Can Santa Clara men follow breakthrough season with NCAA Tournament bid?
Reminders of Santa Clara’s glory years dot the Leavey Center: a banner proclaiming the history of an NCAA tournament that ended in 1996; a huge photo of Steve Nash in white shorts; seven retired jersey numbers – all for players who adapted for the Broncos well over two decades ago.
But by acknowledging the program’s proudest moments, these remnants also reinforce that Santa Clara hasn’t done much worth celebrating in the past quarter century. Since Nash led them to three March Madness appearances in the 1990s, the Broncos have been mostly mediocre: an afterthought team in a West Coast conference dominated by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.
This is finally starting to change. After a breakthrough year that featured his first win over a ranked opponent since 2004, his first NBA draft pick since Nash in 1996 and his first NIT finish since 1989, the Broncos have been counting on the transfer of Illinois Brandin Podziemski to sit tied for fourth in the conference. ranking.
A nationally televised victory Thursday night at No. 12 Gonzaga would only accelerate Santa Clara’s rise. But even without that, the Broncos have a chance to join the Bulldogs and Gaels in the top tier of the WCC when BYU leaves for the Big 12 next season.
It’s not just that Santa Clara’s top two scorers are underclass. If Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have shown anything, it’s that stable leadership is essential to long-term success in this league. Now in his seventh season in South Bay after stops in Miami, Ohio, North Carolina State and Arizona State, head coach Herb Sendek sees Santa Clara as a place where he can build a legacy – not a catapult to a higher position.
“I could very well end my career here,” said Sendek, who is three weeks away from his 60th birthday. “I’ve had several jobs over the years, but I really like it here in Santa Clara. It’s a special place.
When Broncos athletic director Renee Baumgartner interviewed Sendek in the spring of 2016, she offered him a vision of world-class facilities, high-flying travel and, eventually, annual NCAA Tournament appearances. His philosophy was simple: before Santa Clara can challenge players like Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, they must invest in men’s basketball like never before.
Few people would have faulted Sendek for laughing. At the time, the Broncos’ practice facilities consisted of a few treadmills and dumbbells tucked away in the bowels of the Leavey Center. Their only playoff appearances in nine years under Sendek’s predecessor, Kerry Keating, came at the 2011 CIT and the 2013 CBI.
Perhaps the biggest thing the program had to offer was that enchanted run with Nash, which happened before many of the prospects Sendek would offer were even born. Assistant coach Jason Ludwig, who has been with the Broncos since Sendek’s arrival, recalls hearing variations of the same questions on most recruiting visits in those early years: Santa Clara? That’s where Steve Nash went, right?
“I’m not going to lie,” said lead forward Keshawn Justice. “That was definitely the first thing that came to mind when Santa Clara started recruiting me.”
At least he knew the Broncos.
An unsung point guard from the basketball backcountry of Victoria, British Columbia, Nash sent letters to 30 American colleges during his senior year of high school. Zero answered. When then-Santa Clara coach Dick Davey offered him his only scholarship to the United States in 1992, Nash knew nothing about the little Jesuit school. Some of his prep teammates jokingly called him “the State of Santa Claus”.
A year later, Nash guided the 15th-seeded Broncos to a victory over second-seeded Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This was only the second such upset in March Madness history. When Nash led Santa Clara to a rout of Maryland in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament, a Canadian journalist was writing a book about him.
Then Nash moved on to the NBA as the Broncos faded into obscurity. Relatively open during the Nash era, the WCC has evolved into a top league.
Since Mark Few took over Gonzaga 24 years ago, he hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament, reaching 12 Sweet 16s, five Elite Eights and two National Finals. In more than two decades under Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s has earned eight spots for March Madness and won 71% of its matches.
The addition of BYU in 2012 further cluttered the league’s playoff picture. When USF ended a 24-year drought in March Madness last spring, it became the first WCC team other than the Cougars, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s to receive an overall NCAA Tournament bid since Pepperdine in 2002.
“The conference has changed dramatically since I was in college,” said Lloyd Pierce, an Indiana Pacers assistant coach who played with Nash in Santa Clara. “It’s a bit like Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, then everyone. This makes it difficult for places like Santa Clara.
Still, the Broncos are on the eve of their third 20-win season in four years. After narrowly missing out on the NCAA Tournament last spring, they reloaded through the transfer portal, pairing Tennessee State’s Podziemski and Carlos Marshall Jr. with returning starters Justice and Parker Braun.
Instead of talking about Nash, potential recruits are now asking Ludwig about Jalen Williams. His story — from a mildly touted freshman to an NBA lottery pick in three years — serves as the ultimate endorsement of Sendek’s regime. A starting forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder as a rookie, Williams will participate in the All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars Challenge on February 17.
Suddenly, Nash doesn’t feel like such an aberration anymore.
“You can tell people look at Santa Clara basketball in a different light,” Ludwig said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, I can go to Santa Clara and get to the NBA.'”
Changing the perception of a program requires more than a single actor. In addition to hiring a proven head coach in Sendek, Baumgartner provided men’s basketball with a charter flight to nearly every away game and raised funds for a state-of-the-art training facility.
Unveiled in 2021, the $38 million Schott Athletic Excellence Center includes two training grounds, study rooms, a nutrition station and an 8,000 square foot sports medicine center. As Baumgartner strolled past a weightless treadmill, more than a dozen check-in tables and hot and cold baths this week, she reiterated some of what she told Sendek during that interview there. is seven years old.
“There’s no reason we can’t be up there with Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga every year,” Baumgartner said.
Sendek agrees. But in the shorter term, Santa Clara hopes to reach its first NCAA tournament since Nash’s senior year. Any players who need more motivation can just take a look at the huge banner with his image hanging from the rafters.
Connor Letourneau is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @Con_Chron