The biggest loser: What happened to SUU's men's basketball program and how it will try to bounce back
Dennis Montgomery, AP Photo/Standard-Examiner
It’s been a long season for the Southern Utah men’s basketball team.
While Weber State and Utah Valley lead their respective conferences heading into the final weeks of the regular season, and BYU and Utah remain near the NCAA tournament discussion, the Thunderbirds have quietly constructed the longest losing streak in Division I hoops in the midst of a harsh rebuilding season.
SUU has just a few games remaining in what has been the worst season in program history. The T-Birds have lost 24 straight games since winning their season opener over Arizona Christian, an NAIA foe, in November, and SUU has lost 29 straight games against Division I opponents dating back to its last Division I win on Feb. 23, 2013. Many across the country have dubbed SUU as the worst team in college basketball.
But SUU head coach Nick Robinson hopes this season is just a hiccup for the T-Bird basketball program.
“We are building and the process of building sometimes has its ups and downs,” Robinson said. “If we want to continue to work toward building a championship-level program, unfortunately we have to endure some bumps and bruises as we come through this year.”
SUU’s season has been a complete opposite of last year, when the T-Birds were picked to finish 10th in their inaugural Big Sky Conference season but wound up sixth and in the conference tournament.
However, that year ended with four straight losses to close out the regular season, followed by a defeat in the opening round of the Big Sky tournament.
The biggest loss came in the offseason, when the T-Birds lost their top four leading scorers heading into this season. That included two of the Big Sky conference’s top five scorers, Jackson Stevenett and Damon Heuir, who combined to average 33 points per game last year, and other seniors who provided key leadership.
“It’s (been) a challenge to replace those,” Robinson said. “Do we have guys up to that challenge? Sure, but we haven’t been able to produce as nearly as effectively on the court as we would have liked to.”
Instead, SUU entered this year with seven freshmen on its roster and just five upperclassmen.
“I expected that we would have had a better year than what we’re experiencing now,” Robinson said. “I also expected a lot of teaching and a lot of learning for our underclassmen. It’s obviously been a challenging year, but we’ve made considerable progress throughout the course of the year. I definitely expected a little bit more from this basketball team, in terms of wins and losses.”
Ken Pomeroy, one of the nation’s leading basketball sabermetrics (complex statistical analysis) experts and founder of kenpom.com, said youth and inexperience certainly can play a factor in a team’s struggle. Even many of the top high school prospects in the country can struggle with inconsistency in the college game.
However, the T-Birds' struggles have been, at times, beyond that.
“It’s really difficult to win with freshmen, especially as a mid-major,” he said. “I think it’s not difficult to do better than they’re doing now with a young team — you can find young teams out there that have performed better than they have. That’s what has to be concerning.
"Yeah, they will improve next year. They won’t be the worst team in college basketball next year, but how much will they improve? They still have to go a long way just to get into the middle of the Big Sky," he added.
Some of SUU’s struggles came well before this season began. Utah’s Dallin Bachynski, USU’s Kyle Davis and St. Mary’s Matthew Hodgson all transferred from the T-Birds before Robinson took over the helm in March 2012.
Bachynski and Davis each played one season under then-head coach Roger Reid before going on LDS missions and transferring. Each has contributed greatly to their respective programs this season. Hodgson still holds SUU’s season shot-blocking record that he set his freshman year, but left after his sophomore year for St. Mary’s after a falling out with the program.
“(SUU) would be a lot different,” Pomeroy said. “They’d be probably closer to a top-conference basketball team you’d have to think they’d be at least an average Big Sky team with those three guys in the lineup.”
Other issues have come from the team’s schedule.
The T-Birds played a difficult non-conference schedule, which included trips to San Diego State, California and Utah State, as well as hosting UNLV in December, which Robinson scheduled to “expose” young players to tough environments.
Whatever the issue has been, it’s added up to a nightmare of a season.
One bad season
SUU is dead last in the Big Sky in shooting percentage, points, rebounding and turnover margin with just a handful of games remaining on the season.
Those are the largest components to Pomeroy’s ranking system.
“I haven’t looked around, but I’d be pretty surprised if there’s another team in the country that’s last in all four of those categories in their conference,” Pomeroy said. “Usually a team does something kind of well. They might be bad at three things and do one thing OK, but SUU has been kind of a failure in every aspect of trying to score the basketball.”
With all statistics combined, Pomeroy has SUU dead last in his rankings.
“They’re probably not in any sort of immortality in terms of being one of the worst teams ever,” Pomeroy said. “They’ve had a few close games this season. They had that near miss at Montana State and Portland State, so that immediately puts them on more solid ground than a lot of teams in the past, but clearly offensively they’ve been pretty poor.”
There have been bright spots and silver linings for the T-Birds during the season, however.
Senior forward Jaren Jeffery has shot 51 percent from the floor during the season and dropped a career-best 21 points on Feb. 10. Robinson said Jeffery has been a vocal leader helping the youthful T-Birds adjust to the college ranks as well.
SUU has also gotten 20-plus point contributions from freshman guard Trey Kennedy on a couple of occasions. Kennedy leads the team averaging almost 10 points per game.
The T-Birds have also come close to snapping their losing streak on several occasions as the year winds down.
On Thursday night, SUU led Portland State heading into the final minute of play before falling 86-79.
SUU has averaged an 8.3-point deficit in its last nine games, with games coming down to the final minutes seven of those nine. It’s an improvement for the T-Birds, which had been losing by an average of 20 points prior to that.
Robinson said he believes it’s only a matter of time until SUU snaps its ugly losing streak once and for all.
“I think individually and collectively our team — in that time — started to come together and gain some confidence defensively and offensively,” he said. “We were able to fight quite a bit more over the past 10 games. A lot of credit goes to our guys, just in terms of fight and willingness to improve as the season has progressed.”
While the season has been a disappointment, Robinson said he's been pleased that his team has shown no plans to quit on the season.
“Whether your team is playing for a championship or whether your team is at the bottom of the standings, from a coaches’ perspective, you want to take every single game and every single day one at a time,” he said. “We’ve really tried to focus on that because regardless of where you are in the standings, you want to play your best basketball at the end of the year. The only way of accomplishing that is improving every day.”
Rebuilding for the future
Within the ashes of this season is hope for the future.
Four of the team’s five leading scorers are returning underclassmen and Robinson hopes his incoming freshmen class, led by three-star recruit Tyler Rawson (American Fork High School), will help rebuild a program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since its lone appearance in 2001.
“We have plenty of leaders in the making,” Robinson said. “It’s just going to take some experience and a little bit of time for those to pan out like we want them to.”
Pomeroy said he thinks the T-Birds aren’t too far away from an improved team as well, noting they are about “a player or two away” from fixing the issues that have plagued SUU throughout this season.
Robinson said he anticipates he’ll never have to relive this past season again.
“I’m extremely optimistic for the future of this basketball program and we’re building, recruiting, practicing and competing all toward having a bright future,” he said. “With the young guys gaining experience this year and the recruits coming in next year’s, I’m optimistic that we’ll continue to get better and continue to compete at a very high level.”
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