Cameron Dollar leaned against a wall inside Orleans Arena and shook his head. With eyes as red as the Seattle University button on his sports...
LAS VEGAS — Cameron Dollar leaned against a wall inside Orleans Arena and shook his head. With eyes as red as the Seattle University button on his sports coat, the coach looked back over a season of close losses and frustrating performances and blamed one person for the disappointment.
“We didn’t overachieve,” Dollar said. “We didn’t get anything we weren’t supposed to get. And I thought we would. Ultimately, that falls on me. I should be good enough to help us win a few of these.”
The Seattle U men’s basketball season had just ended painfully, yet fittingly, with a 68-56 loss to Texas State on Tuesday in the first round of the Western Athletic Conference tournament. In their first season in the WAC, the Redhawks made a habit of losing these kinds of games. They finished last in the league with a 3-15 record during the regular season, and 12 of those defeats came by single digits. And eight of those came by five points or less. Every devastating loss had familiar symptoms: turnovers, missed free throws, poor decision-making and timid play with the game on the line.
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In his first three seasons, Dollar’s teams had been so good at attacking games, beating opponents they had no business beating and finding a way to win enough close contests to stay relevant during this difficult transition back to Division I. Not this year. As a result, Seattle U finished 8-22.
On Tuesday night, Texas State scored the game’s first eight points against a skittish Seattle U, never trailed in the first half and led by as many as 12 points. But Seattle U went on a 12-0 run and tied the score at 36 early in the second half.
“We played with more energy than in the first half,” said senior forward Chad Rasmussen, who scored 11 points. “They really jumped on us. We wanted to come out and show that we weren’t timid. We wanted to step on the gas pedal on our end.
Senior guard Prince Obasi led the Redhawks with 13 points and 10 rebounds, and freshman forward Deshaun Sunderhaus had 15 points.
Still, it never felt as if Seattle U, which committed 19 turnovers, would win.
It was striking to see the talent difference as the Bobcats ran an up-tempo system similar to what the Redhawks prefer to employ, except with better athletes, better ballhandling and better poise.
And it’s not like Texas State is a Division I juggernaut. The Bobcats finished seventh in the WAC at 5-13. They are 11-21 overall this season. But that tells you how far the Redhawks must come to graduate from the worst team in the league to merely a bad one. Seattle U does a good job of competing and junking up games just enough to stay close, but they couldn’t finish this season.
As Dollar admitted, he didn’t coach them well enough to develop the toughness and execution required to win tight conference games. But it’s not as simple as Dollar needing to coach ‘em up better. You can fool yourself into believing that the Redhawks should be significantly better than they are, but I still see a team with a lot of players trying to compete above their heads. I still see a program struggling because this transition is so taxing.
The Redhawks still have a lot of players better suited for Division II on this roster. And much of their true D-I talent consists of projects. Because of the excruciating process they went through to become a full D-I member again, they’re still in the tweener stage of their roster development. That’s why this team performs in such a ragged way. Include the fact that Dollar is a first-time coach at this level, and this program is defined by on-the-job learning.
“I just think all year long I haven’t done a good job of getting these guys ready to go,” Dollar said. “That’s disappointing. Ultimately, that’s my responsibility, to get them ready to go. A couple of times this season, the lights were bright, and we weren’t ready to go.”
There is hope, however. Sunderhaus, a redshirt freshman, had a good first season and possesses star potential. Athletic forward Clarence Trent has another season of eligibility. Center Jack Crook has some raw talent, and guards D’Vonne Pickett Jr. and Jarell Flora gained valuable experience. Seattle U welcomes two high-caliber transfers at guard next season: former Federal Way High School star Isiah Umipig and California transfer Emerson Murray. The Redhawks should be much improved next season.
If you ask Dollar, though, he’ll tell you this wasn’t one of his most physically imposing teams. He plans on getting that edge back, among many other things.
“Am I going to get better during the offseason? You best believe I am,” Dollar said.
And so the coach returns to the lab, dismayed but not defeated.