In mid-December, the Redhawks were 8-3, undefeated at home and riding a five-game nonconference win streak. They then proceeded to lose seven of their next eight games, a slump that bled into the beginning of the Western Athletic Conference schedule. SU bounced back to win three of their next four and put itself in position for a shot at a favorable seed in the conference tournament, but then closed the regular season losing five out of their last six games.
Facing heavily-favored New Mexico State in the first round of the conference tourney -- a team that averaged 94 points in two decisive wins over SU in the regular season -- the Redhawks of course outplayed the Aggies for most of the night. Seattle U lost the lead late and lost the game by just two points. New Mexico State went on to win its third straight WAC title and play in the NCAA tournament.
So exactly how good -- or how bad -- were the 2013-14 Seattle University Redhawks? Was this past season a step forward for the program? Or was it a step back?
The Redhawks were 13-17 overall, a five-win improvement over the previous season, but still finished in a three-way tie for the worst conference record (5-11) in the WAC. The team scored a decisive win over WAC regular-season champion Utah Valley, but was swept by Grand Canyon, a program in its first year in Division-I.
Among the bright spots for SU was redshirt junior point guard Isiah Umipig, who in his first season of eligibility since transferring from Cal State-Fullerton, finished in the WAC's top five in scoring (19.5 ppg)and assists (3.6 apg) and set a Seattle U single-season record with 106 three-pointers.
Among the low points was sophomore forward Deshaun Sunderhaus, SU's best true big man, going down on Jan. 25 with a torn ACL in his left knee that ended his season. Sunderhaus was the Redhawks' second-leading scorer (10.6 ppg) and top rebounder (6.2 rpg) at the time of the injury.
As for Dollar, this was his fourth straight losing season after debuting at Seattle U with a 17-14 record in 2009-10. His team that was picked to finish No. 2 in the WAC preseason coaches poll ended up needing a tiebreaker to avoid earning the lowest seed in the WAC tournament.
A March 13 column by Bud Withers of The Seattle Times stated Dollar is on the hot seat. But when I spoke to Dollar during SU's recent spring break, he hardly sounded like a man about to lose his job. He sounded instead like a coach getting back to work.
REDHAWK NATION: Finish this sentence: This season was ...
CAMERON DOLLAR: This season was a good step in the right direction, development-wise and progression-wise. We got better as a program and as players.
Before the season, you talked about the phases of rebuilding Seattle U basketball on the D-I level. Where is the program on that scale today?
In between Phase 1 and Phase 2. We got better. Our guys improved their games and got bigger and stronger. Obviously adding Isiah was a big part of that development, but you also had Jarell Flora step up his game; Jack Crook as well. We had some young guys that came along and developed throughout the year in Manny (Chibuogwu) and (William) Powell. It was good to see (D'Vonne) Pickett improve as the year went on.
We made big strides with being more organized and taking care of the ball. We got better offensively while maintaining what we do defensively and rebounding the ball. We had a better win-loss record in the conference and overall. So I think in a lot of ways we got better from one year to the next.
Did we improve at the level people would have wanted? No. You're always going to have setbacks. Our best big man went down in the middle of the year. Emerson Murray was hurt all year. You don't always get what you want. But did we improve? I say yes. I don't really worry about what others say. We just keep moving forward.
Do you now, or did you at any point in the season, feel like you were on the hot seat or that your job status was shaky?
Here's my bottom-line statement on that: When I got the job, I was blessed to get the job. I'll be blessed as long as I have it. And when it's time to move on and do something else, whether it's by my will or not by my will, I'll be blessed to move on and do something else. That's how I approach it, from beginning to middle to end.
What are some things you'll want to focus on in the offseason as far as the returning players getting better?
I think the way you keep getting better is you keep refining what you're doing and how you're doing it. Things won't change that much. We'll be bigger next year than we were this year. We'll get bigger and stronger, we'll keep improving on our skills -- ball-handling, shooting and finishing around the rim -- of course work on team defense and individual defense. It won't be a whole lot of changes; we'll keep chipping away at it.
Did you make strides as a coach and as a coaching staff this season?
Definitely. There were strides taken as far as being more organized and more efficient in how we teach, how we use practice time, how we organize game situations and preparation. I think I improved in player relationships -- spending more time with the guys, connecting with them.
Was there one game or one stretch of games you could look back on and say that was the best version of this team?
I don't really do that. I look at it more like a long-term journey of development. I don't look at it in short-term bursts like that. Our program is developing our way of living and being. While doing that, you have good moments and you have bad moments, but you're always looking for consistency. I look at it more like that.
I'll go down the roster, player by player. Give me your observations, evaluation or a look ahead to the future for each name. First up is Isiah Umipig.
