SAN FRANCISCO – San Francisco elevated Todd Golden to head coach within hours after Kyle Smith was officially hired at Washington State last March.
The Golden-Smith connection is tight, dating back to when Smith, then an assistant under Randy Bennett, recruited Golden to Saint Mary’s as a walk-on guard. Golden developed into a team captain, once drilling six 3-pointers in an overtime win against Gonzaga that helped propel the Gaels to the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
It’s hardly a surprise Golden’s playbook and approach in his first season closely mimics his former boss. The Dons (16-7, 5-3 WCC), who entertain No. 2 Gonzaga (22-1, 8-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday, are winning games with an entertaining brand of basketball and occasionally making headlines for analytics-based, game-changing decisions.
“Kyle’s a guy I look up to,” said the 34-year-old Golden, who assisted Smith for three years at USF – all 20-win seasons – and one season at Columbia. “I would say we’ve changed a quarter of what we’re doing, whether it’s playing a little faster in transition and maybe a little different defensively. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
That includes using advanced analytics and tracking dozens of stats beyond a typical box score. When Smith was at USF, it was dubbed “Nerdball.”
Last Saturday, Golden instructed his team, leading by two with 22 seconds left, to foul BYU star forward Yoeli Childs, because analytics indicated it was a strong option. Childs shoots 60% at the foul line, not to mention he was coming off a finger injury, and it was a one-and-one situation.
“Jonathan Safir, our director of ops, his role is to provide me with opportunities when they come up,” Golden said. “It wasn’t hard for me to wrap my arms around it. You know how explosive BYU is and I wasn’t comfortable sitting back, trying to get one stop and let them dictate how regulation would end. Even if he makes both, the shot clock is off with 12-13 seconds left to win the game.”
Childs missed the first free throw and the Dons held on, 83-82.
A couple weeks ago, the Dons fouled Pacific’s Pierre Crockrell, at the time a 36% free-throw shooter, late in the first half, gaining an extra possession. Crockrell made one of two, but the Dons cashed in with a 3-pointer that helped turn a 45-33 lead into a 48-34 advantage.
Golden said he’s always looking for “incremental advantages and not making every decision with my eyes.”
“Honestly it was a big part of my career at Saint Mary’s,” he said. “A big reason I built on my role was because I was able to help them win games. It wasn’t because I was the best athlete or highest recruit. They gave me a chance to analytically prove I could help them win.”
The Dons have won five of six after dropping their first two WCC games to Saint Mary’s and Portland. They are guard-driven with Charles Minlend (15.0 points per game), Jamaree Bouyea (13.7), Khalil Shabazz (10.3) and Jordan Ratinho (8.6), the program’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers.
Center Jimbo Lull, a 7-foot senior who has made steady improvement every season, provides an interior presence averaging 11.5 points and 7 rebounds.
“I feel like if you’re taking a macro look at our year, we had one bad week,” said Golden, referring to an 0-3 stretch against Harvard, Saint Mary’s and Portland. “Starting 0-2 in league was definitely a rude awakening.
“It allowed us to take a step back and recalibrate, and we focused on things that don’t require talent – defending, rebounding, taking care of the ball. Over the past 2 1/2 weeks we’re playing pretty good basketball.”
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