Team preview: San Jose State

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 5:24 PM ET
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It's hard to imagine another coach in America losing as many games as Phil Johnson has the last five seasons.

Starting with a one-year head coaching experience at San Jose State, then a two-and-a-half year sentence as an assistant with the struggling Chicago Bulls and then back again for two more seasons of suffering with the Spartans, nobody knows losing like Johnson.

Throw in an RPI number hovering close to 300 and you might wonder why Johnson is still around to guide this ailing program. It's because his heart is in the right place. This feisty coach is doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that to get his courtroom in order.

Unfortunately for Johnson and his assistants, it just isn't coming together fast enough for the disgruntled fans in The Event Center. What they have seen the last two years is an endless parade of junior college prospects who bring instant turnover.

The only sophomore on the team is 6-7 Lance Holloway (0.7 ppg, 0.0 rpg). All the other returnees are seniors and the seven newcomers are all juniors. It's a quick-fix formula that is fraught with peril. But at this point, Johnson is doing all he can just to survive.

"When you have so many first-year players in your program, it takes time to establish anything on a basketball court,'' said Johnson, who has won only 13 games since returning to San Jose State. "We have some talented players coming back, who have that extra year or two of experience. It makes a big difference in winning and losing.''

For Johnson to end all the losing, his four returning starters have to bring along the seven newcomers and get them up to speed by late December.

Once the conference season begins, Johnson would like an established starting lineup ready to face the rigors of WAC basketball.


He begins with two returning starters in the frontcourt who came into their own last season: 6-7 forward Marquin Chandler (9.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and 6-6 forward D.J. Brown (7.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg).

Both helped keep San Jose State close at times last season, but in the end, the Spartans won only one conference game. The long season ended with a 57-51 defeat to Louisiana Tech in the opening round of the WAC Tournament.

"There were a lot of games where we were right there, but we couldn't come up with enough big plays in key moments of the game,'' Johnson said. "It's frustrating. But I believe we have some players returning and others coming in who can help turn this thing around.''

Chandler, who originally played at George Washington, started only one non-conference game. But once WAC play began, he improved enough to earn 11 starts. He finished second on the team in scoring for the season, but first in WAC games with an 11.7 scoring average. He hit 51 percent of his three-point shots.

If some of the big men come through, it's possible Johnson will shift Chandler to small forward. He showed his versatility last year when asked to play down low.

Brown is another player who rounded into shape during the WAC phase. Not much of a shooter, the junior college transfer eventually found Division I ball to his liking. Some back problems plagued him last year, keeping him from reaching his potential. But if healthy, he should have a more productive season.

There is a trio of likely backups coming in from the land of the junior colleges. They are 6-8 power forward Mark Fresby and 6-9 center Menelik Barbary. Fresby played for a pair of junior colleges in Arizona before finding a home in the Bay Area. At 230 pounds, he is strong enough to maneuver down low. Coached by former NBA center Alton Lister, Fresby needs to work on his defensive skills in order to contribute right away. Barbary also needs some work on his overall game to be a regular player this season.

Junior center Matt Misko is a 6-10 big man who is strong defensively, can bang on the glass and has a good shooting range for a big man. Of the young guns joining him in the frontcourt, Misko might have the best chance to play right away.

Playing right away is a strong possibility for the newcomers in the backcourt as well.

Returning starters 6-5 Michael McFadden (7.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg) and 6-3 Kareem Guilbeaux (3.9 ppg; 2.6 rpg) will have to stay fit for duty to hold off several new recruits. McFadden was a bit erratic last season and his range didn't extend beyond the three-point line. Guilbeaux is a 6-2 shooting guard and the only four-year player on the team. He's not big, but he can shoot and loves to challenge the big guys off the dribble.

Should these two falter, 5-10 junior Ryan Miller believes he can make a point. A leg injury suffered during his sophomore season in junior college forced Miller to sit out last season. He's back and very capable of making his way into the starting lineup.

Another possibility at the point is 5-10 junior college transfer Donta Watson. Johnson will also take a look at junior college transfer Tyree Gardner. The 5-10 junior transferred into the program last January.

The Spartans didn't have a true point guard last season, but these newcomers plan to change that this time around.

San Jose State also welcomes three talented shooting guards in 6-4 Eric Bloom, 6-4 Kenny Smith and 6-4 Alex Elam. Bloom hit 46.5 percent of his three-pointers at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College and is the son of a high school coach. Smith walked on at Oklahoma as a freshman and played a year at Seminole (Okla.) Community College before matriculating to San Jose. His father played for Billy Tubbs at Oklahoma. The best shooter of the three may be Elam. If Johnson wishes, Elam and Smith can play the three-spot.



Johnson may not have too many more opportunities to get the job done at San Jose State. He and Spartans athletic director Chuck Bell have likely reached an understanding that San Jose State needs to show improvement -- and soon.

Johnson has a talented player or two on the floor, but the Spartans lack size and star power. They have a good supporting cast of players. To win WAC championships, you need more guys in leading roles. With that in mind, San Jose State will be fortunate to escape the cellar.

Even the teams in the lower tier of the league standings are stronger than the Spartans. Last year, UTEP made a remarkable turnaround to win a share of the WAC regular-season title and advance to the NCAA Tournament.

It's unlikely San Jose State can match that feat. Johnson would be happy if he could creep above the .500 mark by season's end. Would that be enough for Bell? We'll know come March.

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