By Sandeep Chandok:
Start with a foundation … build from the ground up … trust the process — San Jose State men’s basketball has embodied each of these steps necessary in developing a team and more importantly, a program.
The amazing part about the program’s development — it has all come since the beginning of last season.
After a 9-22 (4-14 MW) record in 2015-16, the Spartans are currently 13-10 (6-6 MW) and are riding a four-game Mountain West winning streak, their first such streak since 1996. They have gone from a team that other schools would want to play for an easy win to a team those same schools now want to avoid being a victim to.
Sophomore forward Cody Schwartz attributed much of the Spartan’s success to consistency and the offseason work each player put in and said head coach Dave Wojcik’s long term plan is unfolding.
“This vision that [coach] Wojcik had for us is starting to happen,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz has had an up and down season in regards to production and playing time, but did knock down two 3’s in just eight minutes of action in SJSU’s 76-74 win over UNLV.
In that same UNLV game, the Spartan’s featured four players in double-figures lead by, no, not Brandon Clarke, but rather sophomore guard Jaycee Hillsman who put up a career-high 16 points.
Fellow sophomore Ryan Welage, a forward, added 12 of his own and freshman guard Terrell Brown matched Welage’s dozen.
Despite not being the high man in the last game, Clarke has been the high man since stepping on SJSU’s campus. He took home the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman last season and now, in just his second campaign, is in the discussion for Mountain West Player of the Year.
Schwartz is well aware of Clarke’s value and what he brings to the team.
“He’s a great go-to guy on offense that we can throw the ball to,” Schwartz said. “He’s big for us.”
As of late, the team effort that has emerged is a paramount reason for SJSU’s winning ways in Mountain West play. Multiple guys are contributing every game and Wojcik is certainly mindful of this, acknowledging the main difference between last season and this one.
“A year older,” Wojcik said of his team. “It takes time to get our players in [here] and then it takes time to mature and get older.”
The maturity is evident and it’s coming from everyone on the team.
Hillsman emphasized how the team chemistry has been great this season, how everyone has been on the same page and that no one cares who’s doing the scoring or putting up big numbers.
“Our work ethic has been terrific,” Hillsman said. “We come to practice ready and excited.”
Hillsman also explained that many players are coming in before practice and staying past the scheduled time to put in individual work.
These are type of things in sports that go a long way — the extra shots, the ball handling drills, the running, the lifting — the willingness to get better every single day.
Although, getting better every day can be difficult in hard times.
Wojcik recently lost his father and left school for a week to be with his family. Upon his return, he was immediately comforted by his players and staff. It was the first death in Wojcik’s family and it taught him to take things day-by-day.
“I’m living in the moment,” Wojcik said. “I learned a lot and reflected a lot from the passing of my father.”
Adversity is typically a motivating factor for teams and it certainly has been for the Spartans. Winning is a reflection of that and so are the people in the stands. The home win over San Diego State drew an enormous crowd and led to students rushing the court after the final buzzer as what many players described as an “awesome moment.”
The key now, according to Wojcik, is to take things one game at a time. Both he and his team understand the importance of keeping the win streak behind them and looking forward to their next opponent.
History is already in the making, but Hillsman has high expectations for this special group of players.
“We’re trying to do things we haven’t done,” Hillsman said. “We want to make this season memorable forever in our school history.”