By Sandeep Chandok:
With one game remaining in the regular season and tournament play on the horizon, it’s time for San Jose State to flip on the NOS switch as it prepares for postseason play.
Coming into the week, SJSU had Nevada (24-6, 13-4 MW) and Wyoming (17-13, 7-10 MW) on its schedule for its final matchups of the regular season.
Senior night didn’t pose a storybook ending for the Spartans (14-14, 7-10 MW), however, as they were blown away by Nevada, 82-67, in Gary Williams Jr., Brandon Mitchell and Isaac Thornton’s final game on Walt McPherson Court.
But don’t count out SJSU just yet, it can still be a ‘Cinderella’ team.
Saturday’s matchup with Wyoming now has significant implications. A victory would give the Spartans a winning record resulting in an automatic one-year extension for head coach Dave Wojcik. That victory would also be SJSU’s 15th this year which would stamp its first 15-win season since 2010-11.
Spartan players are cognizant of what’s at stake not only for their team, but SJSU as a whole.
“It’s big for us as a school,” said sophomore guard Jaycee Hillsman. “We haven’t had much history of winning and it would help us start a tradition here.”
What remains to be seen is which Spartan team shows up this week and the way I see it, there’s only two options: Either we will see the same SJSU team that has started games slowly and had to fight from behind — many times when it’s too late. Or, we will see a team playing with a sense of urgency, with everyone stepping up and locking in mentally.
I’m expecting it to be the second one.
Sophomore swingman Cody Schwartz has come on for the Spartans as of late with six made threes in the last four games (prior to March 1) including two that ignited an SJSU comeback-win over Air Force. Schwartz, despite playing limited minutes, acknowledged why every person on San Jose State’s team plays a role in its success moving forward.
“If you don’t play much either, just give a lot of energy to the guys who are playing and help them out,” Schwartz said. “I think our team does that pretty well.”
Rising to the occasion is one of SJSU’s strong suits.
In a handful of games, primarily in conference play, a plethora of Spartans have stepped up when their team need a spark. Whether it was Terrell Brown’s five-game hot stretch, Brandon Mitchell’s constant momentum-shifting blocks or Cody Schwartz’s recent revival from distance — someone has answered the call, and that’s what it’s going to take for SJSU to win these next two games: A team effort.
“Winning games — especially this time of the season — it takes everybody,” Hillsman said.
Sophomore forwards Brandon Clarke and Ryan Welage have answered the call all season-long. Clarke makes nearly every shot he puts up in the paint, Welage’s mid-post game is flourishing every day and yet, offense isn’t the Spartan’s problem — it’s their defense.
In SJSU’s practice earlier this week, Wojcik boldly underlined the importance of defending and rebounding, recognizing his team’s ability to rack up points but emphasizing the need to get stops when a game is on the line.
“[Defense is] our staple,” Hillsman said. “It’s what has won us the amount of games we’ve won.”
That’s what it comes down to for San Jose State: defense.
If the Spartans can defend at a high-level and secure rebounds, they can undoubtedly win multiple games in the Mountain West Tournament. Although, winning one would be a first in the program and before the tournament, SJSU needs to handle its business against Wyoming and get some momentum rolling.
“We can go into the tournament with a confidence and swagger about us and definitely shock some people,” Hillsman said. “I like our chances.”
I like their chances too.