SJSU men’s hoops preview: A good start for Wojcik, but wins will be hard to find

San Jose State opens its first campaign in the Mountain West Conference by starting over.

A new coach, a roster with mostly new faces, a new conference, and a new bag of money to play with for the future (allegedly). Add to that likely new facilities that are on the way, and it could mean moderate success three or four years down the road.

The Spartans open next week with a pair of exhibitions at home, Monday against D-II Cal State Monterey Bay, and then Wedensday against Pacific Union.

This season is going to be about grinding it out. The Spartans are still woefully behind the rest of its new conference in every respect, and when 2014 rolls around, they will likely find that out the hard way. This is a team that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since Olivier Saint-Jean (now Tariq Abdul-Wahad) played for them in 1996, and this year isn’t looking the year that streak ends.

A schedule with few favors

By most team’s standards, San Jose State’s schedule isn’t so bad. The early season features just one team that made the tournament last year (James Madison at the NIU Tournament), and just four teams with winning records last year. Clearly, the Spartans can build some confidence and win games in the first 12 contests of the season. The Spartans will take on Milwaukee (8-24 last season) and Northern Illinois, which won just five games last year and hasn’t sniffed a winning record in seven years. Westminster (Utah) and Pacifica shouldn’t be on any Division I team’s schedule, but sure, why not.

A visit to Houston figures to be the hardest early season contest.

Winnable games in the nonconference schedule: Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, UC Davis, Pepperdine, Cal State Fullerton, Portland, both non-Division I games.

Likely losses: Weber State, Houston, James Madison, Santa Clara.

The revamped squad and early season cupcakes could easily be riding a wave of confidence  — and a winning record — into the conference play if this team plays its cards right and proves the naysayers wrong.

The problem for the Spartans is that nothing they do before the new year means anything. On January 1, they open Mountain West play at home against Nevada, and everything likely be down hill from there.

There are no less than 10 conference games you can probably put in the loss column right now — the home and homes with New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah State, and Colorado State, at Boise State and at home against UNLV. The Mountain West has a lot of talented teams, and San Jose State is in Year 1 of trying to build a competitive team. Especially a matchup against a talented Rebels squad, even at home, is not going to end well for the Spartans.

If this team wins any of those games, it will be among the biggest upsets in conference this year.

The saving grace for San Jose State is that they only see UNLV and Boise State once each. Imagine being in this type of rebuilding year and having Utah State’s schedule, in which they will have to play San DIego State, UNLV, New Mexico, Colorado State and Boise State twice.

The Spartans were picked to finish dead last in conference by the media, and rightfully so. There’s very little to get excited about considering last year’s team was just 9-20 last year, falling apart after leading scorer James Kinney was put on the shelf for behavioral reasons.

Conference play has winnable games, too: Air Force was picked second to last in the conference, and Nevada appears to be in decline. Fresno State an Wyoming are mediocre teams, but expecting to beat either one would be a massive overreach for the Spartans.

This isn’t going to be a tournament team. The conference schedule simply won’t allow it.

Babes in the Woods

The best thing that could have happened after last year is to make a clean break. And that’s precisely what happened.

Coach Dave Wojcik is a good starting point for this squad, and he’s got a good, young base to start. Only four players are back, including senior Chris Cunningham and 7-foot-1 post Mike VanKirk, who played sparingly last year and needs to bulk up from a meager 240 pounds.

Getting Rashad Muhammad and Jalen James are the obvious big gets of last year’s signing class, the type the previous coach George Nessman could never have pulled together. Both were three star recruits from out of state, Muhammad coming from Las Vegas Bishop Gorman as the touted younger brother of of T’Wolves first-round pick Shabazz Muhammad, and James was a national top 50 point guard recruit.

But he also hit Texas hard and may have walked away with some gems. Isaac Thornton, a 6-foot-3 guard from San Antonio Sam Houston, was a leading scorer on a talented team and 7-footer Mathew Pollard played for a Houston prep school and Kashmere High before that. With any luck, he has found a couple of key bench players this season.

