The most important month for college basketball nationwide — March and its well-documented tournament madness — is nearly here, but for the USD men’s basketball team, it holds a twofold purpose in 2008.
Nearly a year after Bill Grier was introduced as the Toreros’ fourth head coach since the program moved to the Division I level in 1979, he and his staff have a team comprised of no seniors, several young players still finding their way at the collegiate level, and juniors Gyno Pomare and Brandon Johnson who have the experience, but are still working on leadership roles.
This scenario may seem a recipe for a first-year disaster, but it requires more than a passing glance. “Every job out there has something that makes it hard,” Grier said. “You look at the elite programs like UCLA, Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina. Their expectations are so high that if they don’t win a national championship, it’s been a disastrous year. Every program has challenges, and this one does too. But I think there are a lot of positives that made this a very attractive position to me. I’m excited for the opportunity and excited to be here.”
Grier recruited two freshmen, 6-foot-2 guard Trumaine Johnson and 6-foot-10 center Nathan Lozeau, to USD. To gain exposure for the program, Grier also used a tactic learned at Gonzaga, where he spent the last 16 years as an assistant coach: play better nonconference competition.
Grier’s debut non-conference schedule featured home games with UNLV and San Diego State, a neutral-court tournament with a game against USC, and road games against New Mexico and Kentucky. USD will be in next year’s Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and USD hopes to be in the 2009 Great Alaska Shootout.
“To build something here, it has to be done with scheduling and recruiting,” Grier says. “Our schedule was beefed up, maybe unfairly to this team. I think it’s going to help us, especially when we get to league. There’s not going to be a place we go to — including Gonzaga and St. Mary’s — where they should get rattled, because they will have already gone to The Pit (New Mexico) and Rupp Arena (Kentucky) to prepare them.”
When asked what he’d consider a successful first season, USD Athletic Director Ky Snyder, who hired Grier, says, “It wouldn’t be in the record as much as in the effort and style of play. What we see now are glimpses of what we can be, but it’s just not consistent at this point.”
For instance, USD recorded an upset 81-72 win over Kentucky in front of 23,756 at Rupp Arena in late December. Two days later, against Marshall, the Toreros lost 76-60. With no seniors on the team, athletic scholarships aren’t in big supply at USD, but the demand for talent and how to attract it is always on a coach’s mind.
The home game against Gonzaga — Feb. 18 this year — has traditionally been well-attended by students and area fans. “We want to have 1,000 students at every game,” Snyder says. “That helps you win games. That helps you recruit better players.”
Another plus for attracting basketball fans, students and potential recruits is USD’s hosting of the 2008 WCC Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament on March 6-10. The university is hosting the event for the first time since 2003, which is also the last time USD won the tournament — a 72-63 title game defeat over Gonzaga — and earned the WCC’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
“It’s a high brand of basketball,” Snyder says. “To bring that into our city is great for San Diego as a whole. ESPN comes here, and for three days they show our campus and the city. All it can do is put the university out there in front of a lot more eyes.”
For more information about the WCC Men’s and Women’s Tournament, call (619) 260-7550.
Coach Bill Grier is excited that USD is hosting the 2008 WCC Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament: “Anytime you can get it on your home court gives you an edge,” he says.