Kerry Keating Has Won the CIT and CBA, but Can He Win a NCAA Tournament Game?

Tom Schreier@tschreier3Correspondent IApril 7, 2013

Keating has won the CIT and CBA, but never taken his team to the NCAA tournament.
Keating has won the CIT and CBA, but never taken his team to the NCAA tournament.Lance King/Getty Images

For the second time in three years, the Santa Clara Broncos have won a postseason tournament. They did not win a national championship (obviously) or even the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).

They won the Postseason Tournament (CIT) in 2011 and the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) this season, a pair of single-elimination tournaments held in each school’s home gym, rather than a central location, for teams that do not make the NCAA tournament or get invited to the NIT.

It’s a nice experience for the players, who get to travel to various locations and participate in postseason basketball, but in truth, both tournaments are a stepping stone to March Madness.

Nobody is going to run around telling their friends that their team won the CIT or CBA. It does little for the school’s branding, the games are difficult to find on television and the games have little national appeal. Each team has to pay an entrance fee, so it’s hardly a bonanza for the schools and conferences involved.

The recent CIT champions are barely even worth mentioning. Missouri State (2010), Mercer (2012) and East Carolina (2013) are still relatively unknown schools. It should be noted, however, that the school Santa Clara beat in the CIT, Iona, has gone on to play in the NCAA tournament the last two years—albeit as a late seed and was quickly eliminated.

Winning the CBA is a little more meaningful. Virginia Commonwealth University won it in 2010 and went to the Final Four in 2011. This year, VCU head coach Shaka Smart was linked to the Minnesota and UCLA jobs before signing an eight-year contract extension with VCU that will pay him $1.2 million. It’s a fair price for putting his school on the map.

The 2010 runner-up, Saint Louis, is a member of the Atlantic 10 and could become part of the new Big East next year. The Billikens are a mid-major powerhouse that won the A-10 this season and have been to the NCAA tournament two years in a row.

Oregon beat Creighton in 2011, was named Pac-12 champions this season and advanced to the Sweet 16 in March. Creighton has gone to the Big Dance for two years in a row since losing the CBA and could leave the Missouri Valley Conference to join St. Louis in the new Big East this year.

Pittsburgh beat Washington State in 2012 and then made the NCAA tournament this year. Washington State still sucks, but, hey, five of the last six teams to participate in the CBA championship have gone on to bigger and better things.

The problem is that Santa Clara won this tournament three years too late.

Kerry Keating arrived at Santa Clara in 2007. He was an assistant under recently fired Ben Howland at UCLA—who was the subject of a Sports Illustrated investigation which revealed that fighting, drinking, drug use and lack of control led to the program’s downfall. Mind you—Keating is a recruiting mastermind who had brought Kevin Love, among others, to California’s largest UC school.

By 2011, when he won the CIT, Keating essentially had his first recruiting class, although many of the seniors would remain on the team in 2012. He received a contract extension through 2014-15 before the 2012 season, despite having a losing record (66-68) and no NCAA tournament appearances at the time.

Not only did Keating fail to take his team to the Big Dance after inking the deal, but his team couldn’t even win a West Coast Conference game. Not one. Part of it was bad luck, senior Marc Trasolini got injured on an offseason trip to his hometown of Vancouver, but most of it came as a result of a lack of discipline.

A promising overlooked recruit, Evan Roquemore, John McArthur, the former East Bay Player of the Year and Niyi Harrison, a local favorite who arrived from nearby Bellarmine Prep, did not start due to a “violation of team policy” (Roquemore was cited for an open container near student housing). On top of that, Foster was arrested for driving under the influence.

The entire season was a car wreck. Keating essentially had a mini-UCLA scandal: smaller school, lesser infractions (no drugs or fighting, as far as we know) and a story in the San Jose Mercury News, not Sports Illustrated. But still, a crucial season lost.

The next year started out with promise. Nobody transferred, which is becoming increasingly common in college basketball, and Foster and Trasolini essentially got a “bonus year” as medical redshirts (Foster missed significant time in 2010 with a broken foot).

With Roquemore, Foster, Trasolini and senior Raymond Cowels III leading the way, Keating had his best team as the head coach of the university. They were his guys, and it was his chance to take the team to the Big Dance.  

