Cal State Dominguez Hills basketball Coach Dave Yanai expected reasonable production from his guards going into the season, with John Nojima and Barry Johnson returning, Victor Nomaaea coming off a record-setting summer tournament and Darrell Gordon stepping out of a high-powered Morningside High program.
Two months later, as the Toros prepare to open California Collegiate Athletic Conference play tonight, Nojima is still in the lineup but Johnson is on the bench, Gordon is on the injured list and Nomaaea is in eligibility limbo and probably out for the season.
Yanai suffered through a recent five-game losing streak while struggling with his unexpected personnel problems, but he goes into conference play with a two-game winning streak and a new-look, four-forward lineup that he says has stabilized the team and is probably set for the rest of the season. The 5-8 Toros open CCAA play tonight at Chapman College (4-8) in Orange.
Burden on Akins
The new setup features Nojima handling the ball and setting up juniors William Alexander and Brian Edwards and freshmen Tony Akins and Anthony Blackmon. The major burden of all the shifts has fallen on Akins, who opened the season in the pivot, then moved to a power forward spot and now plays away from the basket in a wing position. The husky freshman from Pasadena has managed to maintain his team-leading 19.8 average, a shade behind the 20-point average of CCAA scoring leader Sam Veal of Cal State Los Angeles.
Blackmon's insertion in the lineup leaves 6-8 freshman Danny Branch as the only front-court backup, but Yanai has been pleased with the results since he went to the new lineup. The first time out produced a one-point loss, and the Toros have won their last two games.
Yanai's hand was forced by Nomaaea's ineligibility, resulting from confusion over credit for classes taken this summer in American Samoa--where he averaged 34 points a game in a Pacific Rim Tournament--and the discovery of a blood disorder in Gordon, putting him out for the year as well. "Losing those two deeply hurt us," Yanai said, adding that some of the team's problems in its 3-8 start "probably came from having to make the adjustment to their loss."
Then, as the losses were piling up and the back court was lacking scoring punch, the Toros committed nearly 50 turnovers in two games. Yanai figured his forwards, at least, could put the ball in the basket. Exit Johnson, enter Blackmon.
"It took some losses to find the best possible lineup," Yanai said. "I think we've been able to come through this situation. We have some team stability now. I think we've settled down quite a bit. We've got a bit more identity."
Akins and Alexander (15.5-point average) carry the offensive load, but Edwards and Blackmon are capable of scoring and Nojima, who shoots sparingly, is hitting 68% of his shots and averaging 5.3 assists since the lineup change. Yanai also likes some of the defensive mismatches his lineup creates for opponents.
"It creates problems," he said. "Anytime you have to put a 6-1 player on William Alexander (who is 6-4) for stretches, he can just take over a game. If you put someone smaller on him he can really expose him. Or if you have to put a guard on Brian or Anthony, they can expose him. Hopefully it creates a situation where you make problems for the opposition. Then they counter and you have to counter their counter. That's what the game is all about."
Praise for Akins
Yanai will continue to insert guards Johnson and Bobby Watson and occasionally Danny Means for specific purposes, sometimes in tandem with Nojima. Other times, if Nojima is cornered, Akins brings the ball upcourt.
Early in the season, Akins, a burly 6-5 power player with a soft outside touch, set a school scoring record with 35 points. Yanai said Akins is so talented that there is a tendency to forget he's just a freshman. "It's not easy for a freshman to play three positions. He's handled it well. He'll make his share of mistakes, but the past two weeks have been a good experience for him."
Yanai had conference title hopes entering the season but now rates UC Riverside (10-3) the favorite, with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (a surprising 10-3), Cal State Los Angeles (3-3) and Cal State Bakersfield (9-4) also in the upper crust. That leaves Dominguez Hills, Cal Poly Pomona (9-4), Cal State Northridge (7-5) and Chapman fighting for a spot in the conference postseason tournament, which will pit the top four teams.
Yanai warns opponents not to take his team lightly. "We're not anywhere near as good as we're going to be," he said. "I felt good that the kids could get back-to-back wins and go into conference on a good note. We're going to improve. If people don't get after us, we're going to beat some people."
The Toros could start tonight at Chapman's Hutton Sports Center, where they have a lifetime 5-1 mark. The Panthers have a slightly taller lineup than Dominguez Hills except in the back court, with 6-8 Paul Tompkins at center and 6-6 forwards Jon Samuelson and Kelly Huston. Samuelson is the top player statistically, averaging 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds. Guard Mike Kelly, at 12.4 points, is the only other player in double figures. Guard Jim Saia rounds out the lineup.