After Cal lost to Central Arkansas by 27 at home I wrote an article that summarized what happened to cause some of the worst Pac teams in modern conference history. I wrote it out because, at the time, I feared that the 2018 Bears were destined to follow in the footsteps of those teams. Alas, that came to pass in an 8-23 (2-16) regular season and a 240 Kenpom ranking.
But there’s something I left out of that run-down of the down-trodden. How did those teams recover from rock bottom? And what, if anything, can we learn from their travails? Let’s take a walk through somewhat recent Pac-10/12 history, because misery loves company.
2002-2003 Washington State
Paul Graham led Wazzu to back-to-back 20 loss, Kenpom sub-200 seasons. Really, the amazing thing is that Graham was given another chance after a 1-17 conference record in 2002. He did double his win total the next season!
While the Cougars probably waited a year too long to make a change, they brought in the right guy. Convincing Dick Bennett to re-enter the world of coaching saw Wazzu immediately return to near .500 basketball. With largely the exact same group of players, Bennett turned the 233rd best defense in the country into the 63rd best in just one off-season. While the elder Bennett couldn’t quite push WSU to the next level, he soon turned over the reins to his son Tony, who led WSU to the best 3 year period in their entire basketball history.
Lesson: If you can hire a rebuilding artist with a Final Four on his resume and an assistant coach/son who is likely a future hall-of-fame coach, you should do it. Also, a coach with the ability to teach any half-decent roster to do one thing really well is a valuable commodity.
2008 Oregon State
The Beavers hired Craig Robinson to replace Jay Jon (who, again, was probably given one year too many). Robinson immediately restored OSU to respectability largely by fixing OSU’s very broken offense, and had some surprising recruiting successes in Corvallis. But an inability to produce decent defenses prevented Robinson’s Beavers from ever posting a .500 or better conference record.
Lesson: Going from an obviously awful situation to an OK situation is still a step up, but you should maybe shoot higher than a guy who two OKish Ivy League seasons under his belt . . . although if you’re OSU and you haven’t been relevant since The Glove, I can kinda understand just wanting to buy into the Obama publicity.
I feel like USC isn’t a good example because all USC basketball can be summarized thusly:
Is USC ignoring NCAA rules? If yes, then USC is OK. If no, then USC is somewhere between irrelevant and bad.
But in 2012 USC had a ton of roster turnover and hit rock bottom. They gave defensive guru Kevin O’Neill another year, and with a few transfers and better health USC was back to being OK but largely irrelevant. Then they fired O’Neill, hired Andy Enfield, largely had more irrelevant years before Enfield’s recruiting ‘tactics’ started to work.
Lesson: The NCAA is a cartel designed to take money away from the talented players putting in the work and put it in the pocket of already overpaid administrators and coaches. USC should be lauded for willfully ignoring such an obviously broken, immoral system.
If you believe Kenpom ratings, the 2012 Utes are the worst team in modern Pac history, and by a decent margin. 5 wins on the season, all at home, 3 against teams ranked 230th or worse. Also, Stanford lost to them. Welcome to power conference basketball, Larry Krystkowiak
One year later, Utah was nearly a .500 team. Two years later they earned an NIT bid. Three years later they were in the Sweet 16. It’s the platonic ideal of a slow but steady rebuild. And it was built on savvy talent identification and good fundamental coaching from Krystkowiak. His 2nd team had exactly ONE player from his 1st season still contributing, but over the next two years in brought in a bunch of transfers/JCs, a couple of solid freshmen, and quickly brought the Utes back to respectability . . . and eventually NCAA-tournament level production.
Lesson: It’s hardly a guarantee, but good coaches can certainly be found at the mid/low-major level. And perhaps just as importantly, roster creativity and finding overlooked talent is a vital skill for non-powerhouses in modern college basketball.
2014-2018 Washington State
After Tony Bennett left Pullman to coach at Virginia, Washington State tapped Portland St. head coach Ken Bone to take over. Bone stuck around for 5 years and produced teams that were mostly mediocre, and was fired after a truly awful 2014 season that saw WSU win just 3 conference games.
And the Cougars went with Ernie Kent. And they’ve averaged 4.5 Pac-12 wins and a Kenpom rank of 187th since. Ernie Kent has been actively killing CougCenter writers and readers for four years.
The lesson: If you’re going to hire a retread and bring somebody out of coaching retirement, shoot higher than a dude who was 109-125 in conference play at his last job.
2017 Oregon State
Wayne Tinkle has done the following in four seasons in Corvallis:
Roughly .500 season
Slightly better than .500 season
One of the worst teams in conference history
Roughly .500 season
Can you pick the season that saw massive roster/injury attrition that generally can’t be blamed on the head coach?
The lesson: sometimes shit happens and there’s nobody really to blame . . . but also your program is much more susceptible to one year implosions if you only bring in one borderline top 25 recruiting class in your first three years.
The Bears have four players who are currently major contributors with eligibility left to potentially combine with a recruiting class that is borderline top 25 with at least one slot left to fill. Will a team led by freshmen and sophomores fare significantly better than a team led by two true centers and a bunch of freshmen? It’s going to be a long time until we find out.
Based on what happened to the teams listed above, we can reasonably hope for Cal to return to a level around Kenpom 100-150, with a record in the ball park of 6-12 in conference. Plenty of other teams have done that. Still, the lessons of post-Ken-Bone Wazzu can’t be ignored: it isn’t impossible for a team to get mired in repetitively bad seasons if a team can’t attract and hold onto Pac-12 level talent.