Before the 2010-11 season began, Bobby Braswell did not know what to anticipate from his youngest team in 15 years as head coach at Cal State Northridge. Braswell was not expecting the Matadors to win a Big West title or even finish in the top half of the conference standings.
All he knew was his youthful team, which started the season with a 4-12 record, would make plenty of mistakes early.
“When you have a young team like this you have to realize they aren’t going to be ready right away. My focus was no matter how frustrated I got, I will continue to teach,” said Braswell, who had eight freshmen on his roster. “I challenged myself; no matter what we were going through, I would continue to teach. I think it paid off.”
After being picked to finish eighth in the Big West preseason poll, CSUN surprisingly finished third and advanced to the Big West Tournament semifinals where it fell to defending champion UC Santa Barbara.
It took a lot of patience for Braswell and his coaching staff to teach the first-year Matadors, but he did not do it alone as he had help from the five CSUN seniors.
“The freshmen wouldn’t have grown and matured without (the seniors). They were the coaches, the fathers and the big brothers in that locker room,” Braswell said.
A year ago, seniors Raymond Cody, Lenny Daniel, Dathan Lyles, Michael Lizarraga, Rashaun McLemore and redshirt junior Vinnie McGhee suffered a dismal season as Northridge had an 11-21 record and an eighth place finish in the Big West. It was the Matadors worst season since the 1995-96 campaign.
It appeared CSUN was headed for another disappointing season, but a new defense-first mentality changed that.
With a three-game losing streak and losses in six out of their last seven games, the Matadors held Cal State Fullerton to 36.5 percent from the field en route to an 89-65 victory at the Matadome on Jan. 15.
The Matadors went on to win five out of seven games and only one opponent scored over 70 points. CSUN climbed up to a second place tie with Cal Poly and were only two games behind Long Beach State.
Ironically, the Matadors’ next two games were against the 49ers and the Mustangs. With a sellout crowd at the Matadome, Northridge stayed with the eventual Big West regular season champions, but Long Beach State pulled away in the final minutes for a 79-62 win on Feb. 12.
CSUN continued to fall down the standings as they were trampled by Cal Poly at Mott Gym (Feb. 16).
However, Northridge closed the regular season by winning three of four games, including its first-ever victory at Spanos Center after beating Pacific to clinch the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament.
Forward Daniel, who had a bounce-back season after getting suspended last year for attitude issues and failing to meet grade requirements, was awarded a spot on the All-Big West First Team.
“Last year, I got off to a rocky start,” said Daniel, who led the Matadors in scoring and rebounding. “My teammates and coaches helped me develop into a better person. I had a great time at Northridge, made great friends and met great teammates. Some will be friends forever.”
One of the reasons for the Matadors’ turnaround season is the chemistry the young players and the veterans had.
“These guys generally care about each other,” Braswell said. “When you get guys committed and loyal to one another, good things happen.”
Early in the year, the Matadors only had two players stepping up in Daniel and McLemore, an All-Big West Second Team member. However, towards the halfway point of the season, freshmen like Aqeel Quinn and Josh Greene started to contribute off the bench.
Quinn, a point guard, learned how to run the team and get the offense in sync. Six-foot Greene became one of the best 3-point shooters in the Big West.
Now with an experienced freshmen class, the Matadors have a bright future.
“We (the freshmen) have seen what it takes to be a good team,” Greene said. “It’s all about what we do in the offseason and our preparation for next season.”