Team preview: UC Riverside

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Last year, when David Spender took his first head coaching job, he had a vision. In it, his UC Riverside team was racing up and down the floor operating the old Paul Westhead/Loyola Marymount system, playing pressure defense and chucking three-pointers at will, scoring 100 points a night.

Then his Highlanders took the floor, and reality hit. Hard.

Before the first game, point guard Justin Williams-Bell went down with a torn knee ligament. Spencer tried to run anyway. Several blowout losses later, he reconsidered and pulled his team back into a slower, more conventional game.

"We tried to stick with it for awhile and then realized there was just no way we were going to be able to do it without the right kind of point guard,'' he said.
Consider it a learning experience. The slower pace helped keep the Highlanders in games, and they actually defeated Big West champion Pacific on the road, though they still went 5-23 and finished last in the conference.

There will, Spencer thinks, be a time when his team is running and gunning and pressing like the Bo Kimble-Hank Gathers teams of the 1980s. But for now, it might have to wait.

"It may be a couple years,'' Spencer said. "I'm not stupid enough to keep beating my head against the wall and get my butt kicked like we did last year. So if we have to slow it down and that means we have to slow it down for the whole year, and I'm frustrated because I'd really like to get it going, that's what it's going to mean.''

Spencer said his plan for now is to run about 70 percent of the Westhead system, but to quickly adjust -- either faster or slower -- depending on the skills of his players and how quickly they can pick it up.

Getting them all on the same page might be tricky this season, as almost everybody who played significant minutes last season is gone. And while Spencer wryly pointed out "that's probably a good thing,'' the fact that 10 of the 13 scholarship players are new will likely slow the learning process considerably.

"I don't know that we're quite ready to do that with so many young guys,'' he said. "It's going to take us a month just to get to know each other's names. So I figure we'll back it off a little bit -- I don't want to see the ball sailing out of bounds every other possession -- and as we're able, or if we're able, we'll add a little bit more of the system, the things in my heart I really want to do.''