The objective is clear for the University of San Diego men’s basketball team. A home win in Thursday’s 6 p.m. game against the University of San Francisco clinches the West Coast Conference Tournament’s fifth-place slot. Win again in Saturday’s regular-season noon finale at home against Pepperdine and the Toreros will bring some momentum with them heading to Las Vegas next week.
“We need to win both of them,” said sixth-year head coach Bill Grier. “It’s pretty simple.”
The Toreros did beat both teams on the road — Jan. 10 (70-66 vs. USF) and Jan. 12 (62-50 vs. Pepperdine) — and it was part of an inspired 4-0 start in WCC play. Then came a stretch that has pretty much defined the team’s season. The Toreros are now 6-8 in WCC play, 13-16 overall.
“Of the last 10 games, eight have been against the top four teams in the league, each one has 20 wins, an RPI of 90 or better and Gonzaga is a likely No. 1 seed [in the NCAA Tournament],” said Grier, in reference to not only the Bulldogs, but also Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara and Brigham Young University.
While the Toreros did split their season series with BYU — a 74-68 home win Feb. 7 is USD’s last victory — and gave Gonzaga all it could handle in a 65-63 loss Feb. 2 at the Jenny Craig Pavilion, it’s been the narrow defeats and confidence-altering losses at Portland and Santa Clara that frustrate Grier and his players.
“It’s been a lot of ups and downs for us,” senior forward Chris Manresa (pictured, top right) said. “A good start in conference, then a downward stretch. A couple of possessions in games that could have changed some things for us, but we can’t change it or worry about it now. We just need to focus on these two games coming up. Being a senior, too, these will be the last games I play on our home floor and we need to do everything we can to win both of them.”
Indeed, Grier and company does need the focus to be on Thursday night and then Saturday afternoon when Manresa and fellow seniors Cameron Miles and Ken Rancifer will be honored. Grier also knows what kind of effort he needs to see from his entire team as the calendar turns to March.
“The teams who play the most aggressive are the teams that’ll be most successful,” he said. “I think that’s why we had a good showing [in the WCC Tournament] last year. We were more aggressive than Pepperdine and, for great stretches, we were more aggressive in the BYU game. That’s big to me. Being aggressive, going in and having confidence, getting that first (tournament game) and getting on a roll.”
Inconsistency has been a battle across the board for the Toreros. To get the team back on track, the sophomore backcourt duo of Johnny Dee (14.1 points-per-game) and Christopher Anderson (9.1 points, 5.5 assists) needs to deliver. Grier hopes 6-11 junior Dennis Kramer can add some offensive punch and that redshirt sophomore John Sinis continues to make positive strides. Rancifer averages 10 points and Manresa averages nine points and 6.3 rebounds a game.
Playing against USF on Thursday means USD has to step up its defense to prevent the Dons’ guards from driving and disrupting them from getting good shooting looks, especially from the 3-point line. The Dons’ reliance on the 3-point shot worked to perfection earlier this month with 14 3-pointers in a big win against BYU. Offensively, USD has to break through USF’s half-court trap defense and players need to be ready and in position to help with that task, Grier said.
Pepperdine presents its own challenges and one the Toreros will respect, but Grier, truthfully, has his sights first on Thursday and the Dons.
“If we win Thursday, we’re fifth (in the WCC Tournament) no matter what happens Saturday,” the coach said. “If we lose Thursday, the best we can finish is sixth. We need to win Thursday.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photo courtesy of Brock Scott (scottphoto.net)