When you’re a modern university athletic department without football, basketball often becomes your school’s crown jewel by default. That is especially true with so-called “mid-majors” like Cal State University Northridge, because basketball still offers high visibility and alumni support at a fraction of the cost of football.
The question for Division I schools not in power conferences like the Pac-12 or the ACC is how to define success — or the pursuit of same.
The deck is perennially stacked against mid-majors, in terms of recruiting and facilities. They rarely, if ever, get more than one team from their conference into the NCAA postseason tournament. Oftentimes it’s the team that won its conference tournament, which secures an automatic bid. And the seedings for those “automatic bids” are usually low, practically guaranteeing those teams will be eliminated the first or second weekend.
It’s why in today’s modern era, at least on the men’s side (a 65-team bracket), you don’t see more Butlers or George Masons claw their way into a Final Four or championship final game, although Marquette University won the 1977 championship as an independent. On the women’s side — which has only had a NCAA tournament since 1982 — Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion are the only teams from a non-power conference to win a title. And Louisiana Tech last did it in 1988.
The Matadors men’s and women’s teams are certainly aware of the degree of difficulty they are facing. And they are pursuing the 2018-19 Big West Conference tournament titles, and any and all NCAA tourney glory that comes afterward, from two vastly different perspectives.
In a perfect world the women’s team, which has a home exhibition game scheduled against the Master’s University (in Santa Clarita) before beginning the regular season Nov. 6 on the road against the University of Idaho, would have the higher profile. It won the conference tournament for the third time last spring, and as a 16th seed gave host Notre Dame (which won the national title) a spirited first round match before eventually losing, 99-81.
The Lady Matadors return nine letter winners and all five starters — most notably senior center and player of the year candidate Channon Fluker, and senior guard Sarafina Maulupe (who got a sixth year of eligibility after sustaining severe knee injury in a December practice last year, which kept her to 10 games).
It’s arguably the deepest, most experienced CSUN team that Coach Jason Flowers has had at Northridge. It’s a key reason, Flowers said, he went out of his way to schedule as hard as he could, wanting to give his players every chance to be battle-tested and battle-proven for the postseason.
“If you look back over the history of our program, we’ve always played top teams regardless of what’s been going on here,” Flowers, entering his ninth season, said at the team’s recent media day. “Our schedule is [tough] by design. And I think these women have the opportunity to do things that have never been done here. To find out how good you are, you have to play the best. That’s why we scheduled the way we did.”
But that schedule is the only pressure Flowers and his staff are exerting on the team. There’s no added buildup, no pre-season inflation of expectations to create an impossible dream.
“Obviously we set goals in the beginning of the year,” Flowers said. “But whether we cut down the nets [at the Big West Tournament] or don’t doesn’t dictate success or failure for us. We go through the process on a daily basis and the result takes care of itself. There are some things you can control, and some things you can’t control that play a factor in whether you win championships or not.
“We’ve been fortunate in three of the last five years in how things have played out. Our young people have done the work it takes to be successful for that last game at the Honda Center. But that being said, if they know the things we talk about on a daily basis — and, more importantly, if they become the young people they’re supposed to become — then the score of one basketball game doesn’t dictate success or failure for us.”
By contrast the men’s team — which played an inter-squad game on Oct. 23, and plays exhibition games Oct. 25 (Antelope Valley) and 27 (Cal State LA) before opening the season Nov. 6 at home against New Mexico — is a polar opposite. There are eight freshmen being added to a team that went 6-24 last season overall (3-13 in conference) and saw the dismissal of Coach Reggie Theus, as well as Athletic Director Brandon Martin. (The two men reportedly had a heated altercation after Martin informed Theus he was being removed as coach).
Theus was hired in 2013 to raise the Matadors basketball profile both regionally and nationally. But Theus (53-105) never had a winning season in his five years here, and the program was dogged by an academic fraud scandal that led to three years of NCAA probation through December 2019. The Matadors have not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2009.
The weight for carrying the athletic department here, at least in the public’s perception, is different for the men than the women. Generally more is expected of the men’s program since more people pay to see it.
It’s just that the real drama may not be on the court.
The CSUN administration took another collective swing at instant credibility by hiring well-known coach Mark Gottfried, who was let go by North Carolina State at the end of its 2017-18 season, and spent the past year working for the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.
He’s been a winner at every head coaching stop — Alabama, NC State, Murray State. Among his hires for Northridge was Jim Harrick, who had employed Gottfried as an assistant when Harrick won a national championship at UCLA in 1995. Another new staffer is Mo Williams, who played for Gottfried at Alabama and then 13 seasons in the NBA with seven teams (including the Clippers). He won a NBA championship with Cleveland in 2015.
But there are reasons why Gottfried (401-241 over 20 seasons) was available. One could be that, in January a federal grand jury had requested personnel files from when he was still at North Carolina State because of an ongoing FBI investigation into alleged payments to families and players, according to published reports.
Gottfried has not been accused of doing anything wrong. And he has said he cannot comment while the investigation is ongoing, although he does not expect any strange or dire revelations.
It’s a safe bet that CSUN officials can void Gottfried’s contract if there is something unexpected that comes out. But Northridge is desperate to wedge out some turf on the SoCal college basketball landscape that includes UCLA, USC, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount, Fullerton, Long Beach State, and others. The program can ill-afford another elongated setback.
On media day, Gottfried did his best to tamp down expectations for this year.
“The facts are, we have one player that’s played significant minutes” — Terrell Gomez (a 5-8 sophomore guard who was the Big West freshman of the year, averaging 11.7 points and 3.6 assists, numbers that increased to 12.6 points and 4.1 assists in conference play). He’s a terrific, terrific player and a great person. But just about everybody else that will play, will be playing Division I basketball for the very first time in their lives. That’s going to be…interesting,” Gottfried said.
“We’re not going to be a team that walks the ball up-and-down the floor; we’re gonna try and score in the 80s and 90s, play at a fast pace. But, they are very young and very inexperienced. We have eight freshmen on the roster; that’s a lot. I’d think if I’m a fan, I’d come and watch this team play. I have a feeling our fans will fall in love with our team. They’re gonna play really hard, and grow up together. That’s gonna be fun.”
Of course, with all the (unwanted) attention Gottfried could still garnish — not to mention the constant battle to attract talent here — it’s fair to wonder how much of the team’s development he will actually witness.