After the team beat St. Louis University on the road in their second game of the season, I texted my buddy Nick, who is the biggest Santa Clara basketball fan I know.

He expressed his excitement for this year’s team, saying that he felt this could be a breakout year. I agreed, but tempered my enthusiasm a bit. Maybe they had caught St. Louis off-guard. It was early in the season, and the Billikens might have overlooked this game.

The team continued to win their non-conference games. Granted, it was a sugarcoated schedule, there was a nice win at Pacific, a future WCC team, but there were no contests against Pac-12 schools like neighboring Stanford and Cal—or even UCLA down south. There were some sad losses, Utah State and Santa Barbara, but they came in overtime, and I dismissed it as bad luck more than anything.

The biggest game came against then-No. 1 Duke immediately before the WCC games kicked in. It was televised on ESPN, billed as “a Duke game” where the legions of Cameron Crazies would devour whoever it was the Dukies were facing before having to play their ACC schedule.

This was Keating’s chance to put Santa Clara on the board.

His team came out firing. The score was 38-36 at halftime. I was absolutely glued to my television. No way, I thought to myself, this could actually happen. Of course, Duke pulled away in the second half and won the game pretty soundly, 90-77.

I called Nick immediately afterward. “Dude, we almost beat Duke at Cameron Indoor!” I exclaimed. “What the hell is going on?” He responded by saying that he believed in the team. We had talent, everyone knew that, and while Keating was outcoached during the half, his opponent was, of course, the venerable Mike Krzyzewski.

“If we can give Duke a run for their money, we should have no problem against anyone, except for maybe Gonzaga, in the WCC!” I told Nick. “If we keep this up, I’m getting a ticket to Vegas! I want to see that WCC tournament! Hell, I might even fly out to see them play Gonzaga!”

Like many of my friends from Santa Clara, I no longer live near the university, which is located near San Jose. I live in Minnesota, the place where I was born and raised. I know a couple people who still go to the school, but come June, they will all have graduated.

Two of my friends live in nearby Campbell, Calif., but they are from St. Louis and Seattle, respectively, and they may eventually return home. Nick lives outside of San Francisco, but he is from Sammamish, Wash. One of my housemates lives in Utah now, others have returned to Washington and even the “locals” I knew out there tend to move up to San Fran or down to L.A. after graduation.

This means that outside of Santa Clara basketball (and maybe the baseball team), there is little to bring me back to the campus itself.

It is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and it has nostalgic value, but if I’m going to travel out to the West Coast, I’m more likely to visit Seattle, San Francisco or even Los Angeles to see my friends rather than the university campus itself. There will be class reunions, of course, but those are every five years, and there may be other alumni events, but nothing like the annual “big game.”

I’m sorry, I’m never going to travel all the way out to the West Coast to see Santa Clara play USC-Upstate, Utah Valley or Utah State. Gonzaga is always billed as a rivalry game, but they’re usually much better than us.

Saint Mary’s is too innocuous to be a true rivalry (it’s a pint-sized school with players who resemble beavers). Brigham Young is a Mormon school, and I don’t mess with Mormons. Everyone else in the WCC is pretty irrelevant.

During my four years at Santa Clara, we never scheduled California’s three biggest programs—Stanford, Cal and UCLA—even though Dick Davey, the man Keating replaced, was an assistant coach at Stanford and Keating himself came from UCLA.

The excuse usually was because they would have to play a road game, but Stanford and Cal are right next door, and UCLA is a five-hour drive (which the team has to do anyway when they play SoCal teams like Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount).

We never played other Catholic schools like Notre Dame, Georgetown or Boston College. We played Duke once. We played Villanova in a down year. We played Washington State, but it’s Washington State.

We never played mid-major powers like Creighton, Butler or Richmond. We played St. Louis once. We played George Mason, but we were forced to.

That could all be forgiven, however, if we beat Gonzaga.

After all, mid-major programs are en vogue now. In fact, school size almost doesn’t matter anymore. However, before Mark Few took over at Gonzaga, mid-major programs were simply stepping stones to major conference schools.

After Dan Monson took the Zags to the Elite Eight and left for Minnesota the next season, people thought Gonzaga, a small school in remote Spokane, Wash., would disappear from the national scene. Under Few, they’ve dominated the WCC and started recruiting NBA-caliber players. They became the barometer by which every other mid-major schools judge their programs.

