Seattle University men's basketball coach Cameron Dollar pushed and prepared, then stumbled against rival Washington last week, showing how far the program has come and how far it has to go.
The coach sits in front of his team, head down, voice even lower. Before Cameron Dollar entered the locker room, you could have heard a shoestring drop. Now, it seems as if a stagehand has created some mood lighting for his melancholy monologue.
“It’s always tough when you leave the court, and you’ve got egg on your face for everybody to see,” the Seattle University men’s basketball coach says softly.
The egg: A timid performance in an 87-74 loss to Washington on Thursday night.
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The Redhawks had expected so much more against their crosstown rival. They began the night exclaiming, “Bring the fight to the fight!” By the end, they were perplexed over why they didn’t punch harder.
It was another difficult lesson along a long road that is being paved as they travel it. Seattle U is in its fifth season of transitioning back to Division I, and this storied basketball program is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time since its return after a 28-year hiatus. The Redhawks have graduated from independent to a member of the Western Athletic Conference, and the entire athletic department has enjoyed more initial success than many Division I startups. Still, the journey to find and sustain relevance has barely begun.
Seeking a progress report, I spent three days last week embedded with the Redhawks as they prepared for and played against Washington. The experience provided insight into where Seattle U has improved despite mediocre results, as well as its ongoing challenges. It also inadvertently opened a window to view how one coaching staff chose to attack a Washington team that is more limited than recent versions. And in case anyone has doubts, it emphasized once more that Dollar — the unrelenting fighter who has acquired a surprising (and necessary) level of patience — is the ideal coach to handle this situation.
In the middle of his postgame speech, the coach looks up and shares a grin.
“You’ve got to take this and put it in here,” he says, pointing to his head. “And let it burn. You can’t let an opportunity go by like this and not play your best because you froze. Can’t do that. Can’t do that.
“This is by no means a death sentence. This is a part of the growth process of getting better. I’m going to go out there, and I’m going to say, ‘I’m the head coach of Seattle U, and we’re going to be good.’ We’re going to keep getting better. We’re going to keep improving. We’re going to keep coming. Keep moving the needle forward. Do you understand?”
The players nod and reply in unison: “Yes, coach.”
Two days before: ‘Let’s dial in’
You know they won. You can see victory in the players’ carefree body language.
Seattle U began preparations for Washington after a 75-69 triumph over Eastern Washington on Monday. It was the Redhawks’ first road win of the season, and it evened their record at 3-3.
As players warm up before practice Tuesday afternoon at the Connolly Center, they laugh, trade barbs and challenge each other to shooting contests, reveling in the confidence and good spirits of victory.
Then Dollar enters the gym, flanked by his three children — Jalen, 7; Giselle, 5; and Jason, 3. The coach only needs to say “Let’s dial in!” for his players to go from playful to serious. They walk into the team’s new film room to talk about the Huskies.
Assistant coach Darren Talley goes over the scouting report. Talley and Dollar both worked under Washington coach Lorenzo Romar before coming to Seattle U. But Talley details that this is a different Husky team than the normal ballhawking, fast-breaking squads.
“They’re a wounded team looking for an identity right now,” Talley tells his players.
He goes over the particulars: New high-post offense, more of a half-court team. Perimeter players Abdul Gaddy, C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs will take 67 percent of their shots. Gaddy is the Huskies’ only experienced ballhandler, but defensive pressure can frustrate him. The Huskies don’t go to the basket as strong as they used to, but they’re quite skilled on the perimeter. Aziz N’Diaye is an awful free-throw shooter (42 percent), but he’s a factor on the boards and in the paint. Desmond Simmons is the Huskies’ toughest player, and Seattle U must be physical to avoid letting Simmons do all the little things.
The coaches have whittled down the game plan to three keys: 1) defensive rebounding, with all five players going to the glass; 2) defend the three-pointers and run Wilcox and Suggs off the three-point line; 3) play with big-game confidence, especially in the last five minutes.
“Competitive greatness is being at your best when your best is needed,” Dollar says repeatedly.
Dollar, in his fourth season at Seattle U, has led the program to numerous major upsets because the Redhawks scout so well and play their best against the big boys. They’ve beaten Oregon State twice, including a crazy 51-point triumph on the road in 2010. They’ve also beaten Virginia and Utah during this transition. As a result, they have developed a reputation as a team not to be dismissed. That’s huge, but it also means they can’t shock an opponent anymore.
“It’s a compliment to how coach Dollar has built our program, but teams prepare for that now,” senior forward Chad Rasmussen says. “It’s not a secret anymore.”
Over at Washington, Romar talked Tuesday about Dollar’s “pit bull” mentality and reminded his team not to overlook the Redhawks.
“They’re 3-3,” he says. “We’re 4-4. So I don’t know who’s better right now. We better go play.
“Don’t sleep, fellas.”
The day before: ‘Get ready to bring it’
With a carpet sample in his hand, Dollar walks toward his team’s locker room at the Connolly Center.
“Let’s go,” he says. “You have to see this.”
