The road has been tough, so far, for head coach Jean Prioleau’s basketball program - key players leaving in each of his three seasons; the team mustering only four wins in each of the first two seasons (7 - 16, so far, this season); pundits picking the Spartans to finish last in the league again; and also not a surprise, many up and down performances.
Regardless of the overall win-loss record, there are some signs-of-life this season. Key wins over Nevada and New Mexico and nearly knocking off nationally, top-ranked San Diego State are glimpses of what can be. With a faster style-of-play than previous seasons, the opposition this year is also seeing and expecting a grittier and scrappier Spartan team. But all said, the identity of Spartan basketball primarily stems from Prioleau.
Though people can easily take away many of these visual cues from Prioleau’s demeanor over the last two-and-a-half seasons, there’s usually much more below the water line so-to-speak.
“What I am and where we are and what we’re doing and the basketball business that we’re in, we have to change the culture and we’re in the process of doing that but very slowly,“ said Prioleau. “Yes, we’ve won seven games, so far, this year and we only won four last year and this could be, relatively speaking, kind of a year two actually, based on the time I took the job.”
“So with that being said,” continued Prioleau. “In order to turn something around in a league that’s extremely unforgiving, to try and figure me out and my demeanor that’s almost impossible to try and do, because my feeling and demeanor is going to be a lot different than say if we were in June than it is in January.”
This would indicate the typical pressures of an atypical job for a majority of us not under the proverbial microscope. With the pressure to win, along with the upward trends around the university from facility improvements to the other sports program improvements, rebuilding a program from the ground up is certainly not for the weak-of-heart.
“I believe others would say I have a lot of personality beyond what most people see during the season (Prioleau added with a good dose of laughter), but we’re in the front lines right now. I’m trying to lead 14 young men plus four assistant coaches to a vision.” pressed Prioleau. “And trying to put out a product that’s showing it’s going in a direction that it’s going to turn around - that’s what you see.”
Prioleau is quick to add, “You will, of course, see smiles and laughter in our locker room after wins that most are never going to see and you obviously won’t see that after losses. But considering everything I just said carries over to every single coach in the country (said in a deliberate staccato delivery). So, if you’re trying to find something specific or unique to me, this is simply the business.”
Prioleau is big on context and telling it like it is, as it should be. In further context, the harsh reality is this program and university is located in a high-end market of sports entertainment excess. At the very least, it will take some hard-nose winning to get more hearts onto the bandwagon. And yes, that will take time along with good recruiting.
In the meantime, the Spartans of the hardwood continue to show signs of improvement and a flexible approach, as Prioleau continues to develop his program.
“Last year we played inside and out and that was because we had someone who could score from the post (Michael Steadman now with Montana) and could create double teams to pass back out, where we had a great three-point shooter.” noted Prioleau. “But in doing that and making the decision on that philosophy, yes, we’re not going to play as fast, because we have to give time for the post players to get down the court.”
As the contrast this year shifted to more guard-oriented play, you’ll see Seneca Knight, Brae Ivey and former Wake Forest guard Richard Washington push the tempo on every sequence.
“This year we’ve opened up the court and we’re playing a lot of four-out or five-out.” stated Prioleau. “And there’s really no one in the post and the reason why is that it opens up the court so the guards can slash and make plays and pass the ball based on the rotation and because of that we could move a lot faster.”
That faster pace coupled with a typical hyper-aggressive Prioleau team has led to some positive by-products.
“We’ve cut down on our turnovers and our assist-to-turnover is way better because it’s just a function of how we’re playing.” Prioleau expressed. “And obviously the percentages aren’t really there, but that’s the way we’re going to have to play to have the best impact on the game and put pressure on the defense, create more fouls and be consistently aggressive. For example, Seneca has gone to the line a lot more than he usually does.”
“If you wanna say that’s given us three more wins than last year, I wouldn’t say that.” replied Prioleau. “I would just say we’re playing faster and it has cut down on our turnovers.“
If Prioleau can get to the 10-win mark this season that would be a very clear and positive step-up in year three of his five-year contract. It’s possible with the remaining schedule. If not, sure, the naysayers will continue to grumble and mainstream media coverage will continue to be non-existent.
For now, all indications show Prioleau is a long-haul guy and a genuine, stalwart coach. It could be safe to also say the administration will continue to support him and he will get the chance to prove he can raise a long-dormant phoenix.