But the overarching theme is inexperience. There are six freshmen on the team and four more fresh faces on the roster.

Chris Cunningham will be the team’s veteran presence, which is fitting considering he’s the only senior on the roster. He averaged 9.0 rebounds per game last year and about 10 points per game; he’ll need to build on that for the Spartans to be competitive. D.J. Brown is also back, and will be looked to for leadership.

The one advantage to all of this? No one knows anything about this team, and expectations are subterranean. There are few good scouting reports out there, which gives them an element of surprise. Whether that will translate into a win or two is another story, but it’s there.

New coach with a different approach

Wojcik was brought in to make the changes needed to make this team viable in the Mountain West. That’s a marked difference from the previous administration.

George Nessman’s job was to do a lot with the least of almost any team at the NCAA D-I level. Considering what he had to work with — an office in the parking garage on 10th Street, no permanent locker rooms, no practice facility, a small budget for everything including assistants — his 8-year caretaker tenure as head of the program can be considered a reasonably successful one. That he even led the team to a winning season is a minor miracle.

But more is going to be expected now. And the reality is that Nessman’s recruiting was substandard even with the bad hand dealt to him (he needed a high profile transfer in Adrian Oliver to find success, and even with 17 wins in 2009-10, that team could have easily won more.) AD Gene Bleymeier says many of the needed improvements are on the way, and the new coach — a former Boise State assistant — has never been an assistant to mediocrity.

Much like his team of freshmen and JC transfers, he’s still kind of an unknown quantity;  after all, this is his first head coaching gig in more than 20 years in the business. He was a key part of Leon Rice’s staff with the Broncos, which have emerged as a basketball program in recent years. If he can bring some of that magic to San Jose, the future might be bright.

He’ll have some financial backing, and he’s built a good team to start considering the tire fire San Jose State basketball has been in the past. If they can survive the initial lumps of this season and find some talent to build around going forward, this can hopefully be a stable team, and with more luck, a decent one.

Goals should be …

— Growth and improvement: This is a young team that has the deck stacked against it. The goal this season for Wojcik should be to keep his touted freshmen moving forward, and not focused on losing. Coaches may not like having to settle for moral victories like making good teams sweat a little and not getting blown out night in night out, but that may be the best the Spartans can do as they continue to build toward regular relevance.

— Keep everyone after the season: San Jose State has always had a transfer problem; if you’re going to be using D-II quality facilities, might as well be trying to win at the D-II level, after all. Many of the improvements are still months and years away, and that may be incentive for talented players to try their hand elsewhere. Wojcik’s job is going to be not only to get the most out of them, but to keep them from bolting to other schools, be it better programs of lesser ones.

— Hope the influx of money turns San Jose State into a reasonable choice: Right now, it’s not. There’s still no permanent locker room for either basketball teams, laughable facilities and sparse crowds on a nightly basis, even for marquee matchups (when they even come to the Event Center.) The administration needs to make good on its promises to improve San Jose State’s program as quickly as possible, that way, when Wojcik uses it in his recruiting pitch, it isn’t just another hollow promise. Right now, the only good way to bring the program up is to throw money at it.

With the improvements will come recruits who can play, and following that a chance at winning. It’ll never be more than that, but is has to be better than the setup in previous years, where the Spartans had both arms tied behind their backs and were being beaten about the head and shoulders by better-funded programs.

Predicted record: 8-23 overall, 3-15 Mountain West Conference, out in first round of MWC tournament (record counts games against Pacifica College and Westminster.)


MWC Roundup: San Jose State women’s hoops win preseason opener

William Jessup hung around, but ultimately coach Jamie Craighead’s debut on the bench of San Jose State was a winner as the Spartans beat the Warriors 104-76 on Tuesday night in a game that counts for little more than a warmup for the regular season.

Jasmine Smith had a double-double, getting 18 points and 19 rebounds and Ta’Rea Cunnigan added 19 points and played an integral role in keeping the scoring going in the first half.

