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Aztecs Bear the Learning Experiences : College basketball: With nine first-year Division I players, SDSU has coped.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can tell when a basketball team is loaded with rookies.

Jim Brandenburg, San Diego State’s coach, has them in abundance.

They are not too difficult to spot, really. Rookies don’t always give themselves enough time to get taped before practice. They begin the season by overpacking for road trips. They get lost in hotels.

And then, just when they seem to be getting the hang of things, one of them will look up in the middle of a game and see the crowd . . .

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Waving.

It happened toward the end of regulation time in SDSU’s 87-84 overtime victory over Wyoming here Feb. 3. One of the Wyoming players fouled out, and pandemonium was everywhere. Somebody called a timeout. As the Wyoming player walked toward his bench, several fans began waving goodbye to him.

Next thing Brandenburg knew, freshman Joe McNaull, slowly walking toward the SDSU bench, began waving back at the crowd.

“He kind of looked at the fans, then looked down at the kid,” Brandenburg said. “He didn’t understand what was going on.”

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Said SDSU center Marty Dow: “I thought he saw somebody in the stands he was waving to.”

McNaull, of course, denies this.

“I was waving to the (Wyoming) guy,” he said, laughing. “I was hyped up, man.”

Rookies.

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Of 13 players on SDSU’s roster, nine are in their first year of Division I competition. Three are community college transfers, two are redshirt freshmen, three are true freshmen and one is a sophomore who didn’t play last season because he didn’t meet academic requirements.

And the first-year guys are playing. Of the 10 players who get the most court time, seven are rookies.

SDSU’s starting lineup has been sprinkled with first-year guys. For most of the year, three of the five starters have been rookies. Currently, sophomore Ray Barefield (averaging four points and two assists a game) is starting at guard and community-college transfer Keith Balzer (10 points and four rebounds) and redshirt freshman Courtie Miller (seven points and three rebounds) are starting at forward.

A favorite line of former Marquette Coach Al McGuire’s is that the best thing about freshmen is when they become sophomores.

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“What he’s really saying is that after you go through a year of experience, you’re better, and more ready to cope,” Brandenburg said. “For example, in the future, I think Joe McNaull will be much more competitive against (Brigham Young) because of the physical beating he took from Steve Schreiner this year.”

McNaull had a rough time Feb. 7 at BYU. Schreiner, an imposing senior who knows the tricks in a physical game, had 18 points and 13 rebounds. McNaull, a raw freshman who has been impressive at times, wasn’t ready for a player as physical as Schreiner. In 16 minutes, McNaull had only two points and one rebound. His defense wasn’t strong, either.

Brandenburg is in his fourth season, and yet the majority of his players are rookies. There are various reasons for this. Of his 31 recruits going into this year, 13 either left the team before completing their eligibility or failed to qualify academically before enrollment.

Also, Brandenburg took over a team in complete disarray. The Aztecs were 5-25 in 1986-87, the year before he arrived. Brandenburg says it has taken him this long to get quality freshmen.

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“It’s reflective of the situation I came into, when we were trying to get a base of freshman players,” Brandenburg said. “It has taken us this long to get to the point where we have a base of quality freshman players.

“The situation has been protracted. The first year, we got a late start. The second, we had a hard time recruiting quality freshmen. The third, we started to get a few and they redshirted.”

So, despite the fact that they practiced last season, last year’s redshirts--Miller, Terrence Hamilton and Nelson Stewart--are really rookies. Stewart, though, is out for the year with a sprained ankle.

“A year of practice is not like a year of competition,” Brandenburg said. “The workload, the length of (the season), the intensity, all of these things are very much more. There is an adjustment socially, culturally, academically and athletically.”

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To say the least. Earlier this year, freshman guard Chris McKinney started to make plans to return home to East St. Louis, Ill., for the Christmas holidays. He made plane reservations for a few days before Christmas and scheduled his return for Dec. 26. He didn’t realize Division I basketball players don’t necessarily get holidays off. Brandenburg scheduled a practice for Christmas night. McKinney changed his plane reservations.

The stories go on. They start with conditioning drills in the fall. Conditioning for major college basketball is a bit more than running a few sprints in a high school gym. The basketball team was running four days a week.

“The new guys were just dying,” said assistant coach Jim Harrick.

Then there are study halls, which SDSU players must attend for a couple of hours a night Monday through Thursday, and classes . . “The first time they realized this was going to be a full-time job was when I checked up on them in class,” Harrick said.

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Imagine. You’re new to school. You’ve got these domineering coaches all over you, making you run every day, making you go to study hall and meeting with you. You figure, at least you should get a few minutes free during the day. So you’re sitting in class, you look up, and you see Harrick smiling and waving at you through the doorway.

Or, imagine it’s worse. Harrick comes looking for you in class, and you aren’t there.

“They tell everyone, ‘Harrick’s out head-hunting today . . . make sure you’re in class,’ ” Harrick said. “So then I get these phone messages. ‘Hey, I can’t make it to my 11 o’clock today,’ for whatever reason.”

