What a difference a year makes.
Last season, through the first 10 Big West Conference games, Cal State Northridge had a 4-6 record and was at the bottom half of the league standings. To make matters worse, Matador star player Lenny Daniel was benched for two games for poor behavior toward the team.
It has been the opposite so far this season as the Matadors are currently in second place with a 6-4-league record and Daniel has become one of the leaders on the team.
With only six games left on the Big West schedule, CSUN (9-14, 6-4 BWC) will make its final push for a regular season conference title, starting with Cal State Fullerton on the road tonight and then returning home for a showdown against first-place Long Beach State Saturday.
“Winning changes everything,” said senior forward Daniel, who is averaging 16.1 points and 9.3 rebounds. “It changes your mentality, how you approached the game, how you approach the end of the game. It’s a whole different chemistry in the locker room now and it feels good.”
CSUN head coach Bobby Braswell credits the seniors’ leadership towards the six Matador freshmen for being a reason why Northridge has won four of its last five games.
“We got a great group of seniors that kind of cuddle (the freshmen) and brought them along,” Braswell said. “Even during that difficult stretch where we weren’t playing as well and playing the difficult (non-conference) schedule, the seniors just kind of kept working with these guys and helping them along the way.”
With the Matador freshmen playing solid, Braswell has been able to incorporate five-man substitutions, making them a deeper team.
CSUN starts the game with a lineup of Daniel, Dathan Lyles, Vinnie McGhee, Raymond Cody and Jordan Mitchell.
The second lineup off the bench is led by senior guard Rashaun McLemore along with freshmen Josh Greene, Aqeel Quinn, Frankie Eteuati and senior Michael Lizarraga.
Braswell said having his top-leading scorers, Daniel and McLemore, on different units benefits the team.
“Rashaun (McLemore) and Lenny (Daniel) are our best two players, no doubt about it, and bringing a new five with Rashaun being the catalyst of that group when your opponents are probably making a shift and not bringing in the same caliber guys, I think that is an advantage for us,” he said.
Braswell started making five-player substitutions after he found out the Matadors were ranked last in the Big West in points allowed. On Jan. 13 against UC Riverside, Braswell added the “five points or one offensive rebound” rule, which means if the group on the court gives up five points or an offensive rebound, Braswell will immediately bench all five players.
Braswell has stuck with the rule ever since as the Matadors have moved up to sixth in scoring defense.
“We had to go to that (rule) because we weren’t defending, so since we have gone to this system the guys have really stepped up,” Braswell said. “Everybody is contributing and that’s good to have, especially when you are winning.”
The Matadors had one of their best defensive efforts of the season in a 89-65 victory over Cal State Fullerton at home on Jan. 15.
CSUN held the Titans to 36.5 percent from the field and 31.6 from 3-point range.
Fullerton (9-15, 5-6 BWC) has gone 3-3 since the game at Northridge and is in sixth place in the Big West.
Long Beach State (13-10, 8-2 BWC) is two games ahead of the Matadors and has not played a game since Jan. 29.
The Matadors lost to the 49ers at the Pyramid, 85-71, on Jan. 5.