Saturday night’s 71-63 loss at Grand Canyon was particularly bad. Not only was Seattle U outplayed from start to finish by a ‘Lopes team that is in its first season on the NCAA Division-I level, but SU also lost its best interior player, sophomore power forward Deshaun Sunderhaus, to a knee injury that looked serious. (As of Sunday morning, no update had been given on Sunderhaus’ condition.)
But the Grand Canyon loss wasn’t as facepalm-inducing as the game before that, when the Redhawks had a one-point lead and the ball against Utah Valley with seven seconds left. SU threw away the game by throwing away the inbounds pass, fouling the man who made the steal, and after he made the go-ahead free throws, failing to get a shot off on the final possession.
And now the low rumble of skepticism regarding head coach Cameron Dollar's ability to lead this program is growing louder among the Redhawks' fan base.
While it's nowhere near the all-out, "Fire this guy or we riot" scenario you might see at, say, a struggling SEC football school, I can say personally I've been asked more and more often as the losses mount: "You think they should keep Dollar?"
Honestly, I think it would be a massive overreaction to fire Cameron Dollar in the middle of the season. It would be an equally egregious mistake to let him go after the season. Dollar deserves at least another year or two with the program he has helped build from the ground up.
Dollar’s detractors can certainly paint a picture that looks depressing. Now in his fifth season as head coach, the former UCLA point guard and Washington assistant has posted a winning record just once at SU. Last season SU went 8-22 and finished last in the WAC, and this season the Redhawks are at the bottom of what might be the nation's weakest D-I conference.
Seattle U has been plagued by slow starts, off-target shooting (especially at the free-throw line), costly turnovers and the absence of a consistent No. 2 scorer to complement junior point guard Isiah Umipig -- a problem that will only get worse if Sunderhaus has to miss time. In other words, you could call it a lack of motivation, a lack of fundamentals, a lack of basketball IQ and a simple lack of talent ... all of which fall under the purview of the head coach.
And that’s most likely why Saturday’s game looked like one being coached by a man searching for answers.
After falling behind by as many as 18 points in the second half, Seattle U got back in it with an 18-4 run led by a pair of little-used freshmen -- guard Emmanuel Chibuogwu and forward William Powell -- and senior guard D’Vonne Pickett Jr., who didn’t make it off the bench in the Utah Valley game. Dollar experimented with new lineups and strategies, and according to the GCU broadcast, he used all of SU's timeouts before the five-minute mark of the second half. If nothing else, the coach could not be accused of not trying everything he could to eke out a win against a team that has turned out to be better than most WAC observers expected.
It almost worked, too, as the Redhawks cut the deficit down to four a couple of times down the stretch. But the ‘Lopes out-executed SU and made their free throws at the end to seal the win.
“We are going through a tough stretch right now, but I know we have no quit in us,” Dollar said afterward.
Seattle U has a good chance to turn things around sooner than later. Their next game is at Idaho (8-13, 2-5) on Feb. 1, and then SU gets Texas-Pan American -- the one team the Redhawks have beaten during their recent slump -- on Feb. 6 at KeyArena. That precedes a tough five-game portion of the schedule that includes two-time defending WAC champion New Mexico State, conference leader Utah Valley on the road, a rematch of their Jan. 16 loss to Cal State Bakersfield, Grand Canyon again, and a battle-tested Chicago State squad that has beaten New Mexico State and faced Indiana, Illinois, DePaul, Cincinnati and Creighton in its nonconference slate.
But even if the Redhawks fall into a late-season swoon and finish well short of the preseason predictions that had them slotted as high as No. 2 in the WAC, Dollar shouldn’t lose his job.
This is only the program’s fifth season back in Division-I. Consider how much that means. Seattle U isn’t Syracuse. It’s not Stanford. It’s not even South Florida or Southern.
Expectations have to be set at a different level for a program in such a unique position, and at this point, the win-loss record is just one of many criteria that determines whether the construction project is working under Dollar’s watch.
It must count for something that every senior that has come through Dollar’s program at SU has graduated. It must count for something that Seattle U players have not been in trouble with the law, nor has the coaching staff been in trouble with the NCAA. They've navigated the baby steps of rejoining D-I and are so far set up to succeed in the future.
For instance, Dollar’s recruiting class for 2014 is shaping up to be the program’s most talented haul in decades. Point guard Jadon Cohee, who has signed a letter of intent with SU, is one of the top high school players on Canada’s suddenly-rich basketball landscape. Armond Davis, a lanky swingman who verbally committed to SU a couple weeks ago, is one of the best players and most explosive scorers in the state of Washington.
Seattle U is also high on the lists of Seattle-area standouts Jawan Stepney, a combo guard at Kentridge H.S., and Elijah Foster, a power forward at Rainier Beach. Shooting guard Brendan Westendorf, who scored 55 points in one game for Big Bend Community College this season, also lists SU among his favorites.
That Dollar eve has SU in the mix for this caliber of recruit is a sign of progress.
Remember, due to NCAA rules concerning D-I newcomers, the Redhawks were not eligible for the NCAA tournament until last year. So for the first few classes Dollar that had to recruit, he had to convince players to come to SU even though they wouldn’t have a chance to be part of March Madness. Now that those restrictions have been lifted, Dollar and his staff are naturally getting better players to become Redhawks.
Since its return to D-I in 2009, Seattle U had been a program more likely to land the unheralded teammate of the star of the high school team. With additions like Cohee and Davis, and potentially Stepney and Westendorf, Dollar is attracting legit stars to Seattle U.
Recruits like Foster more fit the mold of Powell, who played at the noted IMG Academy in Florida; Trent, who played at Findlay Prep in Nevada; and Pickett, another Rainier Beach alum. These are players with winning pedigrees who come from powerhouse programs. As Trent and Pickett have shown as seniors, these types of players become leaders.
As the Redhawks continue to play a geographically diverse schedule that introduces the Seattle U brand to places like Chicago, California, Kansas City and Texas, the recruiting net grows even wider. And if my conversations with recruits who have either chosen SU or are considering SU are any indication, Dollar is the program's most popular selling point.
Dollar deserves the opportunity to coach Seattle U's new and improved wave of talent and show what he can do in these upcoming crucial years of the construction project.
Redhawks fans should be excited to see what Dollar can do as a recruiter -- and as a result, what improvements will occur on the court -- in 2015 and beyond.