San Jose State’s Rebecca Woodberry led all scorers with 23 points, going 8 for 13 from the field and 4 for 7 from 3-point range.

The real fun begins for San Jose State next Friday against D-II San Francisco State at home.

Read more about the game here.

Around the conference

— Congratulations, San Jose State offense, you can add got a defensive coordinator fired to your list. Wyoming canned defensive coordinator Chris Tormey on Tuesday , reports, after the Cowboys gave up 103 points over the last two games, losses to archrival Colorado State and to San Jose State, and have generally been awful this season.

At 4-4 and with games against Fresno State, Boise State and Utah State all looming after their bye week, the Cowboys have to find a way to stop the bleeding on defense if they want to be bowl eligible. They need to win at least one of those to be 6-6 (assuming they beat Hawaii also.)

D-Line coach Jamar Cain takes over as defensive coordinator for Wyoming.

— Spartans star quarterback David Fales missed practice on Tuesday with an illness, the Merc reports. His status for Saturday’s game is not in doubt: He will play.

— If it wasn’t enough that San Diego State is opening up its kicker position to competition, Fresno State is too. Well, only on kickoffs, reports Robert Kuwada of the Fresno Bee, which will be between punter Garrett Swanson, who handled said duties last year, and freshman kicker Colin McGuire, who has been doing it this year only 12 touchbacks in 52 kickoffs this season and none in the last two games.

if there’s one easy and obvious weakness for the Bulldogs, it’s kickoff coverage: Fresno State is allowing 26.3 yards per return, which ranks 117th of 125 teams in the FBS.

— Boise State will be without defensive end Dillon Lukehart for the first half of Saturday’s game against Colorado State after he was ejected for targeting.

— The Broncos and Nevada played one of the most memorable games of 2010, but after that point began a decline for both programs, writes Mark Anderson of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Boise will emerge from sanctions that took away nine scholarships this year, and the program has been wracked with injuries this season, leaving them with their worst mark at this point in the year since 2001 and worst of the Chris Peterson era.

Nevada’s woes might be longer term, at least if you listen to the quotes coming out of Reno. “There is a myth out there that I inherited a well-oiled machine,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian told the Gazette-Journal.

— After needless confusion and consternation, New Mexico will retire Brian Urlacher’s No. 44 in a ceremony at the game against Air Force on Nov. 8, the Albuquerque Journal reports.

MWC Roundup: Strong play gets Fales noticed nationally

David Fales had a  career night against Wyoming, throwing for 482 yards and accounting for six touchdowns (5 passing, 1 rushing) in what was probably his crowning performance this season.

The senior quarterback from Salinas is beginning to put together an excellent season, and it’s starting to get him recognition. He was named MWC player of the week for the second straight game on Monday for his performance.

And that’s not all. As Jimmy Durkin of the Mercury News reports, Fales was also named one of eight stars for the Manning Award again this week, with voting taking place here for the top award.

On top of that, his performance has put him in the running for Capital One Impact Performance of the week, with voting for that going on through ESPN here. He was also honorable mention for quarterback of the week from the Davey O’Brien Award trust, for which Fales is in 22nd place.

Around the Mountain West

— New San Jose State women’s basketball coach Jamie Craighead, whom the Spartans poached from Sacramento State, will make her first appearance on the bench tonight when they take on William Jessup at the Event Center in an exhibition game.

— After eight years of struggles against Nevada, UNLV finally got to paint the Fremont Cannon red thanks to its 27-22 win on Saturday in Reno. The Rebels, 5-3 on the season and 3-1 in Mountain West play, will host the Spartans for their homecoming game on Saturday at 1 p.m.

— University of Nevada students — a whole 15 percent of them, which must be a record for student elections — voted in favor of a $30 fee on top of tuition to help construct a $46 million student fitness center and a $25 million field house, Chris Murray of the Reno Gazette-Journal reports. The Nevada board of regents needs to approve the fee in early December before it can go into effect.

