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Rod Barnes, CSU Bakersfield finding validation in different ways

The program and its coach both had something to prove.

David Dennis/All-Star Photography

The unknown can be scary, and there’s no shortage of unknowns when a Division II program transitions to Division I.

Budgets, recruiting and facilities become sources of pointed questions. Whether it was worth it can be hard to answer, and remain that way years after the fact.

According to CSU Bakersfield coach Rod Barnes, those questions were too much for some connected with the program when it transitioned in 2007.

“There were some people who wanted to go and some people who didn’t because of the success at the Division II level,” Barnes said. “There were some people, from what I understand since I wasn’t here at the time, that just decided, ‘I’m not going to be a part of it anymore.’”

It’s hard to blame them.

D-II was cozy for the Roadrunners, who won three national championships in the 90s and were a fixture in the NCAA Tournament. The jump would take national titles off the table for the foreseeable future, changing the definition of success.

10 seasons into its D-I life, the program has begun to taste some of that new version of success.

The Roadrunners won the WAC Tournament last season in just their third year in the league. After a thrilling league final against New Mexico State, CSUB played Final Four-bound Oklahoma well, trailing by as few as four points late in the game.

Last year wasn’t just a flash.

The encore to the program’s first D-I NCAA Tournament appearance, at least to this point, has been its first regular season league title. Though it was clinched with a home win against Chicago State last Saturday, the groundwork was laid during a home blowout of New Mexico State on Feb. 9.

It’s been a validating season for a coach in search of just that.

Barnes won 141 games across eight seasons at Ole Miss, including a Sweet 16 run in 2000-01. He was let go after the 2005-06 season, and took over at Georgia State a year later. The Panthers would never finish better than eighth in the CAA over Barnes’ four seasons in Atlanta.

That left him itching for another chance.

“I really took this job trying to resurrect my career, to prove I can build a program and that I’m a good coach. I wanted to leave my stamp on a program,” Barnes said. “A lot of people have helped and it’s been a team effort. It’s amazing to watch the transformation.”

That transformation didn’t happen overnight.

CSUB spent six seasons in the independent wilderness before joining a dramatically changing WAC for the 2013-14 season. To hear Barnes tell it, a complete overhaul was needed when he took the job in 2011. This included the typical “building a winning culture,” but also meant non-basketball upgrades, like adding academic counselors and bolstering the pep band and cheerleading squad.

“The first order of business was to get us on a healthy track academically,” Barnes said. “We didn’t have good infrastructure, and we set a culture of how we wanted to play.”

If anything’s smack in the middle of the coach-speak wheelhouse, it’s “culture.” But if one thing is echoed throughout the league, it’s that CSUB simply plays hard.

“They play so freaking hard, they come at you in waves,” Seattle coach Cameron Dollar said in a phone interview earlier in the season.

UMKC’s Kareem Richardson had similar thoughts after a Jan. 28 11-point Roadrunners’ win in Kansas City.

“They’re a very, very good team,” he said. “Obviously they defend you very tough, and then on the offensive end when they get leads it’s tough to cut into it because they milk the shot clock and shorten the game.”

That intensity, when paired with some great individual defenders like seniors Dedrick Basile and Jaylin Airington, has created dominant defenses the past two seasons. The Roadrunners have especially stifled WAC offenses this year, as they’ve held opponents to under .90 points per possession. And through 28 games, they’ve given up 80 or more points just twice.

A deliberate offense spiked with a talented, streaky scorer in Damiyne Durham has made CSUB the class of the WAC. But that doesn’t make a second consecutive NCAA bid a sure thing.

The Roadrunners will get the winner of Seattle and Utah Valley in their first tournament game. Both teams present a challenge — underachieving UVU is more talented than its record indicates, and one of CSUB’s worst offensive performances of the year came against the Redhawks’ zone just a few weeks ago.

And should a return to the WAC title game happen, NMSU will more than likely be waiting again. Though the Aggies have gone just 2-2 since CSUB snapped their 20-game winning streak, Ian Baker and a talented frontcourt are still a major hurdle.

That’s the reality of the WAC: there’s no national fun unless things go right over a short stretch in March.

It wasn’t necessarily that way in D-II. But if the past two seasons are any indication, Barnes has built the program to a point where they should have plenty of opportunities for years to come.

That’s one way to bring some of those deserters back into fold.