USF basketball coach Todd Golden at a game in 2019. (Photo/Chris Leung-USF Dons)
USF basketball coach Todd Golden at a game in 2019. (Photo/Chris Leung-USF Dons)

A March Madness mazel tov to USF and Jewish head coach Todd Golden

The Dons are dancing!

No, not the hora.

The University of San Francisco men’s basketball is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.

Led by Jewish head coach Todd Golden, the Dons will begin March Madness at 6:40 p.m. Thursday when they square off against No. 7 seed Murray State in the East regional in Indianapolis. USF, the No. 10 seed, will be seeking its first NCAA victory since 1979.

Golden — co-captain of the U.S. team that won gold at the 2009 Maccabiah Games in Israel, a three-year starter at St. Mary’s College in Moraga and a short-time pro (22 games) for Maccabi Haifa in the Israel Premier League — said he experienced a whirlwind of emotions when he heard his team’s name called on “Selection Sunday” in front of the Dons’ faithful in the team’s arena.

“I was a little nervous there,” Golden told a KPIX 5 reporter afterward. “I felt really good this morning when I woke up, but as we made it to the fourth quadrant of the bracket, there’s no way they could send CBS cameras out here to not let us in. It was a very exciting moment to see our name come across.”

Golden, 36, grew up in Phoenix, Arizona where he played pickup ball at the local JCC. He lived in Israel after graduating from St. Mary’s in 2008, playing parts of two seasons with Maccabi Haifa and obtaining Israeli citizenship. He came back to the United States shortly thereafter to begin his coaching career, then returned to the Bay Area in 2016 to serve as an associate head coach for the Dons. Three years later, in March 2019, he was named head coach.

Golden was tasked with reviving a once-storied men’s basketball program that had struggled since the 1970s, when it was a perennial NCAA tournament contender. Since 1983, the team had made the postseason just once, losing in the first round in 1998.

Since Golden took over, the Dons have put together records of 22-12, 11-14 and 24-9. En route to their 24 wins this season (their most in 40 years), the Dons recorded non-conference wins over Arizona State, Fresno State and Southern Illinois to bolster their resume ahead of West Coast Conference play.

USF finished 10-6 in a tough WCC that includes Gonzaga (ranked No. 1 nationally) and St. Mary’s (No. 19), putting them “on the bubble” in terms of whether they would get into the NCAA Tournament. A win over BYU in the WCC Tournament quarterfinals most likely secured the Dons’ ticket to what is colloquially referred to as “The Big Dance,” even though they lost to Gonzaga in the semifinals two days later.

Elevating Todd Golden to head coach three years ago was the smart move back then, and it is paying big dividends now.

USF President Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald was one of many who showed up to see if the Dons would get in.

“I was very pleased to join perhaps a thousand people … at the Sobrato Center on ‘Selection Sunday’ to celebrate our NCAA-bound men’s basketball team and cheer for the women who won an invitation to the NIT tournament,” he said afterward in a statement. “I followed our teams all season, and I am very excited that they have earned this opportunity to add their names to the long and illustrious history of Dons basketball.”

Fitzgerald said he has noticed the evolution in Golden’s guidance.

Elevating Todd Golden to head coach three years ago was the smart move back then, and it is paying big dividends now,” Fitzgerald said. “It is important to recall that the players stuck with Golden because they had confidence in him, and subsequent recruiting and excellent coaching by Todd and his staff have built the amazing team you see today.”

The Dons have received offense and leadership from guards Jamaree Bouyea (a graduate student) and Khalil Shabazz (a fifth-year senior) and 6-foot-9 forward Yauhen Massalski (also a graduate student). All are averaging 13.5 or more points per game, with Massalski adding 9.4 rebounds per game.

“I’d put our backcourt [guards] against anyone in America,” Golden said on “The Field of 68” podcast. “They’re special young men. Jamaree is probably going to get drafted in a couple months. Khalil has played insanely well for us. They’re the type of guards that you put them in and you have a good chance to win. We’re a really good, deep team. With our experience and because we’re multidimensional, we have the type of team that can make a run.”

If the Dons get hot and reach the Final Four, Golden would become just the sixth Jewish head coach to accomplish that. One of them is Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, who was Golden’s coach at the 2009 Maccabiah Games and whose coaching staff at Auburn from 2014-16 included none other than an up-and-coming Golden.

Regardless of the difficult road ahead, Golden has high hopes for his team to make some noise this March.

“I want to make sure our guys enjoy the moment,” Golden said on the podcast. “Hopefully we can make it to the weekend and make some noise into the Sweet 16 and beyond. I want to make sure we soak it all up. It’s going to be an awesome experience.”

USF Dons vs. Murray State Racers, 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17, live on CBS and KNBR-AM 1050

Michael Gutnick

J. correspondent