Countdown to 2015–16: Q & A with San Jose State coach Jamie Craighead

Craighead, during last season’s Mountain West tournament. (Courtesy NCAA Photos.)

Year Two of Jamie Craighead’s coaching tenure at San Jose State finished with a Mountain West Tournament run in which the Spartans tallied two wins in vastly different fashion.

After pushing pace and dropping a conference tournament record 99 points on Utah State in the opener, San Jose State gutted out a 64–55 win over top-seeded Colorado State in the quarterfinals.

The top two scorers are gone from that team, but Craighead’s system is founded upon spreading the wealth. That includes minutes, and it means that players build experience quickly. A vital boon, when it comes to replacing top talent.

Craighead thinks this will be her deepest team. As far as the eye test goes, San Jose State plays one of the most thrilling styles in the country. Skill at every position, tempo pushed repeatedly.

As for this season: Craighead puts it perfectly: Perfect storm, brewing.

Alley Whoops: That win over Colorado State in the Mountain West Conference tournament quarters turned heads. In what ways was it a culmination of your team’s growth in ‘14–15?

Jamie Craighead: I think i mentioned in the press conference after the CSU win that when we’d played at their place, in conference, we’d lost by 20, then at our place, we lost by 10. We felt that it took a while, but we were playing our best basketball in the last three to four weeks of the season.

You want to peak at the right time, and we were playing good basketball — in our last conference game of the season, we beat UNLV on their senior night. Then, we took down Utah State in the first round of the conference tournament.

As we build here at San Jose State, we want to play our best basketball from January through March. Our team really came together there at the conference tournament. There were seniors who didn’t want their careers to end. This year, our returning players are coming off that conference tournament experience feeling like they really belong.

AW: You lose your two top scorers from a season ago, but your system is founded upon depth. Does that help mitigate losses in talent?

JC: Yeah, for sure. Despite losing Ta’Rea (Cunnigan) and (Rebecca) Woodberry, I think we’ll have more balance this year. We’ve got players back, along with some redshirts who transferred in.

(Cunnigan and Woodberry) really handled our scoring load, but there’s lots of other key contributors. We have people who can score at every position on the court this season. We won’t have to run a play through ‘this’ person, and that balance has been something we’ve created, when we’ve built programs in the past.

It makes it difficult to know who to key on. We’ll have multiple people who are able to create on the perimeter, and that will really help our balance and flow, offensively.

AW: Where did you develop your fast-paced style? When you played at Oregon, was it an up-tempo system?

JC: At Oregon, we didn’t play up-tempo, we only pushed off of missed baskets — we didn’t transition off of made baskets. (A San Jose State calling card.)

That’s the way I’d played in high school, and when I was an assistant coach at Seattle Pacific, Gordy Presnell (then, Seattle Pacific’s head coach) was very up-tempo. He wasn’t as defensive, like what we do at San Jose State with our full-court defense, and trying to score from defense.

That style has been a culmination of what I’ve observed from recruiting in California. There’s a lot of players who play that way, pushing tempo, and then it goes away in college, where it’s a lot more emphasis on half-court.

It’s more entertaining to break on every possession. It puts teams in positions they’re not accustomed to seeing. Most teams spend the bulk of their time in halfcourt. We spend the bulk of our time running full court.

That gives us an advantage, and we’ve proven it can work at some levels. We’re still in the process of building it here.

AW: A lot of players would love to play up-tempo; how do you decide if a recruit is a good fit for your system?

JC: I think in terms of recruiting, what helps is to identify a specific player for each position. Unless a player shows a certain type of skill, we don’t recruit her. We’re very specific, and it helps narrow our search. It also opens up the opportunity for certain players who maybe aren’t watched by other teams, to play here.

We’ll take an undersized post who can run and rebound, rim to rim. She might not be 6–3, or play with her back to the basket, but we’ll spread and go five-out. We’ll play that undersized post against a bigger one, and run her into the ground.

We also have a specific plan for our players, once they get here. That helps with our players currently on the roster. We might change things, with different wrinkles, or throwing in a new press, but our kids get better in Year 1 and Year 2. We won’t change things completely in Year 3. We know our system, and that goes with recruiting.

If you can’t shoot, you can’t play off guard for us. If you can’t knock down threes, trailing on the break, you won’t be a good fit for our trail post. Our point guards are really fast, headsy, and able to score the ball.

Coaches watch us and tell us they want to play the way we play — but they don’t want to give up control. I took over a program (Sacramento State) when I was 27, and maybe I wanted to place more of a value in kids getting better. They were going to have to make decisions, they were going to have to learn.

I trust my players, I let them play through mistakes. If someone came to our practice, they’d be blown away. We’re not stopping it every second. Our kids learn to play like that.

AW: Is that telling, to hear coaches say they’d prefer to play up-tempo?

JC: We hear it a lot. I had five different coaches in come up to me, during recruiting in Las Vegas this summer, to say that when they played us, they loved the up-tempo flow of the game.

That tells us we’re doing the right thing. We know that even if we’re not beating you at a certain point in the game, if we’re playing our style, we have you. We’ve got you right where we want you.

As our players have gotten better and better with the up-tempo feel, and we’ve brought in our own recruits, we’ve seen more success.

A lot of people identify success through wins and losses. We judge it differently; obviously, we take wins and losses into account, but we have other barometers as well.

AW: What are some of those barometers, especially that you liked from last season?

JC: We spend a lot of time, or at least i do, focusing on different stats. A common team will hope they’re beating an opponent by 10 points a game. We want to see a positive number on the defensive side.

In our first year, we gave up more points than we scored; this year, we didn’t. That’s a really big transition for a team that plays fast. When teams play us, they will speed up and score more than they usually do. So we have a different gauge — as that number increases, we’ll see a bigger margin.

Another telling stat is possessions per game. It takes some math to compute it, but we were top 10 in the country last season in PPG. We’ve averaged 80 to 90 during our first two seasons here, and we want to be at 105 — that would lead the country.

We’re definitely getting better at turning teams over and taking care of the basketball. We have to get players buying in to playing harder, in less time on the floor. The more people we play, the better we’ll be. A lot of people may want minutes, but if they buy in to playing two deep at each position, that’s already 10 kids getting time. We may play 12 this season, if we’re good enough. If they buy in to that, we’ve got a really good chance to do some good things in ‘15–16.

AW: There’s so much job market growth going on in the San Jose area. You’ve always placed a premium on standout student-athletes; is the opportunity in the area another recruiting selling point?

JC: Absolutely. This is an untapped marked, in terms of really being able to look at where college athletics could go. People will attach to this university and be willing to support athletic programs.

Athletics really serve a purpose to the university. We’re the curb appeal, the front door. We can recruit to what we offer here. There’s internship abilities: Google and Apple have campuses nearby, and they’re hiring from San Jose State. We sell that, and it’s a big draw.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops