By Travis Rowney
Thanks in large part to the success of the Golden State Warriors, the Bay Area is a hot spot for basketball. More and more fans are getting involved in more than just the Warriors. Today, college basketball, and even high school basketball is also getting more recognition. Saint Mary’s is having their best season in years, remaining in the top 20 polls for the whole season. Cal has also been on the rise. With preseason All-American Ivan Rabb, the Bears are remaining in the top half of the tough Pac 12 conference. They are on the bubble watch, but gaining momentum as the season winds down. It’s a good time to be a Bay Area basketball fan.
However, there is one story that is quietly going under the radar. San Jose State basketball is secretly having their best season in years. They currently sit in the middle of the Mountain West Conference. They have a chance to record only their third winning season in the last 30 years.
Traditionally, San Jose State Basketball has been a subpar program. The Spartans have not made it to the NCAA tournament since 1996. Since that time, they have had only one winning season. The last couple years have been some of the worst in the program. The facts back it up. Since joining the Mountain West Conference in 2013, the Spartans have won a total of 18 games in three seasons. They have finished dead last all three years. In 2014-2015 the Spartans had 2 wins the whole season. Those 2 wins came against non-division 1 opponents. Head Coach Dave Wojchik has been at the helm those three seasons, taking the job in 2013. Coach Wojchik and that freshmen class of 2013 have endured a lot of tough times.
I would know. I am a recent alum of SJSU, graduating in May 2016. I have followed the recent history of the basketball team there. I went to some games while I had a free time. It wasn’t quite the home court advantage I had anticipated. The team was lucky to get around 100 or 200 fans, not including the students who got in for free. Even then, the student body wasn’t very passionate about basketball. It was something of an afterthought around San Jose State. Many people are probably unware that the school has a team.
I can recall one game a couple years ago. I don’t remember the team they were playing, but I feel they had more fans than we did. Also, our team was severely under talented. They only had eight players suited up. For a division 1 basketball team, it was hard to fathom. I later found out during the game that they had to borrow two players from the football team! It was a small team that was outmatched by every opponent that year. Apparently we had a full roster, but injuries and suspensions stripped the roster. Wojchik made the tough choice of suspending some of his top players for disciplinary reasons. He basically sacrificed the season in order to lay the foundation for a team of hard working, high character student athletes. Would all be for nothing though? For a while, I feared that they were going to shut down the program. It was that bad.
The 2015-2016 season showed progress. They managed to get a couple league wins under their belt and be competitive in the Mountain West. Despite finishing last place in the conference for three straight years, they had some momentum going into next season. With some good recruiting, there was hope for a talented young team on the rise.
And did it ever show up. The Spartans are posting some impressive wins this season, some of the best in program history. The first win came against Washington State of the Pac 12 conference. The Spartans traveled up to Pullman, WA, and got an improbable victory against a bigger Cougars team. Another nonconference stunner came when they knocked off their Silicon Valley rivals Santa Clara Broncos, snapping a 6 game losing streak. It was their first home win against Santa Clara in 20 years. With a couple more wins to their nonconference schedule, the Spartans looked poised to make their program relevant again.
However, adversity builds character. The Spartans hit some road bumps in the conference season, starting 2-6. However, this young team, along with some mentally tough seniors, are rebranding Spartans basketball. They rallied and went on an impressive run. They won 4 games in a row to launched the team into 5th place in the Mountain West.
They first beat UNLV at home, rallying back from a 13-point deficit. They defeated UNLV again in Las Vegas two weeks later to complete the 4 game winning streak. After the first meeting against UNLV, the Spartans were on the road at University of New Mexico. In what is known as “the Pit,” it is traditionally one of the toughest places to play in the country. The Spartans believed in themselves and defeated the Lobos for the first time in 13 tries, coming from behind once again.
Another win during the 4 game streak was against SoCal rivals San Diego State; a game I was fortunate enough to attend. First off, I was surprised to not find parking until the top floor of the university garage. Aside of class time, I never found any trouble parking at night.
As we go to our seats close to the Spartans bench, a look around the Event Center imparted a whole different feel to the games I attended as student. More and more people packed the event center; the free student section completely sold out. A couple of Frats sat in the first two rows, dressed in silly costumes and made the loudest noises possible. They sure gave San Diego State a hard time during the game. They place wasn’t quite sold out, but it was a drastic change from my experience a few years back. Instead of 300 fans, it was 3,000 fans. It was a loud and fun atmosphere.
I looked down the line at the Spartans bench and yes, a full team. Five starters and 6 to 7 guys warmed up on the bench. It was great to see.
As the game started, both teams started out shooting poorly. However, San Diego had the advantage on the boards. They were a much taller and bigger team down low, out muscling the Spartans. However, the Spartans rallied as they had done all year and took a halftime time lead.
Sophomore forward Brandon Clarke is averaging 18 point per game, along with 8 rebounds per game. He was the star of the game, often finishing down low with aggressive rebounding and a terrific inside game. Listed at 6’8’’, he is not big for a power forward. But he can maneuver and score. He’s a great symbol for the team; he plays with intelligence and determination, no matter how big the opponent. While the Aztecs made some runs, the Spartans never looked back and made some key defensive stops. And with quality shooting and clutch free throws, the Spartans won 76-71.
The student section stormed the court in appreciation. It was the first time since 1999 that San Jose State beat San Diego State. We had reason to celebrate.
Clarke finished with 22 points. The Spartans also shot 23-26 from the free throw line and caused 15 Aztec turnovers.
This was a different San Jose State team, and with a determined attitude. Coach Wojchik has turned this program around from a laughing stock, to a contender in his 4th season. With the season winding down, the Spartans have strong momentum. Come conference tournament play, they could be a dark horse for an improbable postseason run. Senior Isaac Thornton and juniors Jalen James and Brandon Mitchell have been through a lot of adversity the past couple years. You really have to appreciate their commitment and determination. It is great to see them flourish this season, having more fun than ever before. Along with senior Gary Williams Jr., these are the only upper classman of this young team.
The future looks bright for San Jose State Basketball. This season didn’t seem possible in the past. Now, it’s turning into quite a story for Bay Area basketball. Wojchik looks to have the right process in place, taking a gradual, piece by piece approach to get the Spartans winning again. Hopefully they can break the 20-year drought of an NCAA tournament appearance in the coming years. It makes you proud to be an alum and I will keep cheering on my Alma Mater. #spartanup