Speaking to the Albuquerque Journal's Geoff Grammar in the preseason, San Jose State junior Gary Williams Jr. issued a stern warning to the rest of the Mountain West about his new team's potential in the upcoming season.
"We're going to shock the conference," the 6' 5" transfer guard from Indian Hills Community College explained. "Not just a couple wins, I think we can be top three in the conference."
The words may have been some misguided confidence from a league newcomer, unaware of the tumultuous toll that the Mountain West can have on a rebuilding program like San Jose State, or they may have been the first sign of optimism from a down-and-out Spartans team that had nothing else to lose. Coming off a 2-28 season in 2014-2015 where San Jose State failed to defeat any Division I opponent, it at least sounded like Dave Wojcik's players were starting to believe in themselves. Now it was time to prove it on the hardwood.
The season started in ambitious fashion for San Jose State, as the near winless team from a season ago was 4-3 through their first seven games, with victories over Montana and San Diego already to their name. A trip to the Great Alaska Shootout was semi-successful as the Spartans finished atop the "Consolation Bracket", having staved off the host team in Division II Alaska-Anchorage on their home court. However, those old feelings returned when Doug Wojcik and company struggled through the rest of their non-conference slate, only knocking off NCCAA (not a typo) school Life Christian along the way. Suddenly, 4-3 had become 5-7 and the Mountain West season hadn't even begun for the Spartans. Storm clouds were on the horizon once again.
After losing their first four games to kick-off Mountain West play, the Spartans picked up a mid-January win over Wyoming in which the aforementioned Williams Jr. knocked down six free-throws in the closing minutes to seal the victory. As good as San Jose State was starting to play, the daunting test of going on the road in the Mountain West reared it's ugly head again. Wojcik's team lost it's next four straight, three of which came away from home, heading into the last days of January.
The tide had the potential to be turned after a back-to-back stretch in which the Spartans held off Air Force, the team neighboring them in the conference standings, and Fresno State, a team who would eventually become the lone conference representative in the NCAA Tournament. San Jose State looked like a renewed defensive unit, holding the those two teams to a combined 107 points for the Spartans' first conference win streak of at least two games ever. Then, it was back to the road.
Trips to UNLV, New Mexico, Utah State and Wyoming caused more havoc for San Jose State, who still hasn't won a true road game against a Division I opponent since their first Mountain West Conference win at Nevada back on February 18th, 2014. Although, the Spartans did turn some heads, knocking off Boise State on the last day of their regular season in a 68-63 stunner, their season-long inconsistencies were too much to overcome. The Spartans earned themselves an 11 seed in the Mountain West Tournament and a bad showdown with a high-octane offensive team in Colorado State. The Rams jumped out to a 19 point lead at halftime and never looked back. The third year of the Dave Wojcik era was over.
In all, the season was definitely another step in the right direction for this San Jose State program but the work left to do was more than noticeable and increasingly frustrating as the year progressed. The Spartans need to find a way to win to the road, even in the non-conference where favorable match-ups could help them grow some confidence away from home, and the defensive issues have to be solved. If nothing else though, the Spartans proved that if there's one thing that's definitely become a staple of this San Jose State program, it's the mentality that giving up is simply not an option.
Five Tidbits To Keep In Mind This Off-Season
1. The Non-Division I Problem
While the Spartans may have compiled 18 wins over the past three seasons, most of them coming during the 2015-2016 campaign, all but seven of those victories have come against non-Division I opponents. If Wojcik wants to build the profile of this program up, they'll have to stray away from the easy wins over the little guys and push into some more challenging opponents. Even if the Spartans work their way into a few "guarantee game" scenarios with some power conference squads, the experience may be too valuable to pass over. The stream of revenue probably wouldn't hurt the athletic department either. San Jose State is an abysmal 11-74 against Division I foes since Wojcik took over in back 2013, with only five of those wins coming in Mountain West play. Simply put, the Spartans have to do more against competition at their same level.