Santa Clara had beaten the Zags at home, during my four years there, but never on the road.

They opened up the 2012-13 WCC schedule with a win over the University of San Francisco and then got Gonzaga in California for the second game. It came on January 5, during Christmas break for the students and the NFL playoffs for everyone else. In order to get people to attend the game, Keating reimbursed students for hotel rooms—a classy gesture.

The team lost, 81-74.

That didn’t seem all that bad until they lost the next game, on the road at Loyola Marymount (Loyola Marymount!). And then, they lost to non-Jimmer BYU at home (they would also get crushed by BYU in Utah later in the season).

At 11 p.m. CT, February 7, I get a text from Andrew, a housemate of mine at Santa Clara, informing me that the Broncos are on ESPN2. I’m dead tired at the time, but decide to turn it on, just to see if we can beat Saint Mary’s.

What I saw shouldn’t be aired on television: players inadvertently stepping out of bounds, passing the ball to nobody in particular and launching desperate three-point shots from outside the 408 area code. Mission Campus is a sacred place, but what I saw was downright unholy.

The problem is that not much had changed since I started watching Santa Clara basketball back in 2008. The same mistakes were being made…over and over and over again. It was sad: an entourage of fuzzy Australians was manhandling our talented athletes.

Three weeks later, I’m out in Columbus to visit a friend of mine who had transferred from Santa Clara to Ohio State after his freshman year and catch the Gophers-Buckeyes game. Two days before Santa Clara is set to play Gonzaga in Spokane, an advertisement for the game flashes on a television screen at the Midway On High. My friend asks me if I’m going to watch the game. “Depends,” I said, knowing it would be a crazy week and that the game was going to be played after the Minnesota-Ohio State contest.

The Gophers got obliterated that day in Columbus. I didn’t want to witness two blowouts in one day so I opted for a couple more hours of sleep. In the morning I checked my phone: Santa Clara 42, Gonzaga 85. Granted, they were No. 1 in the nation, but that’s also because they get to play teams like Santa Clara twice a year.

Santa Clara would lose to an 11-23 Loyola Marymount team in the first round of the WCC tournament, shattering any hopes of an NCAA tournament berth. With its weak non-conference schedule, there was no argument to be made that the team belonged in the NIT, so the Broncos settled for the CBA.

They won the tournament, of course, but like I said, it was three years too late. Had they capitalized on the CIT championship and even gotten a late seed in the tournament—or at least a NIT berth—they would have set themselves up to make a little run this year.

The bottom line is the graduating seniors on his team were far too good to have never played in a NCAA tournament game. In fact, I believe they were capable of winning a game or two in the Big Dance, but they were never given the opportunity to do so.

Santa Clara could become a strong basketball program one day. The team is located in a populous area that has incredible weather and plenty of opportunity in business and information technology for its graduates.

For the most part, students enter the school ready to support the team, but grow tired of seeing a team with so much potential fail to meet expectations year after year. And the HP Pavilion arena (basketball capacity: 18,500) is a stone’s throw away from campus.

With any success, the Broncos could be like an Atlantic 10/Catholic 7/Big East team on the West Coast. They could be playing Creighton, Notre Dame and Stanford instead of Bethune-Cookman, Wofford and Wagner. With most major media companies launching their own sports networks (NBC, CBS, FOX), they could get on national television for more than the Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s games.

This program could easily win over the heart of Northern California. Cal has a rep of being a hippie school, and Stanford comes off as pretentious, but because it has flown under the radar for most of its existence, Santa Clara pretty much has a clean slate. In fact, if the Broncos were on television enough, I could see random college basketball fans becoming Bronco-backers.

Until Santa Clara wins an NCAA tournament game, however, that will never happen. Nobody cares about the No. 16 seed that gets eliminated in the first round, but people’s ears perk up when a No. 12 seed wins a game. And if that team can duplicate its performance the next year as, say, a No. 10 seed, suddenly they become a Giant Killer. And when you’re a Giant Killer, everybody cares about you come tournament time.

