost overwhelming, both positively and negatively. In a Seattle Times article, Dollar suggested (though he's not quoted directly) that he believes Garcia could potentially become the best pro prospect in the state. That's a high bar, given that UW freshman Abdul Gaddy is a possible lottery pick and Gonzaga welcomes some serious talent, headlined by Elias Harris. That's not even mentioning veterans Quincy Pondexter, Matt Bouldin and Klay Thompson.
Garcia's athletic gifts were on full display last night. The first thing that came to mind is that Garcia, like Nick Swisher in Moneyball, is noticeable. He passes Bill Simmons' test for whether a person who had never seen a basketball game before would pick him out as the best player on the floor. Garcia was at the center of the action, though sometimes by trying to do too much. His line from Tuesday's loss to Portland (30 points, eight rebounds, nine turnovers) may not prove atypical.
The biggest challenge for Dollar right now is how to best deploy Garcia, who is far and away the team's best inside player at 6'10" but also versatile enough to play on the perimeter. Seattle U's guards struggled to get Garcia the ball down low, leading to steals, and Fresno State defenders swarmed him when Garcia did have a chance to post up. The Redhawks had more success in the second half putting Garcia on the perimeter. He's got range at least to 18 feet and handles the basketball well enough to bring it up at times, though he's vulnerable to turning it over. (One oddity: Garcia dribbles predominantly with his left hand, though he is a right-handed shooter. I'm not sure I've ever seen that before.)
The addition of Garcia is a major change for a Seattle U team that played an egalitarian offense a year ago. Senior Austen Powers led the Redhawks with 12.9 points per game, and eight players averaged least 5.9 ppg. Last night, they got similar balance, with five players scoring in double-figures. Senior guard Chris Gweth performed the important role of taking on a scoring load when Garcia rested during the first half (his trip to the bench prompted Fresno State's second-half run), while sophomore Aaron Broussard offered needed perimeter shooting and Burrell scored 16 points by attacking the basket.
Defensively, size will be a huge issue for Seattle U against mid-major opponents like the Bulldogs. 6'5" senior Mike Boxley spent much of the night at power forward, which spaced the floor but presented problems against a Fresno State team that threw out a starting lineup with two 6'10" players and a 6'8" small forward. Besides the obvious shortcomings--the defensive glass and defending the post--the lack of size hurt the Redhawks whenever Garcia had to step up and provide help, because none of the other Seattle U players is a capable defender in the paint.
Ultimately, Dollar was able to mask his team's weaknesses by going small and utilizing quickness to offer pressure. This worked in part because of Fresno State's poor ballhandling. If you're looking for the reason why a Bulldog squad loaded with athletes, including a possible lottery pick in forward Paul George, was picked sixth or seventh in the WAC, this is it. Against a relatively weak schedule, Fresno State is turning the ball over on 26.2 percent of its possessions thus far. In last night's loss, the Bulldogs turned it over 20 times, including eight from backup guard Steven Shepp, who was overwhelmed by Seattle U's pressure.
I couldn't get a great feel for George, about whom draftniks are split. NBADraft.net projects George going seventh overall next June. DraftExpress, by contrast, has him 39th on its list of the top 100 prospects. Chad Ford splits the difference, ranking George No. 27. He finished with 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting and 10 rebounds before fouling out, but George was able to get by on size and athleticism in this matchup. His shot chart would show primarily layups. George was part of the team's turnover woes, coughing it up six times.
I was quite impressed with freshman center Greg Smith. He too benefited from Fresno State's height advantage, but showed some nice moves in the post for a youngster en route to 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting, 10 rebounds and zero turnovers.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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