USF's coach wants team to appreciate Marriott Center challenge

BYU men's basketball
2012-01-07T00:45:00Z 2013-11-06T21:45:15Z USF's coach wants team to appreciate Marriott Center challengeJason Franchuk - Daily Herald Daily Herald
January 07, 2012 12:45 am  • 
Rex Walters knows big and small college basketball programs, and arenas. The San Francisco coach, a former NBA player, even knows BYU.
He played at Northwestern before transferring to Kansas, and even saw the Cougars twice — in Provo at his first college stop, then defeating BYU in the 1993 NCAA Tournament as a Jayhawk.
And Walters knows this: It's a big Marriott Center challenge at 4 p.m. Saturday for the Dons, who lost big against BYU two seasons ago (Dec. 5, 2009) in the annual Salt Lake City game at EnergySolutions Arena.
"We have a thin margin, we know that," Walters said at a Bay Area airport with his team as it was on the way to Utah.
And this isn't the worst of it for USF, which sure could use the alumni services of the great Bill Russell.
After visiting the nearly impenetrable Marriott Center, it's back to the Bay Area for the short drive and hard task of playing at St. Mary's — a team that stomped BYU by 16 points last week.
Sure, each West Coast Conference member will play 16 games. Eight on the road, eight at home. But some breakdowns just look worse than others. Walters is a little disgusted with his team's draw.
USF finishes the regular season with three home games, but those come in late February against BYU, St. Mary's and Gonzaga — the WCC's "big three" that will likely be jockeying for NCAA Tournament seeding. Or at least trying to work their ways into the field of 65 shortly after. Whatever the case, they'll surely be in a position to be focused.
Walters has one of the more dynamic resumes among WCC coaches. He was a collegiate star as a shooter. He's been in all kinds of gyms and said he wants his team to look forward to the Provo challenge.
"We need to have great transition defense, because (BYU) plays so fast," Walters said. "They all can play, they all can shoot it. They know the game.
"Offensively, it will be so important for us to get quality shots," the 41-year-old added. "I told the team this (after practice): we need to aggressively pursue a quality shot every time we can."
Walters and his USF staff have to appreciate the challenge, too, as they and other WCC teams trying to catch up to the top tier. Now they must find a way to compete with another team that is accustomed to being in the national rankings. Instead of getting to schedule a couple of non-conference games, there are Cougars in their paths.
The saying went that as Gonzaga's profile increased, the rising tide raised all of the WCC ships. Hence in part the success at St. Mary's, where Randy Bennett has done a masterful job creating a national profile from a very small, somewhat remote setting.
BYU increases the name recognition for the WCC, especially coming off last season. And it gives St. Mary's and Gonzaga, in theory, a better strength of schedule because of getting to face a high-caliber opponent twice a year. The WCC has typically drawn one or two bids to the NCAA field (the league's conference tournament champ gets a free pass).
So BYU helps there, too, and those bids are worth significant cash for all league members. Walters thinks three bids is possible this season.
But what can blue (BYU) do for the other six small private schools?
Walters, for one, would like to find out.
USF has had success against Gonzaga, but it remains to be seen how the program benefits from being connected to the state of Utah.
Walters is skeptical about most Beehive State high schoolers considering his or any other WCC program with the exception of BYU or perhaps Gonzaga. Other more likely options include Utah State, Weber State — often among the best in their respective leagues — and even Southern Utah and Utah Valley to some extents.
Walters thinks maybe BYU's presence can be good for WCC teams scanning the junior-college ranks in the region.
Walters, a first-round NBA draft pick in 1993 — he helped get Kansas to the Final Four the year it defeated BYU — is 52-58 in 3-plus seasons in the Bay Area, also where he graduated from high school (San Jose).
The Dons are 10-6, most notably featuring some tough losses like an overtime defeat to Loyola Marymount and also a close setback against Murray State – the national darling of the year at the midway point, undefeated and nationally ranked. USF has also lost to Pepperdine, another WCC team.
USF features 10 sophomores or younger and it appears Walters can recruit all over the country already. 
His roster includes a couple of New York-area residents, a Texan and also players from the WCC footprint of Washington and Oregon.
He doesn't have to look far, however, to see today is about opportunity and growth. After all, the Dons (0-2 in conference play) still have three starters from the last time they were blown out by BYU, 69-43.

BYU (13-4, 2-1 West Coast Conference) vs. San Francisco (10-6, 0-2)
4 p.m., Marriott Center
Radio: KSL 1160 AM (102.7 FM) 
TV: BYUtv
Tip-ins: BYU center Brandon Davies has three double-doubles in the last four games. ...USF coach Rex Walters played BYU twice in his college days, at the MC with Northwestern and in the NCAA Tournament after transferring from Kansas. ...Four Dons average scoring double digits, led by 6-8 forward Angelo Caloiaro (14.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg).


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Jason Franchuk can be reached at jfranchuk@heraldextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter, @harkthefranchuk

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