— Fresno State is nearing a sellout for Saturday’s game against Nevada. The team is as banged up as its ever been in coach Tim DeRuyter’s tenure, Bryant Jon-Anteola of the Fresno Bee reports.

— Colorado State’s volleyball team is really damn good.

— Meanwhile, the Rams are playing meaningful November football for the first time in a long time, Kelly Lyell of the Fort Collins Coloradoan writes. While the Western division of the MWC is fairly straight forward, the Mountain is a mess with three viable contenders all slated to see each other throughout the next month.

— Oh, and Colorado State may have to make their move with QB Garrett Grayson hobbled.

— San Diego State has opened up a position battle for kicker after Saturday’s debacle, writes Stephanie Loh of UT San Diego, in which sophomore Seamus McMorrow missed a 40-yarder earlier in the game, then had a potential game winner blocked. Senior Wes Feer will get a chance to win the job back.

— Kicker isn’t the only position in flux for the Aztecs. After starter Quinn Kaehler, it’s apparently  chaos.

Key numbers: San Jose State’s holds off Wyoming in shootout

Rob Caragher gets a shower after the Spartans held off Wyoming during Saturday's homecoming game (Associated Press).

Rob Caragher gets a shower after the Spartans held off Wyoming during Saturday’s homecoming game (Associated Press).

San Jose State battled back from a big early deficit to beat Wyoming (4-4, 2-2 Mountain West) in a 51-44 shootout at Spartan Stadium. Here are some key numbers to keep in mind following tonight’s game:

8 for 23 — The number of times this season the Spartans have converted red zone visits into touchdowns. San Jose State entered this game 4 for 18 for TDs in the red zone this season. The Spartans were 4 for 5 turning red zone visits into touchdowns against the Cowboys, first near the end of the first half on an eight-yard pass from David Fales to Chandler Jones, then in the third quarter on a 9-yard run by Tim Crawley after a Wyoming fumble deep in their territory.

Later in the third, David Fales almost threw an interception in the end zone on a third visit, and Austin Lopez missed a short field goal. Then, after forcing another three-and-out for the Cowboys defense, the Spartans back to the red zone, where Fales hit tight end Shane Smith on first and goal for a third TD. It’s the first time this season San Jose State has turned multiple red-zone visits into touchdowns this season. The coup de grace was Fales pushing in a QB sneak with 8 seconds left to win the game.

The stat is still nothing to write home about. San Jose State is still converting less than half of its red zone visits into TDs, but for one night at least, they were king, and it lifted them past Wyoming.

482 — Total passing yards by David Fales in Saturday’s game, a personal best (he previously best had come in the Minnesota loss.) The Spartans blew away what had been a strong passing defense in this game (top ranked in the Mountain West), but it wouldn’t have been possible without Jarred Lawson and Tim Crawley running the ball effectively.

16 — San Jose State’s first quarter deficit. The Spartans looked to be on the ropes after the Cowboys quick strike spread offense spread came out and hit them hard. Wyoming running back Shaun Wick (17 carries, 234 yards, 1 TD) was punishing the Spartans defense, which looked like it expected the offense that got roasted by Colorado State last week in the Bronze Boot rivalry game rather than the one that challenged Nebraska and roasted Air Force and beat New Mexico. They worked their way back afterward, and erased it late in the third thanks to 22 straight points that quarter.

3 — Three straight three and outs by the San Jose State defense after they struggled mightily early, three TDs by the offense in the third quarter to take the lead against the Cowboys. Of note, but not fitting the theme, two turnovers forced: A fumble and interception The defense has had its share of struggles this season, but with a chance to make adjustments, they can slow down almost anyone in the conference.

5 — Streak of games with 300 or more passing yards for David Fales, who became the first Mountain West quarterback in the conference’s 15-year history with five straight games of 300-yard passing or more. How Fresno State’s Derek Carr wasn’t first to this last year or this year escapes me, but kudos to the senior Spartans QB anyways.