So the question isn’t will Keating be fired? (He won’t.) Or can he make the tournament? (The WCC winner gets an automatic bid.) It’s a question of if a Keating team can win a game at the Big Dance.

I’m not certain he can.

I see Keating as that 15-year-old wiz kid who can build his own engine from scratch, but doesn’t know how to drive the car. He knows his alternator from his power-steering pump and won’t mix up a cylinder head and the intake manifold. He can build an engine with superior horsepower that is also fuel efficient (this is California, after all), but put him on the road and he’s a hazard to everything that stands in his way.

The first time he got in the car, he hit the garage door while backing up. On the next try, he ran into the neighbor's mailbox. On the third time around, he rolled over a stop sign.

He won a legitimized street race (the CIT), however, so he was given some leeway. In fact, he was treated like he won the Daytona 500: He got a sweet contract extension and presumably more money to work with. I get that they don’t want to give him the impression that they’re going to give the car he built to someone else, but he’s still got to prove he can drive it.

A year after the getting the extension, he tried to get on the freeway and totaled the vehicle.

This year, he salvaged the car and won another street race, against a couple opponents who have been in the Daytona 500 before. It was nice, but it was too little too late. A good driver doesn’t blame his engine, just as a good carpenter doesn’t blame his tools. The talent was there, but the coaching was not.

Let me be clear: Keating hasn’t done anything immoral. He let things get out of hand in 2011-12, but he wasn’t throwing basketballs at players’ heads. He doesn’t have any recruiting violations. As far as we know, there isn’t an IT mogul who is paying Kevin Foster by the three-point shot.

The worst thing that Keating has done is simply squander a roster full of players talented enough to win in the NCAA tournament.

What Keating probably needs is another stint in the passenger seat. He’s a great recruiter who should learn coaching from somebody other than Ben Howland. I could see him going to a major-conference school and learning from an older, established coach. Then, after a few years as an assistant, he will be better equipped to run his own program.

I just don’t see him winning an NCAA tournament game in the next few years.

Back in 2007, when he arrived at Santa Clara, all he had to do was put together a roster that was more talented than everyone in the WCC—except Gonzaga. It wasn’t a difficult task. Saint Mary’s was working the Australian pipeline, but that team always had a low ceiling—they were a borderline tournament team at best. Everyone else in the conference was mediocre.

At that time, Keating just had to schedule a bunch of softies before WCC play began to build up the team’s confidence, beat every team in the conference—except Gonzaga—hope to beat the Zags at home and then try to beat them in the WCC tournament. With enough good, four-year players like Foster, Trasolini and Cowels, the task isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

But then Saint Mary’s got stronger, the WCC added BYU, and suddenly, the conference wasn’t a joke anymore. We all learned that the emotional cost of losing to Wagner or Houston Baptist far outweighed the benefit of winning a feel-good game.

The WCC is adding Pacific next year, an underrated mid-major program that was in the tournament this year. Furthermore, by not scheduling bona fide basketball programs—especially Stanford, Cal and UCLA—the team is no longer prepared to play in the WCC.

Before Keating arrived, Santa Clara was considered a clear No. 2 in the conference. To be fair, everyone knew the Broncos would never consistently compete with Gonzaga under Dick Davey, and few people actually believed he could field a team that would compete in the Big Dance, but Davey wasn’t paid much and wasn’t really expected to win.

Those expectations changed, however, when Keating was hired. He was an assistant at UCLA. He was young and bold, telling my freshman class that his team would be in the tournament. He gave booming speeches and was/is a great dresser.

Since he’s come to Santa Clara, however, the team has slipped. Saint Mary’s has passed them. BYU joined the conference. Pacific will join the conference.

I could see Loyola Marymount going out and hiring Jim Crutchfield from Division II West Liberty and reenacting their high-scoring teams of the 1990s. Maybe USF taps into its history (the team had Bill Russell back in the day) and builds a team using that as a recruiting tool.

Suddenly, in the course of Keating’s tenure, the team has gone from a clear No. 2 to a middle-of-the-pack team in a good, but not great, conference. If that happens, it will be really hard to believe that Santa Clara will be able to make the tournament consistently enough to become a legitimate threat in March.

And it’s awful hard to build a fanbase if you can’t do that.

Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and writes for Visit his Kinja blog to see his previous work.



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