2. Build Around Clarke And Welage (And Another Strong Freshman Class)
Wojcik may not have many victories to sell potential prospects out on the recruiting trail but that hasn't hampered the third year head coach from bringing in some more than suitable talent. Ryan Welage, a 6' 9" forward from Indiana, was arguably the best player on this Spartans roster through stretches of his freshman season, tallying career highs of 28 and 23 points against the top two teams in the conference in San Diego State and Fresno State. Combined with fellow rookie Brandon Clarke, a versatile scorer and rebounder who earned himself Conference Sixth Man of the Year Award accolades, Wojcik has two young and talented pieces front and center. Now it's time to build around them.
The Spartans add three new faces to the mix with their 2016 class, headlined by top twenty player in the state of California, forward Keith Fisher. A high-motor, below-the-rim type player, Fisher could be the perfect blue collar compliment that this developing roster needs. Combine Fisher with Terrell Brown, an athletic guard from the Golden State's Moreau Catholic High School and do-it-all guard Nai Carlisle from Indiana, San Jose State again has a freshmen group that should have a solid impact from day one.
3. Defense, Defense, Defense!
The Spartans struggled all year to simply stop their opponents from scoring, allowing 73.9 points per contest throughout the season, bad enough for 236th in the country. Yet, in their six wins over Division I opponents, Wojcik's team allowed a staggering 58.8 points per game. The proof is in the numbers for San Jose State. When they choose to defend, the Spartans are not as easy to beat as they appear.
The Mountain West is a league that usually centers around team's spaced-out and open-ended offenses and San Diego State's regular season dominance has shown how a lock-down, defensive-oriented team can really disrupt the flow of most teams. San Jose State probably won't be cohesive enough to steal wins in the league with it's offense yet, so it's prowess on the other end of the floor will have to take hold.
4. Sharing Is Caring...Now Hit The Shots
One bright spot of the 2015-2016 campaign for San Jose State was their ability to share the basketball, finishing the season with a 14.5 assists per game average, good enough for third best in the Mountain West. It's strange to think how much better that mark could've been if the Spartans could've found some consistency knocking down shots.
San Jose State finished in the bottom three in the Mountain West in both shooting and three point field goal percentage and Wojcik's guys were also the worst outfit in the conference from the charity stripe, where they knocked down just 65.9% of their attempts. This all contributed to the team's scoring troubles, which found them averaging only 70.5 points per contest, third worst in the league.
When things on the defensive end are as rough as they are for the Spartans at the moment, it's the offensive side of the ball that needs to come together to make life more manageable for this team. That could be easier said than done as Wojcik must replace over 22 points of scoring per night between the graduation of Frank Rogers and Princeton Onwas, the team's two leading scorers. If there's any bright spots in this equation, it's that the team's next three leading scorers were all freshman this season, led by Welage, who averaged 10.4 points per game. Now it's just about who will assume the bigger role on that side of the ball.
5. Focus On The Mountain West Tournament
The rebuilding process will continue for Dave Wojcik in 2016-2017 and even if the Spartans aren't at the very bottom of the conference at the end of it all, they probably won't be anywhere near the top three like Gary Williams Jr. imagined. So just what does all this mean exactly? It means that regardless of where they end up seeded in the Mountain West Tournament, the focus has to be on at least winning that first game to give themselves some momentum to end on each season. The Spartans have never won a conference tournament game since moving to the Mountain West and lifting that weight off their backs could pave the road for San Jose State teams down the line.
Final Thoughts: San Jose State knows that their program is in the dog days of a vast rebuilding project that will likely take through the end of the decade to pay off. Right now, it's just more and more of climbing up that mountain, unable to see the peak.
The Spartans seem to have found the right coach in Dave Wojcik, whose steady balance of understanding the setbacks of this program and building confidence within the group, looks to be the right fit with a young and trying roster. Wojcik also apparently has the support of the school and the fan base, who see him as a healthy source of trust and optimism.
While only time will tell for this Spartans program, If Wojcik can continue to lead San Jose State in the right direction, the next few seasons could be some of the more positive years that this program has seen in a long time. Sure, the NCAA Tournament is probably not even on their radar just yet but with the way this season ended, there has to be belief that a double-digit win total could be in the cards for the 2016-2017 season.