NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — Whatever you think you know about Cal State Northridge basketball, new head coach Reggie Theus wants you to forget about it.
The commuter campus in the Valley that has never been known as a sports powerhouse is getting a makeover by one of the area’s homegrown basketball talents. Theus, the Inglewood native who played 12 seasons in the NBA, is tasked with bringing excitement to a program that is largely ignored in the Los Angeles college basketball scene.
“Our goal is to be the hardest working team in the conference,” said Theus on Friday during a news conference at the Matadome. “CSUN basketball has kind of been the third wheel, just kind of like, ‘Whatever’. That stops today.”
Theus, who was most recently coaching the Lakers’ D-League team the D-Fenders, took over for 17-year head coach and CSUN alum Bobby Braswell last week. With the rise of the mid-majors in full effect, thanks to last month’s NCAA tournament in which Florida Gulf Coast, Wichita State and La Salle all made good runs, CSUN athletic director Dr. Brandon Martin wants the Matadors to be a part of it.
“We want to compete,” Martin said. “We want to compete with some of the high-major schools that people talk about all of the time. I’m not afraid of anybody and we want to compete against some of the top players in Southern California.”
Theus has had somewhat of a bumpy coaching career, with head stints at New Mexico State and with the Sacramento Kings. After a disastrous run in Sacramento, the former UNLV and Inglewood High School Star was an assistant with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But Theus soon realized that the NBA wasn’t where he wanted to be, and his passion for developing athletes made him yearn for the college game.
“I’ve wanted to be in college basketball in the worst way,” Theus said. “I think that having an opportunity to be back in college is always where my heart is. Mentoring the kids and having an effect on their lives is personal to me.”
For Martin, a former USC basketball player who has been vocal about wanting the Matador athletic programs to be in the conversation instead of an afterthought, it was a conversation with Rick Pitino, whom Theus worked under during a stint at Louisville, that was influential in the decision.
“He talked about his hunger to be the best coach in the country,” Martin said. “That was very special to me because one of my goals is to the best athletic director in the country, so that resonated with me.”
Martin was also impressed with Theus’ recruiting abilities. Martin and Theus want to tap into the hotbed that is Southern California and land the top recruits in the area.
Theus, however, is aware of what he is working with and the task of competing for players with powerhouse programs in UCLA and USC and even the up-and-coming program in Big West foe Long Beach State.
“Recruiting is about relationships and I have great relationships,” Theus said. “Recruiting is about your program and what you bring to your program. We have some challenges with our program.”
The Matadome, which plays more like an oversized high school gym than a Division I facility, is hardly a recruiting draw. Theus said he is planning to address and change the facilities in due time, but until then his plan is simply to put a competitive and entertaining product on the floor.
Theus’ teams will be defensively tough and look to push the pace. He wants to employ a strong full-court press and a high-tempo transition game. Guard Stephan Hicks made a name for himself as a sharp-shooter in the Big West already this season, but Theus is looking to bring more consistency and more discipline in with new recruits.
“It’s who I am as a coach. The great thing about college basketball is that you end up recruiting guys who can play that style,” Theus said. “This team has to shoot the ball a little bit better and we have to get a little tougher and need some more size.”
It’s a tall order for Cal State Northridge but with the leadership of Theus and Martin, a much-needed change is on its way.
“I promise that you will be able to go over to your friend or your neighbor’s house or wherever you are hanging out and talk about CSUN basketball with your chest pumped up and your head held high,” Theus said.