But the real fun starts once a player’s first Division I season opens. McNaull once confessed to Harrick, “I can’t believe all of these different defenses we have to learn.”

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At a team dinner in Albuquerque, N.M., an Aztec who will go unnamed wondered: Which team is in Albuquerque?

Then there was Miller, who was late to a film session one day.

“I was talking to my financial investor,” he explained.

Said senior Vern Thompson: “After everyone started laughing, he said he was meeting with Veston Thomas (SDSU’s director of student-athlete services).”

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Added Dow: “What about (Keith) Balzer? He comes in late to films and explains that he spent the last 20 minutes talking himself out of a ticket. He was successful, too.’

Players also have to adjust to the length and intensity of practices. But, of course, coaches have to adjust to the players.

Who knows which is worse?

“Balzer tried to (de-pants) me in the middle of practice,” Thompson said. “Coach Brandenburg was instructing the big men, and he turned around just as I grabbed my shorts and pulled them up real quick. I pointed to Keith, and he had a straight face. Finally, he started cracking up. Coach couldn’t help but start laughing.”

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You don’t want to laugh at the wrong time. High school stars might get away with that, but college coaches quickly let you know who’s in charge. Barefield has his routine down. When something is funny in practice, he starts biting his fingernails.

Rookies always want to know arena capacities when they’re on the road. They want to know city populations. Sometimes, they want to borrow money from coaches.

“A lot of the first-year guys think we’re supposed to take care of them,” Harrick said. “They’ll ask, ‘Hey, can I borrow $20? I’ll pay you back tomorrow.’ They don’t realize those are rules violations. If I weren’t a coach and you weren’t my player . . . Then they’ll get into, ‘If I’m on my deathbed and dying, you can’t give me a meal?’ ”

With all of these other things to think about, it figures that rookies’ minds sometimes get lost in the ebb and flow of a game, not to mention a season.

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Brandenburg, who said this is one of the youngest college teams he has coached, attributes some of SDSU’s inconsistency this season to youth. For example, the Aztecs trailed Wyoming by 14 at halftime here before coming back to win in overtime. They played well Feb. 9 at Utah, but came home and got whipped by Colorado State, 67-50, the next time out. In December, SDSU led Baylor by 24 in the first half, substituted and the lead dropped to 10 at halftime. The Aztecs ended up winning, 84-70.

“They just lack the experience that allows them to know what’s going to happen,” Brandenburg said. “They just don’t seem to understand what it takes. Until you’ve actually been on a road trip to Utah or to New Mexico and Texas El Paso . . .

“We didn’t play good defense down the stretch against Hawaii (in last week’s 84-79 overtime loss). We let one get away from us. They will remember that, and maybe take their defensive assignments a little more seriously next time.”

This all affects coaching.

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“I think you have to be much more repetitive (as a coach),” Brandenburg said. “You have to be very communicative and show a great deal of patience. And you cannot be as sophisticated and complicated as you would like.”

Said assistant coach Greg Graham: “After the first six weeks, you don’t think of them as freshmen. They’re your starters, or just players. You have to remind yourself of expectations at times.”

Or, sometimes, the players will remind you. Such as on trips, when upperclassmen make freshmen carry the gear.

“I think Joe (McNaull) has had a piece of equipment on every road trip so far,” Thompson said. “The video camera, extra shoe bags.”

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Or keys. The Aztecs arrived at a hotel on one trip this year and, as is their custom, met in Brandenburg’s room shortly after checking in. When the meeting was finished, Dow and McNaull--roommates for the trip--walked to their room. They arrived, and McNaull asked Dow about their key.

“I thought you had it,” Dow said.

McNaull didn’t, so he headed toward the elevator to return to the front desk for another key. As soon as he got into the elevator, Dow pulled out the key and let himself into the room.

“I come back up, and Marty is in the room on the bed, laughing,” McNaull said.

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It goes on and on. And as the Aztecs (12-14, 6-9 in the Western Athletic Conference) prepare for their season finale Saturday at Hawaii, they are a conference tournament away from putting the wraps on a season of ups and downs. A victory Saturday and they could finish as high as fifth in the WAC. A loss Saturday and they will finish eighth.

“I think they’ve lived up to our expectations,” Brandenburg said. “The young guys have accounted for themselves very well.”

And by next year, they won’t be so young.

“Next year, we’ve got a lot of freshmen coming in,” McNaull said. “I’ll get my revenge then.”

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SDSU’S YOUTH Contributions this season from the nine San Diego State players who are in their first year of Division I basketball:

Player G/GS MPG PPG RPG Balzer 14/11 22.1 9.9 3.9 Miller 26/15 17.9 6.8 2.5 McKinney 26/18 23.3 5.7 2.2 Lewis 20/1 10.8 5.5 1.0 McNaull 26/4 15.2 4.9 4.2 Barefield 26/9 19.0 3.7 2.4 Hamilton 17/0 10.0 2.8 1.7 Stewart 13/1 8.4 1.3 1.8 Powell 5/0 3.0 0.8 1.2

KEY: G/GS--Games/games started. MPG--Minutes per game. PPG--Points per game. RPG--Rebounds per game.


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