By Phil Collin
Fullerton, Calif., November 23, 2016 – Not only are Dayton and CSUN on the opposite sides of the country, they are on far different levels of the mid-major spectrum.
Dayton, under Coach Archie Miller, has developed into the state-of-the-art mid-major racking up a 31-12 record over the past decade against the so-called Power 5 conference schools. CSUN, under Coach Reggie Theus, has to scramble for notoriety in the talent hotbed of Southern California.
Not surprisingly, they take mismatched perspectives into this weekend’s Wooden Legacy, which opens Thursday at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Gym.
“There’s no lack of confidence,” Miller said of his Flyers, who are 2-1 and will face Nebraska (3-0) in the opening round. “I think our program and what we’ve been about these last three, four years in particular has given us a chance to feel like we belong. And when you get out there, you play with an edge, with a chip on your shoulder. We don’t get caught up in the name on the front or what league they’re in, it’s just the ability to go out there and win our game.”
Dayton, which won twice in the NCAA Tournament last season, has been picked to win the Atlantic 10 Conference title this year and has three seniors who are part of a class that has already won 80 of the first 109 games.
CSUN (2-2), meanwhile, has been picked to finish third in the Big West Conference and is perennially chasing the shadows cast by UCLA and USC in Los Angeles, not to mention conference rivals Long Beach State, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara in greater Southern California.
“I like being picked third because we haven’t had the type of season that would warrant (the media pollsters) to just automatically anoint us anything,” said Theus, the former NBA star. “But I like our talent, I like our depth, I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t compete for the top of the conference.”
Naturally, Theus likes the underdog role in this eight-team tournament, which includes No. 14 UCLA (4-0). The Matadors open against Texas A&M, which went 28-9 in 2015-2016.
“To get this kind of talent on a neutral court, it wouldn’t happen otherwise, so this is a tremendous opportunity for us,” Theus said. “All the pressure’s in them. We just have to come out and play. I love the idea, we play in this gym (in the Big West) and we play in the Honda Center too, so it’s great for us all the way around.”
The three seniors responsible for the four-year run at Dayton are guards Scoochie Smith and Kyle Davis and forward Kendall Pollard. But no matter who it is, the tone has been set for the program.
“One thing is you hope that the winning culture starts and stops with those guys, and you hope that because they’ve been in so many big games regardless of who’s mixed in or who’s new or who’s a little bit inexperienced, follows suit,” Miller said. “Regardless, each team is different, each season is different. The one thing we try to do a great job of is establishing a way of practicing every day and having a way that we play and don’t change. Try to be consistent. We need our upperclassmen to play well but also the new guys, younger guys, less experienced guys need to feed of them.”
How do Theus, a high school star at nearby Inglewood and a college star at Nevada-Las Vegas, and CSUN begin to make strides in reaching the status of Dayton? Theus is concerned more about the on-campus building more than the building of a program merely by recruiting.
“I look at CSUN like San Diego State when they first started off, Gonzaga when they first started off,” Theus said. “The biggest factor in that, because we have an amazing recruiting bed, as good as any place in the country, the transformation for our program will really hinge on getting a facility. That is the No. 1 thing that will change our program. Getting players I have no problem with. Competing with facilities around the country and people seeing the bigger practice facilities and places to play, that sometimes is a problem.”
Both teams get their chances. The tournament continues Friday at Cal State Fullerton, then concludes on Sunday at the Honda Center in Anaheim.