March 16, 2007
Fullerton, Calif. -
"I think we had a good year, but it should have been better."
With 13 simple words, that's how Head Coach Bob Burton summarized the 2006-07 Cal State Fullerton men's basketball season. But thoroughly evaluating the 20-10 campaign is considerably more difficult.
It's the old "glass half-full or half-empty" perspective matched up against expectations, realistic or otherwise. And the level and performance of the competition always plays a major role.
This was a team that had aspirations of making the Titans' first NCAA Tournament appearance in 29 years. A 16-4 record on Jan. 27 was an encouraging indicator. Because of a weak strength of schedule, it was clear the Titans' post-season future would lie squarely on their performance in the Big West Conference post-season tournament. There would be no at-large berths -- it would take a tourney title, hopefully in only two games. But by the time that event rolled around in March, the Titans had lost their momentum and half of the coveted two-round bye. They played well to capture the first double overtime game in tourney history, 100-92 over Pacific, but then played poorly and were eliminated in convincing fashion by Cal Poly, 81-56.
"It was a weird season. We never lost a really close game (7-0 in games decided by 5 or fewer points; 2-0 in overtime), but we also never really came back from a large deficit to win," said Burton. "There were a lot of plusses and minuses. We had the opportunity to win 20 games and we finished in second place (tie), which is an improvement. Next year we have a chance to be good. We have to do a better job defensively."
Only twice before in their 33-year Div. I history had the Titans finished better in the conference standings (tie for first in 1975-76 and outright possession of second place in 1982-83). Only three Div. I Titan teams and only four overall have won more than 20 games. Three consecutive winning seasons hadn't been accomplished in more than 20 years and this team ran its home-court winning streak to 15 games, second longest in school history.
The Titans were among the national leaders in scoring and they posted their most lopsided conference victory ever (40 points over UC Riverside) and tied the most for a non-conference game (52 over Cal Maritime). They set school records for most points and best scoring average and hit the century mark four times to equal the school single-season mark. They tied the record for most 3-point field goals in a game (14). Senior point guard Bobby Brown broke the single-game scoring record with a 47-point effort on his way to a new career scoring mark (1,961). But the "what-ifs" continue to nag.
The tide turned the first week of February. After completing a season sweep of Orange County rival UC Irvine with an entertaining 75-60 victory to go to 16-4, the Titans had only one game -- at UC Riverside. The Highlanders had snapped a 15-game losing streak two nights earlier, but the Titans apparently couldn't get the visions of that 40-point home win out of their minds. They came out complacent and cold and when they rallied for a lead, they were overwhelmed by a phenomenal 34-point second-half performance by UCR's Larry Cunningham. The eventual 82-76 loss triggered a 4-6 finish to the season.
The Titans responded to the UCR loss with their first sweep of a Pacific-Cal State Northridge road trip but then they lost their showdown and home-court winning streak to Long Beach State. A 4-day, cross-country trip to Dayton, Ohio, to lose to eventual Horizon League champion Wright State served merely to introduce the Titans to ESPN360 coverage. An impressive home win over UC Santa Barbara was followed by an uninspired loss in the home finale to Cal Poly that effectively cost the Titans the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
A statistical oddity: the Titans jumped out to double-digit first-half leads in 14 of the first 16 games of the season, including at UCLA. But they did it only twice in the final 14 games.
Bobby Brown's senior season epitomized the team's performance. After missing the first three contests on the schedule, he displayed an overall improved game that was his goal after opting out of the previous summer's NBA draft. All of his statistics were better than his previous three seasons and he repeated as a first-team All-Big West Conference selection. He was a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award presented to the nation's best point guard and he made all-district teams among the stars of the Pac-10 and West Coast Conferences. With two free throws late in the Feb. 22 home win over UC Santa Barbara, he moved ahead of Leon Wood as the Titans' career scoring leader. But he failed to attain his goal of leading his team to a Big West title and into the NCAA Tournament and a cold hand from the perimeter in the final two weeks left him four 3-point field goals shy of the Big West Conference record. And in his final game as a Titan, he had one of his poorest shooting nights and was on crutches the next day after injuring his knee and ankle in the first half.
Newcomer Scott Cutley, a transfer from Kent State, was a significant addition to the roster. The former Westchester High School teammate of Brown teamed with the senior point guard as co-captains and they led by example. Cutley topped the Big West in rebounding (9.5 rpg) and was fifth in scoring (15.6). He led the conference in double-doubles with 11 and made first-team all-conference and all-tournament along with Brown. His tenacity to play through injuries was inspiring. He missed only one game due to a fractured thumb and he didn't miss a day despite a badly bruised ankle suffered on the eve of the Long Beach State game.
Junior wingman Frank Robinson also played through injuries (hamstrings) to earn honorable mention all-conference recognition. His 3-point shooting was off from his sophomore year, probably due to the hamstring problem, but his overall scoring (11.9 ppg) and rebounding (6.1 rpg, 8th in the Big West) were up. He finished the season strong, averaging just under 10 rebounds for the final five games. His most memorable shot was a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat UC Irvine in the Bren Center, 71-68.
Senior Justin Burns completed a remarkable transition from community college wingplayer to Div I post man. He was fifth in the Big West in rebounding at 6.7 per game and averaged in double digits (10.5 ppg) for the second year in a row. He had six double-doubles and ended his career with 11 including one in the first half alone in the rout over UC Riverside. He won conference player of the week honors when he led a shorthanded squad to back-to-back road wins at Texas-San Antonio and Louisiana-Lafayette with a pair of double-doubles.
Georgetown transfer Ray Reed helped the Titans get off to their great start. The junior scored in double figures in the first five games and was second on the season in assists to Brown. He finished second in the Big West in steals (1.70 per game) and was the Titans' best perimeter defender all season.
Marcus Crenshaw was an easy pick by the Big West coaches as Sixth Man of the Year. The sophomore transfer from Kent State proved a sparkplug and fan favorite, scoring in bunches (11.4 ppg) and leading the conference in 3-point field goals with 83, the third best single-season total in school history. "Daggers from the sky" is how Coach Burton described Crenshaw's high-arching, energizing treys.
The balance of the bench saw minimal playing time but accepted their limited roles. Fullerton was remarkably free of disabling injuries, missing only six player-games (3 by Marcus Morgan with a knee, 2 by Chris Minardo with a knee and 1 by Cutley with a thumb) so the six-man nucleus carried the load. No substitute played more than 11 minutes per game.
The home record of 12-2 produced a winning percentage of .857, third best in school history. The road record was 8-8, 7-7 on hostile courts.
The Titans lose starters Brown and Burns and reserve center Curtis Battles to graduation. Already in the program to bolster the returnees is Washington State transfer Josh Akognon, who is expected to be one of the team's leading scorers next season.