Reggie Theus sounds slightly hoarse but cheerful on this Monday morning, Nov. 17, after the opening weekend of the college basketball season. It makes sense; he is back in his element of coaching players, preparing for games, continuing the resuscitation of the Cal State University, Northridge men’s Division I basketball team that last played in the NCAA Tournament in 2009.
The team is returning from road games in the EA Sports Maui Invitational Mainland Challenge against ranked opponents. The Nov. 14 season opener was against No. 16 San Diego State in San Diego. The Nov. 16 contest was against No. 2 Arizona in Tucson.
Both games were double-digit losses. Both San Diego State and Arizona expect to be part of March Madness. A rebuilding Northridge team, even with four returning starters, may dream about that kind of postseason but can’t think that way just yet.
Theus, starting his second season here, can do such thinking for them in part because he must remain the pubic pillar of positivity as the Matadors reclaim their bearings. There is still so much work to be done, and the construction has to take place in the noisy modern era of social media, where patience is rarely expressed and verbal crushing is an Olympics sport for anonymous masses who’ve never built or rebuilt a team from scratch, yet expect a middle-of-the-pack mid-major to be this year’s Final Four Cinderella.
“I don’t like losing. But when you play games like this you have to judge wins and losses differently,” said Theus, talking before the team’s Nov. 19 home opener against Montana State.
“Obviously you are the definite underdog against these teams, and when you’re shorthanded you are really underdogs. I looked at the effort we put in (playing the games): if at one point do you have a chance to win, or do you cut a big lead to single digits. That is what you battle for and that’s important, especially when you see how some teams were getting beat by 30 and 40 points.”
Surrounding the starting core of Stephan Hooks, Stephen Maxwell, Tre Hale-Edmerson, Landon Drew and Aaron Parks are eight freshmen that Theus could make the future building blocks of his program. Two of them, Zacarry Douglas and Taelin Webb, have shown a desire for more playing time by their efforts in the opening weekend.
A 17-18 first season under Theus — which included a strong showing in the Big West Tournament, as CSUN reached the championship game and barely lost to Cal Poly, 61-59 — showed flashes of what the Matadors could eventually become under his guidance. It could become a flagship program nationally (and monetarily) for Northridge, which doesn’t have football. It can help lighten the athletic shadows cast by Pac-12 neighbors UCLA and USC.
That happens through winning. And not just winning now, but continuously. There are plenty of successful mid-major teams that do, from Gonzaga in Washington to American University in Washington, D.C. A few, like George Mason and Memphis, have reached the Final Four. Butler University, out of Indiana, played in consecutive NCAA championship games.
Everyone remembers their great tournament runs, but forget about the time it took those schools to develop teams good enough to compete on a national stage.
Even as you methodically, painstakingly, restore a program blue chip by blue chip, there can be unexpected challenges that can crop up. And the Matadors were hit with a big one. Before the San Diego State game it was announced that six players — five freshmen and a transfer — were suspended for what Athletic Director Brandon Martin described as “potential violations of team rules and school policies.” There is currently an ongoing investigation into the matter.
It left Cal State Northridge with 10 players for the games with San Diego State and Arizona.
When asked if he was blindsided by the sudden subtraction of manpower, Theus said, “It’s not something that anyone expected. But it’s nothing I can talk about. There’s still so much up in the air.”
Unfazed By Losing Players
He has no idea when the suspended players, who can practice with the team but not play in games, will be cleared. Not only could it play havoc with Theus’ player rotations, an opportunity for the freshmen to build chemistry and trust from game situations could be irretrievably lost for the 2014-15 season.
But don’t think for a second Theus and the Matadors might say “Olé!” to the season.
“I felt we could compete for the conference championship. And I still think we can,” Theus said. “Right now we are shorthanded. But we have the tools to compete. Some of it depends on how fast the freshmen get acclimated to college.
“Right now we look good going through the airport,” he added, chuckling.
It would be silly for people to question Theus after one weekend, though I’m not discounting there may be cyberspace voices ready to do just that. That despite Theus’ college and pro career cred, there’s no way to build a big-time program here.
Isn’t that what websites and chatrooms are for?
But since he first turned heads at Inglewood High, then later on at UNLV and the NBA teams including Chicago, Orlando and Sacramento, Theus has never ducked a challenge. He won’t turn away from this one. He roars with fervor on how Northridge can go from a NCAA basketball outlier to a regular tournament team. That the reach does not exceed the grasp.
“I think (Athletic Director) Dr. Martin and (CSUN) President Diane Harrison have done a great job in terms of putting the pieces together we need to be successful,” Theus said. “Things take time. If they want to build a program the right way, it takes time.
“We made a huge jump last year. If you ask people at the university, they would say from where team was to where we are now it’s a different program and different mindset. The amount of positive conversation we’ve had around the country — recruiting has broadened tremendously, the branding of the school…I think hiring me was part of branding. I think things are moving in the right direction.”
As Theus delivers one final declaration, the early hoarseness in his voice is gone.
“I believe it will come to fruition. It’s about players and coaching them up. I know what I can do in terms of getting players and coaching players. Now you have to have some luck, and an administration that supports you.”