With the madness of March upon us, first-year Spartan head coach Tim Miles is home watching tourney games with his cohorts - no doubt studying and enjoying the competition to which his San Jose State program aspires.
It’s a daunting task to create a winning program where really none has been before for the university. 50 years of hard luck with a couple blips: an NCAA tournament experience in 1996 and two winning seasons in 1993 and 2010.
This year, Spartan basketball was 8-23 overall with one conference win in Miles’ inaugural season.
Though experts and pundits did have the Spartans slotted close to the bottom - Miles’ smarts and emotional fire power left some thinking that could be enough to will the team up a notch or two.
Technically, it did.
Eight wins this season was the most since the 2016-2017 season when the Spartans finished 14-16 two head coaches ago.
But what’s clearer than ever before, Miles is the stake in the ground to which the mighty climb beyond obscurity begins. And by all accounts, observations and discussions with Miles during the season, he is as advertised - the right man to do it with a commitment from the top.
Below the water line, what’s to come is only clear to a few for now - the dynamics and commitment to create (not rebuild) is Miles’ canvas alone.
When Miles can start filling in those colors closer to his likeliness, his representation on the floor expects to be consistently fluid and autonomous so to finally be more competitive.
“Our lack of roster continuity really hurt us, along with the Mountain West being very, very strong,” said Miles. “When we lost point guard Brandon Knapper early on and weren’t able to get Richard Washington back, I knew it would be a little trouble.”
“Then you start adding the injuries to Majok (Kuath), Ibrahima (Diallo), Trey (Smith), Sebastion (Mendoza), and then we have four true freshmen getting a lot of playing time, it was tough,” added Miles.
Often the Spartans would be playing over their heads, over-exerting, and many times over-thinking, just to try and keep up with stronger competition. In short spurts, we saw glimpses of good basketball, but more often, it was not sustainable.
Though third in the conference in 3-point shooting percentage, when the Spartans went cold or opposing defenses locked down, it was over for San Jose State. Things compounded with the inability to get shots in the paint and a lack of enough good passing to rebalance on-the-fly.
The Spartans also had the worst turnover margin in the conference and were near last in rebounding. It was indicative of not having a sturdy paint presence, especially with Diallo not available for a good portion of the season.
“I was encouraged at year-end that we could go in and execute a preferred game plan which is man-to-man defense, and we were able to handle their personnel the way we intended,” said Miles on the OT loss to Fresno State in the Mountain West tournament. “That last game was the prime message that we’re building it the right way.”
In that very last game of the season...
After an almost upset in the first round of the Mountain West tournament against the Bulldogs, that one Spartan performance was enough to show the conference of what can be when all eyes were watching.
“In the tournament, I wanted to teach the guys that this is a cut-throat deal. You have to be in full response mode and challenge everything from the get-go, because that’s how you advance,” said Miles in what is absolutely clear in the dance of March going on now.
With the ups and downs of the Spartan roster all year, it was a surprise to see there was an afterburner left to almost take down formidable Fresno.
“I really just wanted that win, so the players can feel that advancement which is something San Jose State hasn’t felt before,” said Miles. “Those little achievements really do mean something. I’m looking forward to checking a lot of boxes in the near future to get us there.”
“There were still some positive things to be learned from this process and we tried to always stay in that growth mindset,” Miles included, “But yeah, I really, really wanted it for the guys.”
What else was different this year...
What truly was different this year was the so-called “vibe in the air.”
In recent seasons, there was a palpable angst among players. A half observant person could sense it and any beat writer could read it between the lines.
Miles exudes positivity and relentless energy. These important intangibles were also important for the university and the local community itself. Along with the players, they now have it in spades.
Coupled with Miles’ transparency and honesty towards tough questions and the crowd and alumni being more eager to hear what he has to say, Miles is gracious and welcoming to all.
Also, not to be mistaken with being “soft,” Miles is equally tough, intense and demanding of his players and the team tries to respond with reciprocating effort.
“There were times when our energy and intensity levels weren’t where I expected it,” said Miles on the team keeping up with his expectations. “And yes, it’s hard to do that over the course of seven months every single day. There’s give and take.”
Miles constantly manages that with his players to get them to be the best they can each day. It can sound like lip service, but Miles’ track record from his head coaching tenures at Nebraska and North Dakota State speaks for itself.
In the end, it’s about the players
Though Miles’ roster went through its challenges, there were players who stood out.
Omari Moore led the Spartans in all categories would be first on the list. The 6’6” guard was an honorable mention in the Mountain West. Moore averaged 13.2 points per game on 47.8% shooting.
Moore is smooth, quick and highly athletic, but more importantly, highly intelligent on and off the court. Spartan opposition would first focus on Moore to slow down Miles’ game plans.
“Omari plays his tail off,” said Miles. “Look at how he performed against Fresno in that last game, especially in the second half and OT in the most difficult circumstances with the defense loading up on him.”
Moore almost notched a second triple-double of the season with 19 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists against the Bulldogs. Expect more trajectory from Moore the next two seasons.
Freshman guard MJ Amey’s presence also emerged as with other freshman guard, crafty Alvaro Cardenas. Along with gutsy forwards Trey Anderson and Shon Robinson, Miles’ year two is only one or two more recruits away from real competitiveness.
Even if Miles’ aforementioned roster gets healthy and remains healthy, a 2022-2023 season can be vastly different.
“Though we mainly look at California, Nevada, Arizona and the Northwest for recruits,” said Miles. “I’ll still go back to the Midwest because my connections from recruiting there the past 20+ years.”
Case in fact from the signing of 6’4” guard Leo Torbor from Minnesota, who’s reminiscent of Moore’s style of play.
And the coach
With Miles’ season one in the books, the feeling and confidence around the program is not just positive and promising.
Miles looks happy and sounds happy for his family and his new community. It’s safe to say his vibe lives on in full strength in the off season.
“It’s really great out here,” said Miles on his transition to California from the Midwest. “Being out in western Willow Glen, it’s a great area, great people and we love it out here.”
From relatable NASCAR analogies to Farah Fawcett stories and other Miles’ tidbits, it’s also clear to see how his endearing nature pulls you in.
Season two, here we come.