He had a really good year, especially coming from not playing the year before. I expect him to have a really good offseason. His leadership next season as a senior who really knows the ropes will be counted on, and I think he'll be ready to provide that. He'll be ready to go and be aggressive and continue to develop in all areas of the game.
He made a big jump, especially in the rebounding area (C, 6.0 rpg). I expect him to take another significant jump there. Offensively, he's coming along in that regard (5.1 ppg). He's a hard worker. He's made himself into a consistent everyday contributor, and that's a jump you like to see a guy have from his freshman year to his sophomore year.
Juice came out of the gate on fire. He had a little dip in there, but did a great job getting himself back steady and really handled himself well. When you're progressing in college and become a counted-on scorer, there are phases. When you go from unheralded to highly regarded and being scouted, you have to make adjustments to that. He became comfortable down the stretch with being a scorer again (SG, 9.5 ppg). I'm excited for him coming back for his last hurrah as a senior. He'll be expected to be more of a vocal leader, and I really think he's ready to take that on.
He did a great job being a leader for our guys on and off the court. He did everything I asked him to do, even when it hurt his numbers (SF/PF, 7.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.3 spg). When Deshaun went down, I needed Trent to go back down inside and play more of the four spot. His numbers fell when Deshaun got removed from the equation, both his scoring and his rebounding. But he did a great job doing what I asked of him. I appreciate him for all of his efforts.
D'Vonne Pickett Jr.
He did a tremendous job of transforming and developing, taking on a leadership role and playing the right way (PG, 7.3 ppg, 3.4 apg). He became one of our better defenders down the stretch. He just played with a tremendous amount of toughness and heart. It was great to see him mature on the court.
Tough year, man. He started off with a great preseason, then he gets hurt in our last closed scrimmage. And he had injuries all year long. He just never could play at full strength. He started off with the foot (stress fracture), came back from the foot, then he got a stress fracture in his pelvic area. It was just a tough year injury-wise. We never got to see him do what we know he can do (SG, 6.5 ppg). But he's a great team guy and a leader for us. I'm looking forward to getting him healthy.
He made great strides throughout the year. He's so skilled and versatile (SG/SF, 3.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg) he can do a lot of things to help win games. He became more and more comfortable as the season went on; once he played himself into the rotation he was a fixture down the stretch. He has the ability to be a good scorer and playmaker for us and a great all-around player.
He had to make the transition from junior college to D-I. He had some bumps in the road, but I expect him to get his feet under him and provide us with not only what he's able to do from a rebounding and defense standpoint, but also scoring on the inside (PF, 5.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg). That transition is always tough, as we saw last year with Pickett. But I expect Shore to come back stronger and better, and play with more purpose and passion.
Deshaun was poised to be an all-conference player. He's done a really good job of developing, and buying into everything we're doing on and off the court. I'm excited to have him come back focused and determined. That was a significant blow to our team when he got hurt. If it had happened next year we'd be able to handle it better because we'll have more depth and more size, but that was a crucial blow for this year's team -- taking a double-digit scorer and 60 percent shooter off the floor. That was a tough loss.
He did a good job always being ready whenever his number was called to come in and give us great minutes (PG/SG, 11.1 mpg). He has a high basketball IQ and works hard. I'm always pleased with Luiz.
He provided a great spark and energy off the bench for us (SF/PF, 2.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg). He's tough. He fought like crazy for us. My goal for him is to improve his skills to make him more of an inside-out guy next year, more of a 3/4 type of player. He can do it if he spends the summer working on his skills in a bunch of different areas, like ball-handling, shooting and passing.
He did a great job. He's a big-time teammate, another guy who's always ready when called upon (PG/SG, 4.0 mpg). He'll continue to work and continue to get better.
Theo (C, 6-11) had a really good redshirt year as far as working and improving in a lot of ways. He got bigger and stronger. I'm expecting to come in and be ready to provide depth and really challenge some of the guys who are coming back.
Manroop (PG, 6-2) had an OK redshirt year. He got hurt and was out for a while, and when he came back he was slow to get back in the groove. But he did a really good job off the court. He had a tremendous attitude and work ethic. He got bigger and stronger; he just needs to get his feet under him basketball-wise. This spring will be big for him.
What do you expect to get from incoming freshman point guard Jadon Cohee?
Well, you never know until you get him here. But he's got great ball skills. He can penetrate and pass and make plays for others. He's another one of those guys who works his tail off. He lives in the gym; I've always liked that about him. We'll get him here this summer and see where he's at. It's always a transition for any freshman coming in.
What will you and the coaching staff be doing in the immediate future?
Recruiting. Even during spring break. It's the clock that keeps ticking, no matter what you're doing. Recruiting obviously gets ramped up in the offseason, then we start back working out with our guys: weight room stuff, skill development. That carries over into the summer, which is really the time to get back in the gym. Just keep chopping at wood, baby.