It’s tough for a mid-major to get attention on the west coast unless it pulls a monumental upset. It’s nearly impossible if it’s a program new to Division I, playing in a conference with less tradition than that first awkward Christmas at Dad and that other lady’s new apartment.
It’s important to keep that in mind when considering what head coach Rod Barnes has done at CSU Bakersfield over the past two seasons. After posting a 57-69 record over his first four seasons with the Roadrunners — two of them as an independent and two as a member of the geographically confused WAC — Barnes has turned the program around.
In 2015-16, the Roadrunners went 24-9, winning the WAC championship on a buzzer-beater and giving Oklahoma a game in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Roadrunners won 10 consecutive conference games en route to a regular season title and automatic bid into the NIT. They made it count, winning at Cal, Colorado State, and UT Arlington on their way to a shocking appearance at Madison Square Garden in the semifinals. They were the first 8 seed to ever make it to New York.
So even after CSU Bakersfield’s 76-61 semifinal loss to Georgia Tech on Tuesday, it was easy to understand Barnes’ and his team’s sense of accomplishment.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Barnes said after the game. “I’m proud of these seniors and what they have done for our program and for the university, and for the city of Bakersfield.”
That senior class includes Dedrick Basile, who scored a team-high 18 points on Tuesday, and Jaylin Airington, who finished with 12 of his own. Both were junior college transfers who saw the potential of the Bakersfield program and helped spark its rise.
Airington played three years for Barnes, scoring 1,550 career points, good for second on the Roadrunners’ all-time list. In his three years, the Roadrunners’ win total has increased each season.
The local fanbase has taken notice. Three seasons ago, the Roadrunners averaged just 1,115 fans per game, which is not even a third of the capacity of their home gym, the Icardo Center. The next year, as CSU Bakersfield become more competitive, that average jumped to 1,657, or nearly half the capacity.
Then, after last year’s tournament run, with another postseason appearance on the way, the Roadrunners drew 2,685 per night with four sellouts in 13 regular season home games.
“Our administration has been really supportive of us and the community,” Barnes said. “It’s really energized our community.”
That may be where it starts, but the postseason gave Barnes and his team a chance to to introduce the rest of the country to their brand of basketball.
The brand they sold was frustratingly effective. The Roadrunners were one of the best defensive teams in the country in 2016-17, ranking 23rd in KenPom in defensive efficiency and third in effective field goal percentage defense. That helped hold Cal to only 66 points on 33 percent shooting in their first-round win in Berkeley. In the second round, that meant giving Colorado State only 63 points in 71 possessions.
This was the second straight year that Bakersfield has had a defense in the top tier of Division I. It’s something that Barnes will be tasked with building off of as Airington and Basile move on.
That could start with Darrin Person and Justin McCall, the two incoming freshmen next year, both from the Bakersfield area. If they can join the returning players from this year in continuing the program’s upward trend, the hope is that eventually, Bakersfield can become more well-known nationwide.
The NIT certainly helped.
“I think now on a national level, people are starting to realize we have a pretty good program here in Bakersfield,” Barnes said.
Tuesday night was just their third game ever in the Eastern time zone and their first at Madison Square Garden. The milestone for the program served as a fitting ending to Airington and Basile’s careers.
“It’s been a great run for the team and for our program,” Basile said. “We would like to win it all, but we just ended up coming up short.”
It was also a reminder to the returners next year of what the team is capable of.
“I challenged our guys that are coming back,” Barnes said. “We’ve all got to get better. These guys have set the bar high, and it’s going to take a lot of work, determination, to keep this thing going at the level we have it now.”