When Florida tipped off against East Tennessee State last March, it was the first time Mike White had stood on the sidelines of an NCAA Tournament game as a head coach.
That shouldn’t have been the case.
If life were fair — or conference tournaments not as fickle — White would’ve been in the March spotlight a few times over before the Gators’ run to the Elite Eight. And so would Louisiana Tech, the program that he jump-started in 2011 before heading to Gainesville.
Over the last six years, the Bulldogs have gone 147-60, including 76-26 in conference games after two seasons in the WAC and the last four in C-USA. That includes four seasons under White and the last two under Eric Konkol, a longtime Jim Larranaga assistant that succeeded White in 2015.
The in-the-weeds college basketball fan knows the Bulldogs, whose KenPom rating peaked at 37 in 2013-14, and has generally stayed in the top 100. Those numbers are the bones of a trendy mid-major. Louisiana Tech, however, hasn’t put the pieces together in a conference tournament since that revival, and it has shut the program out of the NCAA Tournament’s bright lights.
Florida wisely looked past this when it hired White, and it appears the Gators will be an NCAA Tournament mainstay. This finally may be the season that the Bulldogs also land on everyone’s March radar.
Louisiana Tech rolled up a 14-4 C-USA record last year with one of the league’s most balanced teams. The Bulldogs had the second-most efficient offense and third-most efficient defense in conference play. They do lose their starting frontcourt in graduating seniors Omar Sherman (9.6 PPG, 5.0 RPG) and Erik McCree (17.7 PPG, 8.9 RPG), the team’s best player.
But a deep and disruptive backcourt with a high ceiling returns.
At shooting guard ... a senior from St. Petersburg, Florida ... No. 0 Jacobi Boykins pic.twitter.com/Tc8V0Dx3jx— #DunkinDogs (@LATechHoops) July 19, 2017
It’s led by Jacobi Boykins, one of two remaining players that were signed by White. The athletic guard took a leap in his junior year and can score from all three levels (14.7 PPG, 61.5 eFG%). Boykins may end up as C-USA Player of the Year, but it’s his sophomore teammate that should give Bulldog fans so much optimism.
DaQuan Bracey broke into the starting lineup six games into his freshman season, and the lighting quick point guard stayed there. En route to being named C-USA Freshman of the Year, he put up the best assist rate (38.5%) in league play. This included a ridiculous four-game stretch from Feb. 9 to Feb. 18 where he had 37 assists against just four turnovers.
Konkol talked about the player he knew he was getting last January.
"The things we could see right away and we saw this when we recruited him and evaluating him, he's got elite speed and tremendous vision. His feel for being around the basket and finding other people are the things we challenged him to do," Tech coach Eric Konkol said. "Play faster and defend at this level. Then he had to get comfortable with everyone. Everyone's got to get comfortable with him. That's the beauty of college basketball and the team year to year."
A point guard like that has program-lifting potential (see, Monte Morris among others) especially in a mid-major league. When you combine him with an established scorer like Boykins, fellow emerging sophomore Jalen Harris (10.9 PPG) and a solid guard in Derric Jean (8.2 PPG, 3.3 APG), you’ve got a backcourt that can challenge for a league title.
Middle Tennessee is still the class of the league and others — UAB, UTEP and Old Dominion especially — have the pieces for successful seasons. But there looks like there is opportunity, particularly with the Blue Raiders having plenty of unknowns surrounding Giddy Potts.
Louisiana Tech has its own questions. It loses its two best rebounders from a team that wasn’t that great on the glass. Its defense got lit up at times last season when it wasn’t forcing turnovers, like late season losses to Rice and Marshall, where the Bulldogs gave up 88 points or more in each. The latter of which ended their season in the C-USA Tournament.
And that brings up the elephant in the room. Louisiana Tech, despite some excellent teams, just hasn’t made it happen for a multi-game stretch in a league tournament. That might happen again in 2017-18, but with Bracey and Boykins, the Bulldogs have yet another team capable of getting to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991.
Maybe this will be the year they finally break that door down.