Maybe — just maybe — we are seeing the beginning revival of the CSUN men’s basketball program, a resuscitation that began in 2013 when Coach Reggie Theus was hired amid much fanfare and anticipation.
If nothing else, we can finally see what Theus can do with a full team.
“If you’re looking at this thing realistically,” Theus said, “this is Year One for me.”
The Matadors began the week 6-9 overall. But they were 2-0 in conference play — tied with UC Davis and UC Irvine — and took a three-game winning streak into Wednesday’s game at Long Beach State who, along with Irvine, was a preseason favorite to win the Big West.
Theus has been blending transfers with his returners and recruits. Three of this year’s transfers — Dylan Johns, Darin Johnson, and Rakim Lubin — have been starters. Returning player Kendall Smith, the team’s leading scorer (15.5), was a transfer from UNLV.
They’ve come through a rugged nonconference schedule that included games against Stanford, St. Johns, Texas A&M and UCLA. In fact CSUN and Oregon are the only teams to have led UCLA at halftime.
Now the Matadors have moved into conference play. In the opening weekend wins against UC Riverside and Fullerton, CSUN used second half comebacks to secure the victories. Theus saw glimpses of the things he and his coaching staff have been stressing with the players since November coming into a sharper focus.
“In order for them to learn, they have to have success,” the coach said. “You can’t learn from failure all the time. Winning is the best teacher there is, because you can go to the absolutes. ‘This is how we played the first half, this is why we won the game.’
“What I saw ( against Fullerton) was some carryover from (Riverside). In the second half, I saw our guys come a little bit more together defensively. …. I don’t take this as an excuse, but our schedule [has been tough]. We can play great and still lose those games. I just think we’ve made some adjustments defensively, and some stronger emphasis on some things offensively. And I think it’s helped our mentality.”
Despite an overall losing record so far at Northridge, Theus has taken the Matadors to the Big West Conference tournament twice in his three previous seasons, reaching the tournament’s championship game in 2014.
But Theus has also had to endure squads fractured by injuries, and then have the program dogged by an NCAA investigation that claimed former director of operations for men’s basketball Lior Schwartzberg acted “unethically” by providing “impermissible academic benefits” to 10 student-athletes, violations the school self-reported.
Penalties included a self-imposed one year ban on post-season play (served in 2015-16), three years probation, a loss of two scholarships a $5,000 fine and one percent of the men’s basketball budget.
Theus did nothing wrong and was cleared by the NCAA of any improprieties. But he had to be there and withstand any accusations of cheating or rules violations.
“The only thing I can say, honestly, is we all have to be in it together,” Theus said. “I knew the things that had gone on, what had happened. But, for me, I’m just glad I had dotted the ‘I’s’ and crossed the ’T’s’ in the paperwork. And I had great support from the university. I still do.
“It’s something that, if I can say this, we are better as a university and a basketball program today because in the midst of all the negative, we got better.”
The university showed its support with a contract extension that runs through 2019. The clouds of uncertainty are gone. It’s just about basketball again — with a full team. Not seven or eight who are eligible or healthy. A full complement.
What about the chatter and potshots from those outside of CSUN?
“I can’t worry about that,” Theus said. “Because I already know. You only know what you know. And I know it doesn’t happen like that. It could, but that would be abnormal. There’s always a learning curve.
“But we have a full team. So what I’m saying is, where we started off this season, and where we are now, we’re a much better basketball team today than when we started the season. And I’m hoping by the end of January or February that we’ve taken another leap.”
There will be 13 conference games after Long Beach before the Big West tournament, which sends the winner to the NCAA Field of 68. Thirteen more games in this season for Theus to keep constructing the vision he has for CSUN men’s basketball with “the best pieces, collectively” he’s had to work with in his four seasons.
Coaches are loathe to ever look beyond the game in front of them. But Theus cautiously foresees these Matadors becoming a solid Big West contender — if they are willing to do a few more things together.
“Trust in each other. Camaraderie. Cohesion. These are all things a team has,” Theus said. “And just a grind-it-out, tough mentality. Another word I’ll throw out there is ‘buy-in.’
“Today we’re better than we were a month ago. And if we continue down this path, a month from now we should be really close to a place where we can make some noise.”