Tom Saltzstein was the third boys head basketball coach in three years at Tempe. But the tough, no-nonsense coach didn’t need a lot of time to get them to buy in, play hard and win.
Tempe came into the week 14-1, ranked No. 2 in Division II by azcentral sports, and believing this could be one of the best seasons in school history.
Half of the team is seniors. But the team is led by juniors, starting with diminutive 5-foot-11 guard Delano Jones and rugged 6-4 power forward Emanuel Gant, one of two football players starting.
The other football player is junior guard Kalun White.
“We’re trying to keep them from thinking they’re the cream of the crop,” Saltzstein said. “Yeah, we’ve got a very nice record. But we have so much room for improvement in every phase of the game.”
Tempe made a statement Dec. 12, when it beat Gilbert Christian 80-61. Gilbert Christian features a talented team that rolled through Division III for the state title last year.
But Tempe has yet to face top-ranked Phoenix Shadow Mountain, which lost its only game to the No. 1 team in Division I, Tempe Corona del Sol. And it hasn’t seen any of the Tucson teams that fill the Division II top 10.
Saltzstein likes the way the offense is spread out. He has five players who average at least eight points and five who average at least three assists a game.
“I think we can all say that Coach Saltzstein has instilled a discipline,” said Jones, who leads Tempe with about 18 points a game. “Without discipline, we’d be all over the place.”
Jones has been the main go-to guy, but he is smart enough to get the ball to open teammates.
“We don’t force anything,” Jones said. “If we have the shot, we’ll take it. It has to be good shots.”
Saltzstein likes having football players. They give the basketball team a toughness. Gant, a top quarterback in the state at 6-4, 220 pounds, has been strong on the boards and finishing plays inside, averaging close to 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“I try to set a tone from beginning to end,” Gant said. “I try to get rebounds, do a lot of the little things that help us win.”
Gant said he is being used the same way on the court as he was last year under Paul Long, who led a young team to an 18-8 record.
“We’re more disciplined and closer as a team,” Gant said.
Saltzstein owes a lot of the success to his assistants and the players. He tries to keep it simple. Pick up your man at the half court and play tough.
“We run a little bit of zone now and then,” Saltzstein said. “If we’re pressuring full court, it’s a couple of our guards pressuring their guards. We try to slow them down a little bit.”
Saltzstein was an assistant at Phoenix College for two years and helped Aaron Windler out at Phoenix Mountain Pointe last season, before taking the Tempe job.