Team preview: San Jose State

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.


Perhaps the best way to describe last season: A disaster. San Jose State got off to a bad start and finished even worse.

"We definitely took a step backwards," said coach George Nessman, entering his eighth season. "It was a combination of things. I think we may have miscalculated the amount we were losing with [All-WAC selection] Adrian Oliver. Not just in terms of production, but in terms of leadership and being the core of the team. We were young. And then we got off to a slow start and we never really got our confidence back."

The Spartans lost seven of their first 10 and 14 of their last 17, finishing with just nine wins, fewest since the program produced five during the 2006-07 season. San Jose State battled several issues, but one that never went away: Giving up easy baskets inside.

The Spartans allowed 72.9 points per game last season, seventh in the then-eight-team WAC. They let opponents shoot 45 percent, which ranked last. They also were outrebounded by nearly four boards a game. That wasn't exactly the best recipe for success.

San Jose State Spartans

"We have to get better defensively, particularly around the basket," Nessman said. "People just opened us like a can down there last year. They just pounded away at us until either they fouled our guys out or wore us down physically. Recruiting was the only real solution to that, and I think we're well on our way to solving that. But that's going to be the decider. If our interior defense and rebounding come up to WAC level -- our guard play has been as good as anybody's -- I think we have a chance to make a big jump."

That effort starts with Chris Cunningham, a 6-9, 240-pound junior transfer from Santa Clara who sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. In 15 games during the 2010-11 season, Cunningham averaged 4.4 points and 2.8 rebounds.

"He has a chance to be a really good player in the WAC," Nessman said. "He has really transformed his body. He's skilled around the basket. He can score out to about 16 feet. He makes good decisions with the ball. He's a tough-minded defender. He's one of the better bigs, if not the best big, I've been around at San Jose State. "

Cunningham should have help. Sophomore Stephon Smith (3.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg), a 6-8, 260-pound sophomore, started 15 games as a freshman last season. He showed potential against league champion Nevada, posting career bests of 14 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes, but that needs to be the norm and not the exception.

"No question Stephon should be a contributor," Nessman said. "He's powerful. He had a real solid freshman season and he has a lot of upside."

Nessman brought in two centers. At 7-1, freshman Mike VanKirk is the second 7-footer in program history. As a senior at Paraclete High in Lancaster, Calif., he averaged 9.7 points and 5.2 blocks. He spent last season at La Jolla Prep in California.

Alex Brown, a 6-11 junior transfer from John A. Logan College in Carterville, Ill., will be a factor provided he adds weight to his 210-pound frame. He averaged 10.5 points and 7.0 rebounds last season.

"He's really athletic," Nessman said. "Bouncy. Wiry. He can really move."

Sophomore Jaleel Williams (2.8 ppg, 1.0 rpg) and two more newcomers, 6-7 freshman David Andoh and junior college transfer Louis Garrett, a 6-6 junior, are also in the mix.

"This is the first time we've had any depth at all in the frontcourt, and I think it'll be an important factor in balancing our offense," Nessman said.

The Spartans are more proven in the backcourt. In his first season, senior James Kinney (15.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg), a junior college transfer, was the WAC's fourth-leading scorer. A willing offensive player, Kinney took 30.6 percent of the team's shots last season. His 420 field-goal attempts were nearly 100 more than anyone else on the team.

"Obviously, a very good scorer," Nessman. "He can shoot the ball from the catch position, but he also can score off the bounce a little bit. He was in the top four of scoring [in the WAC] last year, and I'd be surprised if he's not again."

The challenge is to get Kinney to become more of a complete player. He had more turnovers (92) than assists (85) last year. And for as many shots as he took, the 6-2 Illinois native connected on only 40.5 percent.

"He needs to reduce his turnover rate," Nessman said. "That's something we take a lot of pride in around here. He needs to make better decisions and just be an overall better basketball player."

Sophomore D.J. Brown (7.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg) gives San Jose State another strong backcourt option. Last season Brown started the last 15 games of his redshirt freshman season, providing glimpses of his potential. Against Cal State Bakersfield, the 6-2 guard scored 33 points, a freshman school record. Brown hit 9 of 11 from the field, including 6 of 7 from 3-point range. He also made 9 of 10 from the free-throw line.

"We expect a lot out of D.J.," Nessman said. "He had some big games last year. He hurt his wrist, so his shooting tailed off at the end of the season. But before that, he was tracking above 40 percent from the 3-point line, and I think he's capable of that. He's a real solid piece for us."

Nessman likes Xavier Jones, a 6-4 junior college transfer from Gary, Ind. The junior had scholarship offers from Marquette and Dayton coming out of high school, but he had to go to junior college, where he teamed with Alex Brown at John A. Logan.

"I think he has a chance to come in and be one of the better newcomers in the league," Nessman said.

Lavanne Pennington (3.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg) a 6-4 senior, also should help once he settles into a role. Pennington started his career at Southern Miss, playing 15 games as a freshman in 2010. From there, he spent a season at Barstow College in California (averaging 16.9 points) before landing in San Jose.

"Lavanne is a guy with a lot of talent who just struggled with the transition from junior college to Division I," Nessman said. "He's athletic. He can score. He just needs to be more attentive to detail. He's maturing. He certainly had a good summer. He has a chance."

Nick Grieves (2.4 ppg, 0.6 rpg), a 6-3 sophomore, is known for his shooting.






Nessman is in a tough situation. In the spring, athletic director Tom Bowen left for Memphis, which means he's working for a new boss. A nice bounce-back season probably would help all involved.

Kinney will score, but he needs help, particularly inside. Cunningham, the Santa Clara transfer, needs to be a factor inside. Also, one of the twin towers -- VanKirk or Alex Brown -- needs to be a defensive presence at the rim.

This is San Jose State's last year in the WAC. Next year, the Spartans move on to the Mountain West. They'd like to make their final season count.

"We like our chances," Nessman said. "Our guys are hungry."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2012-13 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.