He gives a tour, explaining how Seattle U has done some renovations to give the men’s basketball team a better locker room. It looks nice in its red and black splendor, complete except for the lounge adjacent to it. Dollar turns on the lights in that unfinished room, revealing carpet that doesn’t match what was put down in the locker room. He pushed to get the lounge carpet as soon as possible for recruiting purposes, but the rush led to a mishap. Now it must be redone.
He bends over and puts down the carpet sample.
“Is that a match?” he asks.
Close enough, he decides.
The coach still does a little of everything. He’s not a one-man band, but this remains a lean operation, and Dollar is building the program from the carpet to the ceiling. When he returns to the basketball office, he peaks into the film room to observe wall decorations being installed. The workers ask if he likes it. He replies, “It’s coming together, baby!”
So is the UW game plan. While Dollar is worried that there’s too much buzz that the Redhawks could finally beat Washington, he does think his team has a chance. But he knows it will take a combination of the Huskies struggling and the Redhawks playing their best. That creates an inner conflict, Dollar says, because he’s still a huge Washington fan.
“I root harder for them than I do UCLA,” says Dollar, who helped the Bruins win the 1995 national title at the Kingdome. “Of course, I want UCLA to win, but I look at them like, ‘They’re fine. They’re good.’ When UCLA and Washington are playing, I just close my eyes.
“Romar, though, he’s family. And with Washington, they’re still climbing the ladder to be elite. So I’m pushing for them more because I know how hard it is. I see all the greatness Romar has done. As a family member, so to speak, I put my fists up when people criticize him and say, ‘Hey, don’t you realize what he’s done? The unprecedented success he’s had at Washington? Relax.’ “
Still, Dollar says, Washington-Seattle U won’t be a rivalry again until the Redhawks beat his old team: “If you don’t ever win, it’s just a gathering.”
At the end of practice Wednesday night, the Redhawks are doing a drill in which players must take a charge, get up and then dive after a loose ball. Dollar does it to make sure his team knows the kind of hustle it will take to win.
“Get ready to bring it!” the team declares as it huddles to end the last practice before the big game.
Game day: ‘We’ve got to create some life’
Junior forward Clarence Trent, a Washington transfer, is Seattle U’s leading scorer and rebounder. Hours before tipoff, he reflects upon changing schools.
“Luckily, when I left Washington, I was able to find the perfect spot,” Trent says. “I do think about what life would be like if I was somewhere else, in a different state, playing ball. It wouldn’t be the same for me. Coach Dollar knows me, and he pushes me, but he’s also strongly encouraging. I really feel like I’m maturing as a player and person.”
Dollar compares Trent to the entire program. They’re both improving gradually, staying patient and remaining focused through the turbulence.
“I think you’ll know more about where this program is four years from now than today,” Seattle U athletic director Bill Hogan says. “That’s when Cameron will have recruited for four years as a full Division I member. He hasn’t been recruiting with that standard for the first three years, but we’re much further ahead. You see the gains, the impact this is having on the university, and it’s all worth it.”
On Thursday night, there would be plenty of turbulence. Before the game, Dollar emphasizes another key part of the game plan: The Huskies will extend their man-to-man defense and try to employ their trademark defensive pressure despite not being as athletic as they have been. In those instances, Dollar tells his team to spread the floor and attack the defender off the dribble.
“There isn’t a guy on their roster who can stop you one-on-one,” Dollar says.
When the game begins, point guard D’Vonne Pickett Jr. finds himself in that situation twice in the first four minutes, but instead of driving all the way to the basket against Gaddy, he dribbles to the free-throw line and dribbles back out.
The Redhawks play scared for most of the first half. The Huskies are far more aggressive, diving for loose balls, grabbing rebounds in traffic and even finishing at the rim after being chased off the three-point line — something the Seattle U coaches figured wouldn’t happen. The Huskies lead by as many as 27 points and take a 49-27 advantage into halftime.
“The facts are, we went out there and got spooked,” Dollar says during the break. “You can’t sit back. Can’t sit back. Don’t be afraid to mess up. We’ve got to create some life.”
Seattle U makes the score more respectable in the second half. The Redhawks open with an 11-2 run to trim the deficit to 51-38, but they could never get closer than 13.
They did create some life, however. Pickett wasn’t as timid, and struggling guard Sterling Carter came off the bench and played well.
The Redhawks’ second-half aggressiveness was a positive, but it came too late.
“I feel like I got shocked a little bit by the big lights,” Pickett admits. “I was timid, overthinking, instead of focusing on playing ball and doing what I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Dollar tells his players that he’ll take the blame for not putting them in better positions to succeed against the Huskies’ half-court defensive pressure. “That’s where the blowout was,” he says.
“We’ll get better,” Dollar says. “And I’ll coach them better.”
The coach sprawls out in a chair and shakes his head.
“This journey — it’s interesting at times, frustrating at times, exciting at times,” he says. “Sometimes, you put yourself out there, and you realize everybody is looking at you because you’re naked.”
The Redhawks won’t hide, though, not with Dollar as their coach. This is Seattle U, bare yet bold.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.