Since I have been writing for this blog, I have followed junior college basketball through the Scenic West and the College of Southern Idaho -- the winningest junior college in America. A year ago the Eagles captured not only the Scenic West Championship (both regular season and tournament). Then they won four games at the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas and the schools first national championship in 26 years. It helps that my childhood friend is the head basketball coach of the Eagles. I can only hope that nothing I write here is too confidential to injure that bond.
I can also only hope to have a scent of the success that Steve has had over the past five years. After being named the head coach, the program struggled through two rather down years by CSI standards and I too could here the calls from CSI boosters regarding the program and Steve's position as it's coach. Steve took chances on highly skilled, but problematic players like Nate Miles (a Connecticut transfer), Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun called the best offensive player he had ever seen and Jostyn Thomas a nonqualifier academically with a 6'6" Apollo Creed type of body who's presence made NBA coaches salivate.
After the two subpar season's Steve took a different approach, looking for players that bought into the team concept first and then had divison I potential second. It has worked. Last year the team won the national championship, his best player was named the Junior College Player of the year and just this week led Baylor past Kansas. Steve was named the junior college coach of the year a year ago. Besides the oncourt success last year and this year, Steve is raising three boys with his wife Lu and has made his team the center of the Twin Falls community.
And too think we used to just waste hours drinking beer at the Stockman's.
Some of the best basketball games I have ever seen involved Scenic West tournament games. The only way to get to Hutchinson is to win the league tournament. No matter how successful the regular season may have been the only way to get to the national tournament and receive the exposure that the players in the Scenic West covet is by winning this tournament. This year is no different. The 2008 Scenic West Final in Twin Falls, Idaho featuring Salt Lake Community College and what was then the number 1 ranked team in the country, the College of Southern Idaho still ranks as the best game I have ever seen. (See link: http://www.mylosingseason.net/2008/03/battle-for-hutch.html).
When you watch college basketball now it is impossible to not hear the names of CSI players. Aziz Ndyi, Washington's center is a CSI alum. CSI alum's have played at Hawaii, Portland State, Arizona State, Colorado State, Oklahoma, Utah, Utah State, Washington, Nevada, Boise State, Montana State, Weber State -- a seemingly limitless list of college basketball in the western United States.
This week I was back to watching CSI basketball. Following their national championship (a season in which I didn't watch even one game), they are more of a favorite than ever, but in closed discussions, the coaches, players and administrators know how hard winning is in this league. The Friday night semifinals in Salt Lake City, Utah look more like an NCAA coaching convention than a game. Following elimination during Championship Week, a college head or assistant coach wants to get back to work as quickly as possible either to take their mind off of that weeks loss or to be the first out of the gate toward next year's recruiting. Talking with the North Idaho coaches and several other fans we spot assistant coaches from a variety of schools -- more than 20 are in attendance. College wear from Oklahoma State, Wyoming, UCLA, Boise State and numerous coaches wearing golf shirts or polo shirts are present. They are all looking for individual talent. Yet the players on the court for the semifinal game between CSI and Snow College are playing as teams. More as a team than most of the college games.
Every shot is contested. In the second half, as an official, I strongly believe that the officials should be calling intentional fouls on Snow College as every shot that CSI attempts turns into an attempted tackle by Snow. It's obvious, the Snow Coaches (Michael Ostlund and Jake Atwood) would rather see the Eagles shoot free throws than let them have an opportunity at the basket. The Eagles shoot 66% for the game so it's not surprising that this is their theory. One late breakaway attempt by Gerson Santo results in a pull down from behind, yet still no intentional foul is called.
Unlike years past, CSI is using a completely half court offense that relies on the athletic guards and forwards driving to the basket looking to create layups or dishes to interior players. They also isolate their post players more than in years past. They seldom attempt three point shots, they rarely turn the ball over and it is a grind it out style that you see from teams that want to completely control the game. On defense they pressure hard, looking to force turnovers in the half court.
The game against Snow College is particularly intense. At several points in the game the officials stop play because a player is lying (often away from the action) on the ground after a scuffle. Snow's star and Southern Illinois commit Travis Wilkins has tissue stuffed up both nostrils to stop his nose from bleeding. CSI center Paul Bunch breaks his nose. Pat Swilling (yes, the son of the NFL's Pat Swilling) also of CSI "knows his wrist is broken" but refuses to be taken out of the game. He doesn't want to miss this game or the run that CSI is on. The game takes two and half hours, there is no overtime, it is just a case of coaches and players extending every second and looking for any advantage.
Wilkins is a brilliant shooter who reminds me of a taller version of Brian Green from the 2008 SLCC squad. When open he doesn't miss. But CSI's quickness and athleticism overcome Snow's dogged determination. The Eagles make enough free throws and get through the physical play to advance.
Between games, as it always does, the attention turns to officiating. As a referee I try to stand up for the officials, but I too felt the intensity of Snow's fouls merited an intentional foul and although I try not to be to critical of any officials I can't help it. Steve picked up a rare technical. In fact he can only recall being whistled for one other technical during his time as the head coach. Each coach is allowed one peremptory challenge of an official for the final game (the list includes the six officials that worked the semifinals). After submitting his choice for an official to not work the final, almost incredibly, the same three officials will be back for Saturday night's championship game.
The championship game is not as intense, but it is as close. North Idaho opens up an eight point second half lead. But again, CSI's quickness and athleticism take over and they are able to capture their second consecutive Scenic West tournament championship.
As I walk out of the gym, I open up a conversation regarding CSI's lack of three point shooting. "Well Kevin hit a couple," the man I'm speaking with says. "Yes, he did," I reply, "he should get more opportunities." I continue. "I think he was 2/2 a 100% for the tournament." "Yes," the man says, "that's my son." He's the proud father of Eagle Kevin Attilla. Attila once stated that the College of Southern Idaho was "his dream school." See link: http://espn.go.com/blog/collegebasketballnation/post/_/id/12290/college-of-southern-idaho-a-dream-school Moments later Attila's father connects Kevin on a phone line with his father and Kevin's grandfather who is about to pass away. Minutes later he does. Hanging on to his life only so he could hear Kevin speak after the Scenic West championship.
At this point I wonder what it will take for Steve to get an opportunity at the division I level. He has spent the past ten years of his life looking for players either at CSI or Portland State. He has now won this conference tournament two years in a row and the conference each of the past two years. I am certain it will come after this season.
Tuesday night, the Eagles will take on Arizona Western, the winner will advance to Hutchinson, Kansas for the national tournament.