Men's basketball team young again

By Kris Anderson Spartan Daily

October 31, 2007

San Jose, CA (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Over the past two seasons, the SJSU men's basketball team has won a grand total of 11 games while playing 52 over that period of time/

Head coach George Nessman was hired three years ago from UC Berkeley to turn the program around, to breathe some life into it.

That also means Nessman has had three years to recruit and install the players he wants, as opposed to former coach Phil Johnson's recruits.

So, who's new?

The new kid

Say hello to Justin Graham, a 6-foot-4 point guard from Ripon, Calif. - which, in case you were wondering, is on the state route 99 between Modesto and Manteca.

He redshirted last year, but this guard brings something to the Spartans that hasn't been seen since the departure of Demetrius Brown two seasons ago: play-making ability.

He was a two-time league MVP in high school, the Manteca Bulletin's "player of the year" and a Division IV all-state selection.

His senior season, Graham averaged 15 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and three steals per game. His points, rebounds, assists and blocked-shot averages led the league.

When was the last time a player with this pedigree donned the blue and gold? When Olivier St. Jean played for SJSU in the '90s, that's when.

St. Jean changed his name to Tariq Abdul-Wahad after converting to Islam in 1997, the same year he was drafted 11th overall by the Sacramento Kings.

I'm not necessarily going to say Graham is the talent St. Jean was, but it does speak to Nessman's recruiting abilities - after all, before coming to Sparta, he was the recruiting coordinator for Cal.

The question for Graham, however, is how that play-making ability will translate to the Div. 1 level.

Graham's explosiveness will lead to many great plays, but it remains to be seen if he can be consistent.

The big man

Beyond Graham, the Spartans shored up another nagging weakness with the addition of 6-foot-9, 255-pound forward/center Oliver Caballero.

Menelik Barbary, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound center who averaged 12 points and six boards last season, at times provided the Spartans a presence in the middle but never impacted an entire game.

Caballero, who redshirted last season, averaged 17 points and nine rebounds at Alisal High School in Salinas as a senior, and on SJSU's European basketball tour he scored nine per night.Caballero won't be called upon to score in bunches, but he gives the Spartans an option outside of their traditional athletic guards.

Looking at former coach Johnson's teams, the offense centered around junior college recruits who had to carry the team by themselves.

With Nessman's new recruits, SJSU all of a sudden has multiple weapons that will force opponents to spread their defenses.

The Question-Mark

Not much has been said about freshman forward Clint Amberry, who signed with the Spartans in the spring.

Nothing except that he was co-MVP of the Sunset League (he played his high-school ball in Los Alamitos), and that he was a first-team all-state selection by CalHi Sports as a junior, and that he averaged 16 points and eight rebounds as a senior, and that multiple recruiting services ranked him among the top 200 high school seniors in the country.

An Internet news site that focuses on high school recruiting,, said three Pac-10 schools looked at Amberry: including USC, Washington and Oregon.

What to watch for

For the first time in a long time, the Spartans boast five freshmen on their roster, a clear indication that Nessman is moving away from mining local JCs and is pointing the ship in the right direction.

It just might be the perfect storm for Nessman's team this year, with a decent schedule - there are only two difficult non-conference road games against Michigan State and the University of San Diego - and the Spartans could easily flirt with a .500 record this year.

The top of the Western Athletic Conference will be tough as always, and perennial powers University of Nevada - Reno and Utah State University may both end up in the NCAA tournament.

New Mexico State University lost head coach Reggie Theus to the NBA but still has the same talent that brought them to the WAC championship last season, where they lost to Utah State, and to the NCAA tournament where they wrangled with Texas.

Top three slots aside, it looks like the Spartans might be able to finish as high as fifth in the WAC, or as low as ninth.

It all depends on how the new guys grow on the court.

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