For UC Riverside, It’s a Full-Throttle Approach
It’s kind of like ice cream, UC Riverside basketball Coach David Spencer tells his players. Of course, you love ice cream. Say your favorite flavor is strawberry.
“I tell you that you can eat all the strawberry ice cream you want,” Spencer said. “Then you finish the first gallon and I pass you the second gallon. All of a sudden, it’s not so easy, eating all that ice cream.”
Spencer, 56, the white-haired, havoc-raising first-year coach of the Highlanders, is offering players the chance to play basketball’s version of all-you-can-eat ice cream. He has a four-year contract and a commitment to play Paul Westhead basketball: Run, run, run! Shoot, shoot, shoot! Press, press, press!
The Highlanders are not equipped with players able to handle the pace yet. The frantic beauty of running basketball was showcased in Riverside’s 162-123 exhibition win over Redlands, but now the real season has started and the Highlanders are 0-3, with road losses at Washington State and Portland, and a home defeat to San Diego.
The running game may turn out to be only a quixotic experiment by Spencer.
“Maybe what I’ll find out is that without Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, this doesn’t work,” he said.
Spencer was an assistant coach at USC when Kimble and Gathers transferred to Loyola Marymount, where Westhead was coaching.
Spencer watched with amazement and joy as the Lions entertained the nation and beat good teams while taking 70, 80 or 100 shots a game. But when Gathers died during a tournament game and Kimble went to the NBA, Loyola Marymount’s program disappeared and few other college teams were willing to mimic Westhead.
“I don’t think there’s a single team in [NCAA] Division I that’s trying it now,” Spencer said. “But I think Paul was brilliant in coaching it and he said that if he took over a college program now, he’d do the same thing.”
Spencer took over a woebegone program last summer, one that hasn’t won more than 11 games since 2000, when the Highlanders moved up from Division II, where they had won consistently, to Division I. They are 42-89 in this decade. Average attendance was about 600 last season and for the home opener last Saturday against San Diego, Riverside attracted 262.
“Are you crazy?” was a question Spencer heard when he accepted the position.
“But I’m not,” he said. “I’m a man who has waited all his life for a college head-coaching job and now that I have it I’m not going to do something that won’t work.”
After beginning his career as an assistant to his Delaware college coach, Dan Peterson, for Chile’s national team in the early 1970s, Spencer spent 18 years as an assistant at Colorado State, Pacific, USC, Long Beach State, Hawaii and Nevada. He even spent a year coaching in Dubai.
He was never offered a head coaching job, though, and turned to other things, working as an agent and, for the last four years, as Riverside’s athletic department academic coordinator.
Stan Morrison, his boss at Pacific and USC, is the Highlanders’ athletic director and Spencer said he didn’t hesitate a minute when Morrison offered him the coaching job last spring.
“I’ve always wanted to run a program. Why wouldn’t I take the chance?” Spencer said.
He spent time this summer with Westhead.
“I asked him every question I could think of,” Spencer said. “What’s the hardest thing? Getting the kids in condition to run the court for 40 minutes. You have to be in better shape than everybody else and since every college player is in good shape you have to be in excellent shape.”
Dedrick Bates, a junior guard from Manual Arts High, said, “I feel like we’re guinea pigs in a way. Practice is exhausting. You have to be in great condition. But it’s a different kind of condition. You’re running and getting physically banged, passing it, shooting it, pressing on defense and the whole time coaches are yelling that you’re not doing it right.”
Senior guard Rickey Porter of Mater Dei said the hard part of learning the system “is all the running. Running, running, running. You think you’re in shape and then you come to practice and you realize you’re not in shape.”
Bates said that his head was spinning at the end of each practice.
“Each drill is so fast,” he said. “Before you can catch your breath, there’s a new drill starting.”
Westhead, recently named coach of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, said he was not surprised when Spencer looked him up over the summer.
“I know David, I know he watched us closely and I know he’s serious about it,” Westhead said.
“In some respects it’s a very simple system. But it’s not easy to accomplish. If you started the season with the democratic approach and said, ‘Who wants to run this year?’ probably 100% of the guys would raise their hands. Ten days into practice, ask the same question, the number would go down significantly.
“With the fastbreak program, there’s no slacking off, no backing off, no pretty good. Pretty good and the fastbreak don’t do it. You have to be very good.”
UC Riverside isn’t very good at it yet. Bates knows that until they are, the Highlanders aren’t going to win often. “Most young players want to play fast and up-tempo,” Bates said. “But if you don’t win, players won’t come. No player wants to be part of a losing program. If a top player wants to come to the Big West, right now they’ll consider Cal State Fullerton or Pacific or Northridge. We have to stand out.”
Westhead, though, said Spencer didn’t have to recruit superstars.
“The quality of the players is not the paramount issue,” Westhead said. “It’s the incredible commitment players have to give to the system and to one another.”
Oh, and the players in Phoenix will be learning the system under Westhead when practice begins this spring.
Only one Pacific-10 Conference team, 1-2 Oregon State, has a losing record, but Pac-10 teams haven’t made much of a national impact yet.
Washington is 6-0 but hasn’t played outside Seattle. The Huskies will play host to sixth-ranked Gonzaga on Sunday, then their one and only road game until conference play begins is in Anaheim at the Wooden Classic Dec. 10 against New Mexico.
Arizona (2-2) beat a below-average Kansas team and non-threatening Virginia but lost to No. 3 Connecticut and No. 13 Michigan State at the Maui Invitational.
Unbeaten Oregon (4-0) counts Rice, Pacific, Savannah State and Bowie State as victims.
The bad losses have been more noticeable. Oregon State has already lost to Tennessee Tech and Fresno State. Stanford was upset by UC Irvine, Washington State lost to Brigham Young. USC has lost to Cal State Northridge and Oral Roberts, with UC Riverside up tonight.
Lessons Not Learned
Bob Huggins lost his job as coach at the University of Cincinnati last summer mainly because of his very public arrest for drunk driving.
Over the weekend, Bearcat assistant Keith LeGree, who played for Huggins, was charged with driving under the influence. He resigned Monday. LeGree had been acquitted of a similar charge last summer.
Interim Coach Andy Kennedy, another former Huggins assistant, is not being allowed to replace LeGree.
Do As I Say ...
Temple Coach John Chaney, who has not always kept his own emotions in check, lectured his home fans Sunday, calling some of them “idiots.”
As the Owls were finishing off a 73-56 win over Miami, an unidentified fan threw debris on the court, interrupting the game.
“To endanger the lives of these kids is not our way,” Chaney said. “Always remember, stupid is forever. You can’t change stupidity. So if somebody’s sitting next to you, make them recognize that we do not allow that here at Temple.”
Arguments were made that Chaney had done some stupid things himself, including threatening to strangle then-Massachusetts coach John Calipari and sending in one of his own seldom-used players specifically to commit hard fouls against St. Joseph’s last season, but Chaney pointed out that he also had owned up to his mistakes and been punished.
“I might do a lot of dumb things,” he told Philadelphia reporters, “but I don’t tolerate them.”