There were some pretty good coaching jobs turned in by Big Sky Conference women's basketball coaches this year: Wendy Schuller took an Eastern Washington team picked in the bottom half of the league to a regular season championship; and Jamie Craighead, the youngest Division I coach in the country, reinvented the Sacramento State program, winning a school record 10 conference games and initiating her own brand of "40 minutes of hell." So I don't expect Idaho State head Coach Seton Sobolewski (left) to win conference coach of the year honors.
But the second-year Bengal mentor did a great job as he continues to grow into his position at ISU. He took a team that lost its top scorer and rebounder in Michelle Grohs, and its steals and assist leader in Jenna Brown, mixed in six freshmen, all of whom played significant minutes, endured a brutal non-conference slate, and wound up tied for second in the conference with ten wins. Sure, the loss in the first-round of the tournament to Portland State was disappointing, but finishing with a .500 overall record after playing such a difficult non-conference slate was something to relish.
As further testament to Sobolewski's coaching, consider the Bengals were 5-0 in games decided by five points or less, 3-1 in overtime, and finished 4-4 on the road in Big Sky games. He also shook off the loss of 6-5 freshman center Ashlee Rigter, who left the program before ever playing a game, and the mid-season unavailability of wing players Morgan Wohltman and Chelsea Pickering due to illness and injury, respectively. It was no coincidence the Bengals finished the season with a six-game winning streak after both returned to the lineup, but Sobolewski managed to keep the Bengals together while they struggled during their absences.
The next phase in Sobolewski's coaching "growth," if you will, comes next season, when the Bengals lose leading scorer and rebounder Oana Iacovita, assist and steals leader Andrea Videbeck and defensive stalwart Devin Diehl. Those three seniors depart with 53 percent of the Bengals' scoring, 44 percent of their rebounding and 63 percent of their assists in conference play.
The good news is that Sobolewski has built a nice foundation for the program with the six freshmen who got significant playing time this past season. Aussie Ashleigh Vella was the most consistent of the frosh, starting 29 of 30 games and averaging 8 points and 5.6 rebounds a contest. She started off the year focusing primarily on rebounding, then shifted to becoming a regular double-figure scoring threat. She shot almost 53 percent from the field in Big Sky play, 40 percent from the three-point line.
The other freshmen all played roles this year, but some of them are going to have to take that next step in development and become key contributors next year. Wohltman is a great three-point shooter, but needs to work on quickness and creating her own shot. Kaela Oakes got 13 starts at point guard, but shot only 27 percent from the field in league play. Two-guard Brea Matthews and power forward Ashley Smith need to become more aggressive on the offensive end of the court. And Shannon Byrne, well she needs to start living up to her many physical skills, which Seton has praised all year. The 6-3 lefthander runs, jumps and shoots well -- now she needs to translate that ability into something more than the five minutes, two points and one rebound a game she averaged in conference play.
Pickering and guard Andrea Blodgett hopefully will grow into leadership roles as the key seniors next year, and Sobolewski's early signing period recruiting class produced three players who will likely see some minutes next year: post Cydney Horton, point guard Sheryl Bitter and wing player Kara Jenkins. Because Sobolewski has built some depth and versatility on his roster, none of those freshmen will have to carry an inordinant burden next year, however.
That young depth also has given Seton the ability to gamble a bit in spring recruiting. He already has one commitment from a high school forward this spring, and he's going to use his final three scholarships to pursue high-risk, high-reward prospects where he may be going up against a stronger level of competition. He's pursuing a couple of players who could be "difference makers" this spring. If they sign, they could elevate ISU to the next level in the Big Sky Conference; if they don't, well the Bengals should still remain competitive for the next several years as a very young team -- and a young coach -- continue to grow together.
Broncos Look for New Coach
Boise State made the decision to fire head basketball coach Greg Graham, and eat the last year of his $362,000 a year contract, not, primarily, because of his up-and-down win-loss record, but rather because of raging apathy in the Boise Valley. Graham, just two years removed from a WAC championship, was axed last week on the heels of a season that saw BSU draw an average of just over 3,100 fans a game to spacious Taco Bell Arena. I know when I broadcast the ISU-BSU overtime loss to the Broncos at TBA in 2008, I was stunned at how much the game-day atmosphere had deteriorated in Boise. There was simply no life in the place.
With the Broncos knocking on the door of the Mountain West Conference, they need a relatively healthy and vigorous men's basketball program to enhance their appeal to MWC administrators.
The success of the BSU football team has certainly raised the bar on expectations for the basketball program. I see some parallels between Boise and Missoula, which used to be a great college basketball town, but has seen enthusiasm and attendance for its basketball program drop in almost inverse proportion to the way Montana's football program has grown in dominance. The Griz, who won a first-round NCAA tournament basketball game not so long ago, and won over 20 regular season games this year, still averaged just over 3,300 fans a game.
The Broncos and Griz are also feeling the national fallout from the dropping interest in college basketball. As we've noted before, attendance and television ratings for college basketball are diving all over the country, and Boise and Missoula are not immune.
It will be interesting to see what impact Graham's demise will have on Idaho State's future basketball schedules. ISU Coach Joe O'Brien was working on a home-and-home deal with the Broncos before Graham's firing.
With the announcement that Eastern Washington is keeping men's coach Kirk Earlywine for at least another year, it appears the Big Sky Conference coaching rosters, on both the men's and women's sides, will be stable going into next season. That's barring any late-breaking developments, of course. Last year Portland State's Ken Bone was hired for the Washington State opening, and Sac State's women's coach departed in late spring for an assistant's job at Oregon. Both were replaced by assistant coaches from the existing staffs.
I got a chance to chat with Bengal football Coach John Zamberlin last week for the final episode of Bengal Review, and came away with some nuggets of information. First, Coach Z told us he's adding Josh Fetter, a former defensive line coach at Portland State, to his staff. Fetter, who played at Idaho with current Bengal defensive coordinator Brian Strandley in the 1990s, worked for both Tim Walsh and Jerry Glanville at PSU. I'm assuming he'll take over the duties of Joe Cullen, who went back to the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaquars.
Zamblerin also noted that, even though it's off-season, football players are still not immune to the injury bug. He told us that incoming freshman quarterback Justin Level will not take part in spring ball due a knee injury; and transfers Jahmel Rover (running back) and Bo Hudeen (linebacker) are both struggling with leg injuries that could restrict their spring availability. Returning linebacker Phil Arias is also dealing with a stomach ailment that could sideline him as well.
Coach Z said the search for a kicker/punter continues. He brought a prospect to campus last weekend but they haven't confirmed his academic status as yet.
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