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Sam’s Mid-Major Crush of the Week: Santa Clara University Broncos

With length as a strength, don’t sleep on the Broncos

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Santa Clara Cody Glenn-USA TODAY Sports

First off: Santa Clara University, please god, get some more photos on the internet of your athletic teams. Finding a cover photo for this story was miserable. I’m begging you.

That being said, the Broncos of Santa Clara University are my crush of the week. They beat a tough Saint Mary’s College team in Moraga by two, opening their WCC conference season with a victory.

The Broncos are a cool 7-2 on the season overall, with the SMC win being their defining win so far this season. The only two losses SCU has suffered come at the hands of very able college basketball teams: a loss at USC (the Southern California variety, not the South Carolina variety) and a home loss by 12 to Colorado State, who looks like a legitimate contender in the Mountain West this year alongside San Diego State and Boise State. Neither are miserable losses, so it isn’t much to hold against the Broncos.

The best win Santa Clara has outside of Saint Mary’s is a home win over Cal State Bakersfield (actually the No. 150 team in KenPom at the time of writing), so they have two top-150 wins. Not bad, not great, but considering how scheduling has gone, you can’t ask for much.

Santa Clara’s biggest strength (and damn, I’m a poet for this rhyme): length. The shortest player with five or more starts? Point guard Christian Carlyle, standing at a very modest 6-foot-5. No player in their regular rotation is shorter than 6-foot-3. And man, do the stats tell it.

Santa Clara has the eighth-best effective field goal defense in the nation, holding their opponents to 42.1%. Most of that is carried by their elite two-point defense (40.5%), but they also boast a top-50 3-point defense, holding opponents to just a hair over 30% from beyond the arc. The Broncos are also a top-50 team in blocking opposing shots and a top-30 team in defensive rebounding. All of this leads to a top-50 defense in the country, and the second-best defense in the West Coast Conference behind (who else, really) Gonzaga.

Two important pieces in the defense: Jaden Bediako, an elite board-crasher and block artist, and Keshawn Justice, who is one of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the West Coast Conference. And let’s not count out DJ Mitchell, either.

It’s a good thing the Santa Clara defense is so good, because oh man, the offense can be ROUGH at times. For a team playing so fast (averaging over 71 possessions per game), you usually want an offense to be quick and high scoring to compliment it.

That ... isn’t the case here. The highest the Broncos have scored against Division I opponents this year is just 73 points. When your best scoring output equates to just a hair over one point per possession when compared to your average number of possessions per game, it’s not fantastic.

Most of the woes can be found in the fact that the Broncos are just terrible from 3-point land. Like, no good, very, very, very, very bad from 3. The team is shooting a dismal 23.2% from beyond the arc. Big oof. Big, big oof.

Santa Clara is better from inside the arc, but still shooting under 50% from the floor. Furthermore, SCU is only making 63% of its free throws. Basically, the Broncos are thoroughly mediocre at putting the ball through the hoop, which my sources tell me is pretty important to winning college basketball games. Thankfully, the defense is so good the offense can be given some leeway.

The Bronco offense does have its bright spots, even with the, well, that (gestures vaguely at the statistics presented above). I find Carlyle to be a joy to watch at the point guard spot, because he has some really nifty passes in his arsenal, and the offensive duo of Josep Vrankic (elite at getting to the free throw line, averaging 15.6 points per game) and Justice (10.3 points per game, a good turnover rate of 11.9%) are both good options for getting the needed buckets SCU needs to get over the line. SCU isn’t blowing anyone out by any stretch of the imagination, but they get buckets when it counts and the defense can be called on to make a stop when you need it to, which most teams can’t seem to even do.

It’s hard to talk about the postseason chances for the West Coast Conference without mentioning Gonzaga. I know, I know, we talk about them enough, but it’s something you have to consider when you look beyond the conference tournament. Gonzaga will probably go undefeated and win the regular season conference title and then will probably win the conference tournament and get the auto-bid for the conference.

Santa Clara doesn’t have the non-conference resume to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament short of absolutely beating the crap on the rest of the conference sans Gonzaga (or even beating Gonzaga, but let’s be pleasantly surprised by that instead of expecting it, shall we?).

So, what does that leave us? Santa Clara needs to win the conference tournament, or hope enough bid stealers fall short and maybe get an NIT bid (assuming the NIT happens) with a strong conference regular season performance.

I know, that’s not all that exciting, but here’s a couple things to consider. This is Herb Sendek’s best team in his five years at Santa Clara. He’s got three great seniors in Vrankic, Mitchell, and Carlyle, a promising junior in Justice, and four underclassmen (three sophomores, one freshman) that get a good amount of playing time for his team.

This year is a big step in the right direction for the Bronco program. There isn’t a Steve Nash on this team to take them to the program’s first tournament (NCAA or NIT) since 1996, but this team might be good enough to be a lower seed in the NIT this year if they can tally wins against other teams that will be fighting right below Gonzaga for postseason slots.

I’d call any postseason berth a success in year five of Sendek, especially for a program that hasn’t been there in 25 years. And, even without that success, I’d look for a top-four finish in the West Coast Conference to mean that Sendek has the Broncos on the right path, with a postseason appearance hopefully coming sooner rather than later.