Photo Credit: Associated Press
The Western Washington University men’s basketball team won their first national championship, defeating Montevallo (Ala.) in the title game. Longtime Vikings head coach Brad Jackson was nice enough to spend a few minutes on the phone with me to discuss their championship season.
SeaTown Sports: Overall, what’s the reception been like back on campus?
Coach Brad Jackson: It’s been great. I think it’s just been an accomplishment that our community is excited about. They’re proud of players. This is a great basketball area and we’ve had great fans for a long time and I think it has just been really gratifying.
SeaTown: How does the team feel overall by winning the first national championship in men’s basketball in program history?
Jackson: They feel great. This is a team that got better as the season went on. I think they showed a great deal of mental toughness and determination. I told them after the game this is something that’ll get bigger and bigger as time goes on, but it’s a tremendous accomplishment, one of which they can be very proud. I think they’re really enjoying everything that’s gone with it and that they can represent their university and community in our area.
SeaTown: Going back to the title game, Montevallo was able to take a lead early in the second half. How was your team able to respond so well and pull away in the final stages?
Jackson: I thought that was a key time in the game. We had a lead; they came back and went up by five or so. The first part of that is this team was very mentally tough. They very rarely got rattled. I think we were able to mentally weather that storm. And then we came back and hit a couple of big shots. I didn’t sense any panic or concern on their part. But when we did retake the lead, and it was maybe only a couple of minutes, I felt like that was a big turning point in the game emotionally. Once we did that, it seemed that our guys gained even more confidence and began to stretch it out a little bit.
SeaTown: In the final couple of minutes, there were a couple of slight miscues that kept Montevallo in it. How was your team able to stay composed and knock down some key free throws down the stretch?
Jackson: I’m not sure how necessarily, but that was kind of the way our team operated. Throughout the course of the year we had quite a number of games that were fairly close. We were not a team that blew people out. I think we were pretty comfortable in that situation. We were concerned with a couple of those turnovers. But I think we felt that if we could get the ball in the hands of the right people and get to the line, we had a pretty good shot at it. John Allen is usually the guy we look to go to and he did a great job. Once we got into that position when we were getting to the free throw line, our players were pretty comfortable.
SeaTown: Looking ahead to next year, you lose your top scorer in Rory Blanche, but the roster stays intact for the most part. How confident are you that the Vikings can sustain this success and continue and compete for titles?
Jackson: We actually lose three seniors: Rory, of course, and then Zach Henifin who played a major role with the team also graduates, and then Dan Young. Dan was maybe not quite in the same breath as the other two statistically, but he’s 6-10 and about 245 lbs. He gave us a big body and was a really good rebounder and competitor. He really played a key role. So I think we lose three guys that had great significance on our team. We do have a good core. Obviously recruiting is going to play a big part in what we put on the floor next year. I think the other thing that maybe people are starting to recognize is that this is top to bottom probably the most difficult region in the country. In the West region, we’ve had a team in the championship game the last four years in a row. We’ve won it twice, speaking about our region now. I think maybe eight out of the last ten years there’s been a team in the Final Four. It’s one of the toughest regions in the country. We’re adding some Southern Californian teams and it’s only going to get tougher. For us, we know we can compete at that level. Our players understand that and know how hard they have to work. Things have to fall right because we’ve got an awful lot of good teams and good players. Certainly I think we can be one of those teams. It’s a whole new ballgame when you come to next season.
SeaTown: If possible, could you give an update on the recruiting situation for next year?
Jackson: By virtue of NCAA rules we cannot comment specifically. Basically it’s that time of year when players are going to be making decisions and obviously we are actively involved in the recruiting process. Past that, I don’t think I can say much in terms of specific players.
SeaTown: If you were to just sum up this season as a whole, in comparison to the rest of your career, this has to rank up pretty high?
Jackson: Well no doubt. I feel very fortunate to be able to coach as long as I have. Looking back through the years I’ve been here, we’ve had a lot of good teams, very fine players and great seasons. I think each one of those seasons is special in their own way and for different reasons. Obviously, this year is different in the sense that we did win the national championship. That’s a great accomplishment for our players no doubt about that. In some ways, they share that with some of the players that have played here in the past. There’s been a great foundation and a lot of support from the players and fans that have been with us for a long time. I do think we’ve had some teams that were of that caliber and could have run the table. Certainly this team is the one to have accomplished it and they deserve an awful lot of credit for doing that. But I also know that the teams that we’ve had and the coaches that have been involved are very proud of them and certainly set a standard of excellence from which this team built and gained confidence.