Cal State Northridge plays short-handed in wake of school decision

Cal State Northridge, coached by Reggie Theus, has played short-handed since school announcement

The end of the bench overflowed with Cal State Northridge basketball players dressed in sweats, the line of chairs snaking from the scorer's table to the corner of the court.

A full bench, and near-empty bench. Only three of the players were actually in uniform, substitutes for a team that saw its season go sideways before it began.

In early November, three days before the Matadors' first exhibition game, Athletic Director Brandon Martin announced in a statement that Northridge would “sit several basketball players due to potential violations of team rules and university policies until a full and thorough investigation is completed.” He did not identify the players involved, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which usually indicates academic issues.

There has been no other information about the situation, and university officials have given no timetable for a resolution.

Six players — five freshmen and a transfer — have practiced but not played a minute. The team's director of basketball operations is not with the team.

Northridge's basketball team was hoping for an NCAA tournament berth this season, but now the short-handed Matadors are fighting just to qualify for the Big West Conference postseason tournament.

Eight teams make it. Northridge, 7-21 overall and 2-10 in conference play, is in eighth place, just ahead of Cal State Fullerton (9-16, 1-9).

“The season has been up and down,” second-year Coach Reggie Theus said. “A bit of a short bench, but the guys have played hard.

“The hard part is that we're in every game…. When things get a little tight and something happens, you don't have very many places to go.”

In a loss at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo last week, Northridge had nine players available. The Matadors had eight players for last Saturday's loss at home to UC Santa Barbara.

During a halftime interview at the Santa Barbara game, Martin declined to address specifics of the investigation — “You can never really pinpoint how long these things are going to take,” he said — but described the situation as “an opportunity for student-athletes and team to come together in a time of uncertainty. And that's what they've done.”

Northridge's program appeared energized in April 2013 when, two months after he was hired, Martin brought in Theus to replace the fired Bobby Braswell.

A former NBA player and coach, Theus had apprenticed under Louisville's Rick Pitino and then led New Mexico State to the NCAA tournament.

Northridge was 15-17 overall and finished 7-9 in conference play last season before Theus guided the Matadors to the Big West tournament title game.

Northridge trailed Cal Poly by a point with less than five seconds left when the Matadors were called for an offensive foul on a made basket. Cal Poly hung on for the victory and advanced to the NCAA tournament.

“We were one play away,” senior swingman Stephan Hicks said.

Hicks, who averaged 17 points and nearly seven rebounds last season, and forward Stephen Maxwell, who averaged 17 points and nearly nine rebounds, were distraught by the loss but buoyed by the opportunity that awaited this season.

So was Theus.

“We had a really tough schedule,” he said, “but I thought it was going to be a very competitive season for us.”

Then came Martin's announcement.

“I was down,” said Maxwell, who is averaging 14.8 points and 7.9 rebounds. “I mean, it's my senior season. But I wasn't going to let it stop me. I'm still going to play as hard as I possibly can and help my team win.”

Said Hicks, who is averaging 15.6 points: “I was shocked, but I didn't let it get to me. I came every day ready to work.”

Northridge commissioned attorney Carl Botterud to lead an independent investigation that reportedly centers on online course work. Botterud wrote a September report of an unrelated investigation into a fatal Northridge fraternity hazing incident that occurred last July.

Botterud declined to comment about the basketball investigation.

Jeff Noblitt, Northridge's associate vice president for marketing and communications, said in an email that the investigation was ongoing and the university “has not put a timetable on the report.”

Lior Schwartzberg, CSUN's director of basketball operations, is not currently with the team and Martin declined to comment about his status. Attempts to reach Schwartzberg were unsuccessful.

This is not the first time academics and basketball at Northridge have been scrutinized.

In 2004, the NCAA penalized Northridge after the school self-reported that an assistant basketball coach had arranged to have two other assistant coaches alter the transcripts of a player to keep him eligible.

In 2011-2012, Northridge was banned from postseason play because of a subpar score on the annual Academic Progress Rate report, which measures the number of student-athletes who remain in school and are academically eligible over a four-year period.

“We're just looking for it to be over,” Theus said of the current investigation.

Northridge officials have declined to identify the players who have been held out.

Freshman guards Micheal Warren, Jerron Wilbut and Miles Nolen-Webb, freshman forwards Jibreel Faulkner and Tavrion Dawson and junior center Kevin Johnson, a transfer, are listed on Northridge's roster and statistics information, but none have played this season. Freshman forward Zacarry Douglas played in two games but none since Nov. 16.

Asked if he would utilize the suspended players if the investigation concluded before the end of the season, Theus said, “I'd be happy if it happened and I have that option, but we just have to wait and see.”

Maxwell and Hicks said they attempt to counsel and encourage those who aren't playing.

“They keep us energized, they keep our confidence building and we keep their confidence building,” Maxwell said.

Cal Poly Coach Joe Callero does not count out the Matadors, especially under Theus.

“I can just see that by the way he carries himself and the way the team's like, ‘OK, this is what we've got. Let's go play,'” Callero said after his team's victory over Northridge. “They're dangerous.”

Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein

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