Joe O'Brien (right) is in a rare position -- he has the opportunity to completely remake the Idaho State men's basketball program, and he has the unusual luxury of a three-year contract extension in which to do it.
From team composition to recruiting philosophy, from the makeup and approach of his coaching staff to his non-conference scheduling, O'Brien has the chance to put a lasting imprint on the Bengal program over the next several months. It will be fascinating to see how he approaches this assignment.
Let's take a look at each particular element:
By this time next year, O'Brien will have replaced three-fourths of his roster. As many as nine seniors will depart after the season. O'Brien has said he hopes to sign four or five of the replacements in the early signing period this November, followed by another four or five late signees next spring. He has also said he'd like to split the signees as evenly as possible between high school players and junior college transfers.
O'Brien's recruiting philosophy has been an evolving one in his first three years here. He started out by signing all high school players, and all of them were in the 6-4 to 6-6 range -- typical, Big Sky Conference "tweeners." His next two recruiting classes shifted hard toward the junior college ranks, and included an emphasis on size -- including 7-foot and 6-11 centers.
Idaho State's last two teams have enjoyed a distinct size advantage over most Big Sky teams, frequently putting a couple of 6-5 or 6-6 guards on the floor, along with at least one of the two big men. O'Brien, whose emphasis has always been on the defensive side of the ball, liked to point out that Idaho State felt comfortable switching every screen -- which means, in essence, that the Bengals had enough size at every position that the guards were comfortable playing the other team's "bigs."
The Bengals' downfall, however, has been matching up with the smaller, quicker guards that have dominated the league the last two seasons. O'Brien has used his one open scholarship this spring to recruit a more traditional point guard, Broderick Gilchrest, a JC transfer. With as many as nine open scholarships next year, O'Brien will have the opportunity to recruit to whatever team composition he desires -- high school or junior college dominated; bigger or quicker guards; the 6-10 to 7-foot "true post players," or smaller, more athletic forwards that are more typical in the Big Sky.
O'Brien will also have an opportunity to reconsider where he will focus his recruiting efforts. Right now, most of his players come from the Midwest or the Southeast, with as many as four scholarship players coming from Memphis alone. Unlike his predecessor's staff, O'Brien has done very little recruiting from within the state of Idaho, in the northwest as a whole, or in the Scenic West Athletic Conference, the premier JUCO league in the west.
Doug Oliver brought in a steady stream of Idaho players who grew into excellent contributors over their careers -- David Schroeder, Logan Kinghorn and Matt Stucki, for example. He also had a lot of success with SWAC players like Tim Erickson and Scott Henry.
O'Brien, meanwhile, has felt more comfortable in his Midwest roots and with his "Memphis connection." His only Idaho recruit, Steve Anderson of Nampa, suffered from a string of injuries and didn't get much of an opportunity to contribute his freshman season, then went on a mission. It's uncertain if he'll be back. O'Brien's only dip into the SWAC ranks, meanwhile, was a decidely mixed bag -- Felix Caspari turned out to be the "energy player" the Bengals hoped for off the bench, but Kal Bay was hurt or sick for much of the season, and didn't appear to really fit into O'Brien's system when he did play. He wound up transferring out after a season.
In his first three seasons, O'Brien has shown a real penchant for taking on all-comers: UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon, Wisconsin, Marquette, Illinois, Brigham Young, Utah, Utah State, Iowa, Kansas State, the list goes on and on. Part of that schedule came from revenue-producing requirements -- the $300,000 the basketball team generated in the 07-08 season was the third highest source of revenue for the athletic department, behind state funding and student fees.
O'Brien also had an opportunity to bring in the three "big hitters" from Utah this past season: BYU, Utah and Utah State. He'll have to return trips to those three teams and continue to generate revenue with big name money games next year. But O'Brien has already said he wants to tame down the killer schedule he put together last year, a schedule which made it almost impossible for Idaho State to book a winning record and get into any post-season tournament other than the NCAA spot reserved for the Big Sky champion.
Because of the previous commitments to Utah's big three and the revenue requirements, it will take more than one year for O'Brien's "kinder, gentler" scheduling philosophy to take root. It will be interesting to see how it's manifested. It will also be interesting to see if the University of Idaho is part of that picture. O'Brien has expressed reluctance to travel to the Palouse to play Don Verlin's improving program. Will that mean a temporary end to the in-state rivalry?
Associate head coach Steve Swanson was the man behind the Bengals' offensive approach, and he is leaving the program to get his doctorate degree. Swanson took a lot of heat early in the year, when the Bengals' set offense looked disorganized and unimaginative. He got some love later in the season, though, for making adjustments like implementing the "empty post" offense that pulled center Lucas Steijn out high and revolved around a lot of high pick-and-rolls. Steijn and guards Amorrow Morgan and Stucki thrived in the offense as the Bengals got hot down the stretch.
What will O'Brien's coaching staff look like next year? Will he replace Swanson, or simply go back to the smaller, three-person staff that Oliver relied upon? O'Brien has said he will take over the controls of the offense -- what will that offensive approach look like, and will O'Brien's involvement in it dilute the time he's spent as the master of the Bengals' defense over the years?
O'Brien has shown a great deal of growth in his three years at the Idaho State helm --a three-year run that has been pretty successful on the court, at least in conference play. He now has the advantage of having those three years of experience under his belt, along with the security of a three-year contract that gives him the freedom to truly make this program his own. It will be fun to see what he makes of it all.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan, it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.