Ex-Cal Basketball Teammates Shantay Legans, Dennis Gates Making their Mark as Coaches
Shantay Legans and Dennis Gates, Cal teammates on a pair of NCAA tournament teams two decades ago, will close out successful regular seasons as Division I head coaches on Saturday.
Legans, the Bears’ starting point guard in 2001 and ’02, is in his first season as coach at Portland in the West Coast Conference. The Pilots, picked last in the WCC by the league’s coaches, are 17-11 overall, 7-6 and in sixth place in the conference.
Gates, a tenacious defensive player on those same two Cal squads, is completing his third season as coach at Cleveland State. A year after guiding the Vikings to their first NCAA tournament bid since 2009, Gates has the team positioned to make a return trip. Cleveland State is 19-8 overall, 15-5 and sitting atop the Horizon League standings.
Gates, 42, will direct the Vikings against host Oakland on Saturday with a chance of clinching the outright regular-season crown in the Horizon League. It won’t be easy. Oakland already beat Cleveland State 70-65 early last month.
Legans, 40, has engineered an impressive turnaround at Portland, which hadn’t assembled a winning season since 2015. With a win at Santa Clara on Saturday, the Pilots would have their biggest win total since going 20-12 in 2010-11.
The Pilots’ success in the WCC is even more amazing. They were 7-72 in conference play the previous five seasons but already have matched that win total in their first season under Legans.
Legans spent the four previous seasons as coach at Eastern Washington, and last year led the Eagles to the Big Sky Conference title and an NCAA tournament bid.
He said this week he’s not surprised by his team’s performance.
“I set (the bar) pretty high. I thought we’d be doing a little bit better right now, at least record-wise,” he said. “I’m proud of where we’re at mentally and with our chemistry. But there’s a couple games we should have won that we let slip away. My expectations are always high for the guys.”
Legans brought in 14 new players — 13 of them freshmen and sophomores — completely erasing the program’s recent legacy of losing and setting the table for a sustained run. Three of his Eastern Washington followed him, and be signed transfers from UNLV, UEP and Fordham.
“They’re all different personalities but guys that respect each other. We recruit them to be the person they are and we let them work it out,” Legans said. “They all have the same trait: they’re unselfish like a bunch of winners.”
While Gates’ team will be among the favorites to win the Horizon League’s automatic NCAA bid, the Pilots would have to pull off a massive surprise to steal away a postseason berth expected to go to top-ranked Gonzaga.
But next year?
“We’ll be experienced,” Legans said. "The older guys can lead and help teach the younger players. Guys have got to get stronger and keep playing together.
“I feel like we can beat anybody we play and that’s exciting. We’ve got an opportunity to do something special.”
Gates, who grew up in Chicago, arrived at Cal for the 1998-99 season. Legans, from Goleta in Santa Barbara County, arrived in Berkeley a year later.
By the 2001-02 season, coach Ben Braun’s team was positioned to earn its second straight NCAA invite. That Cal squad was deep and talented, featuring Joe Shipp, Brian Wethers, Amit Tamir, AJ Diggs, Solomon Hughes, Ryan Foreman-Kelly and Jamal Sampson.
They went 23-9, beating Penn in the opening round of the NCAAs before losing to Pitt in a second-round game at Pittsburgh. Legans, who transferred to Fresno State for his senior season, averaged 13.3 points in three career NCAA games for the Bears.
Joe Pasternack, an assistant to Braun on those teams, is in his fifth season as coach at UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos won at least 20 games in each of his first four years and made it to the NCAA tournament last season but are 13-10 and in sixth place at 5-5 in the Big West Conference with three games to play.
Cover photos of Shantay Legans, left, and Dennis Gates courtesy of Cal Athletics
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo