What difference does a year make?
Cal State Dominguez Hills basketball Coach Dave Yanai hopes it's the difference between a green squad searching for itself during a 8-19 season--which was last year's predicament--and an experienced, confident bunch battling for the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. title, which is Yanai's scenario for this season.
The Toros open Friday in the Tipoff Tournament at Southern Utah College in Cedar City and Yanai, who has a 131-105 record at Dominguez Hills despite last season's uncharacteristic mark, thinks his team has the look of a winner.
For one thing, the entire lineup is back. For another, most of the Toros' losses last season were close, often decided by youthful mistakes. At times, Yanai was playing three or four freshmen. Now Yanai falls back on the axiom that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.
Also returning to the fold is sophomore guard Vico Nomaaea, who sat out last season with eligibility problems.
Yanai probably will start three seniors--forwards William Alexander and Brian Edwards and guard John Nojima--and two sophomores, center Anthony Blackmon and Nomaaea. First off the bench will be another talented sophomore, forward Tony Akins, who set a school scoring record with a 35-point game as a freshman. Yanai considers him a "sixth starter."
Two newcomers will also be prominent: East Los Angeles College transfer Leonard Eaton, a sophomore guard, and freshman forward Mike Rudberg out of Rolling Hills High.
Alexander, a high-flying 6-4 player who is extremely effective inside despite his size, averaged 17.6 points as a junior and needs 188 points to become the CCAA's all-time scoring leader.
Yanai says the four-year starter probably benefited from the Toros' problems last year because he learned to operate within a halfcourt offense. This year Yanai hopes the team will run more effectively. He also predicts that three-point shooting by Nomaaea and Eaton will open up opportunities inside for Alexander.
"Our inexperience that hurt us last year will probably be a blessing," Yanai said. "They've all matured and grown a bit. Alexander looks super and he's giving us real good leadership."
Yanai says Nojima, who was thrown into the point guard spot last season after two years as shooting guard, has grown into the position. "He's giving us real good leadership. The other players really seem to respond to him," Yanai said.
The other senior, Edwards, had a strong sophomore year but lost his job to freshmen last season. He averaged nine points but only seven in CCAA play. As a senior he'll get to start again.
"He's playing very well right now," Yanai said.
If the 6-4 Edwards remains steady, it allows Yanai to give Akins some instruction from the bench before inserting him. Akins, a burly 6-6, averaged 16.5 points last year and showed a nice outside touch. At times he even brought the ball up court when the guards were pressured.
Yanai considers Akins the most talented player he has recruited since Alexander and would like to see him operate more inside this season.
"He'll have a chance to specialize inside a little bit more," Yanai said. "We feel he'll rebound more than last year. We have that luxury we didn't have last year."
Yanai expects the team to run better for two reasons: the addition of Nomaaea and Eaton as three-point threats and the generally better game feel throughout the team.
"I've always enjoyed that (running) style," Yanai said. "Our ball-handling and recognition of opponents' defenses is much better. We'll try and get our kids to look for things (opportunities) early. I think they have the experience that they won't take bad shots.
"The three-point shot is a look-see situation. But it's nice when you have a kid like Vico coming back. I look to have that (three-pointer) as a factor for us. Last year teams really packed it in for us. Now we'll really get the opportunity to see William (Alexander) open things up."
Nomaaea should be an extremely important player because he can handle the ball as well as shoot. Eaton is also being groomed as the future point guard.
At center, the 6-7 Blackmon averaged 7.7 points but increased that to 9.1 in conference play, when he became a starter. He was the team's leading rebounder with a 6.6 average and showed a sweet foul-shooting touch of 84%. In conference games he hit 45 of 49, for a league-leading .918 percentage.
Rudberg makes up for a relatively slight 6-4 frame with an extremely competitive nature as well as a nice shooting touch.
"He's very bright. He's going to see a lot of minutes as a freshman," Yanai said.
Dominguez Hills will need all its experience and talent to compete in the CCAA. UC Riverside is nationally ranked in pre-season polls and returns conference co-player of the year Robert Jemison, a 6-7 pre-season All-American.
The other co-player of the year, 6-3 Sean Chambers, returns to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly Pomona and Chapman also return a large portion of their lineups.
"The league will be very interesting," Yanai said. "There are a lot of good players back. I look for us to be right in there."
The Toros open Friday against home team Southern Utah. Other teams in the tournament are Cal State Los Angeles and Cal Baptist.