Men's Basketball Earns NIT Berth; Plays at Memphis Tuesday

Men's Basketball Earns NIT Berth; Plays at Memphis Tuesday

March and Madness. Two words that go together for college basketball fans — hardcore types and newbies alike. It’s a time synonymous with equal parts excitement and disappointment, big wins and agonizing losses as postseason conference and national tournaments take place across the country to determine teams’ seasonal fate.

For the University of San Diego’s men’s basketball program, this year, excitement is high because on Sunday, the Toreros (21-14) learned they were chosen to participate in the 32-team National Invitational Tournament. USD plays an opening-round game at 5 p.m. (PDT) on Tuesday, March 19, against the University of Memphis (21-13) at FedEx Forum, home to both the college team and the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. The game can be viewed on ESPN3 and heard on 1090 AM radio.

“It’s really exciting,” USD Head Coach Sam Scholl said. “It’s a great step for us to make. This is such a special group; they care for each other deeply. We’ve been rewarded with a couple more days. Now it’s an opportunity to win a game and get a few more days.”

It is a big step forward. It’s the continuation of what Scholl sought since last March when he was thrust into an audition of sorts. He became the interim head coach right before the WCC Tournament and was promptly in charge of a solid junior corps of talent that played four games for him — a WCC Tournament quarterfinal loss to BYU, then a 2-1 mark in the Tournament (CIT) — and he could see glimpses of what the 2018-19 season could potentially be.

“Last year, we called it our training camp for March 2019,” said Scholl, whose team defeated over Hartford and Portland State before losing to Northern Colorado in the CIT quarterfinals.

A lot has happened between March 2018 and now. Scholl was named the official head coach around Easter and he was eager to build onto the foundation. The team did a summer class and Scholl and the players did an NCAA-approved trip to Costa Rica that included exhibition games, extra practice time and brought the team closer together, from seniors-to-be Isaiah Pineiro, Isaiah Wright, Olin Carter III and Tyler Williams, to a smattering of sophomores and juniors and freshmen who were added to the mix.

Fall arrived and a challenging early schedule saw USD go 12-4 with four Pac-12 Conference opponents (USD went 2-2), a tournament in Las Vegas and a convincing 73-61 win at San Diego State. Conference play started and it became a consistently inconsistent theme — win one, lose one; win one, lose one. Injuries to Wright and Carter were major factors despite Pineiro having an All-WCC First Team season and younger players finding ways to contribute at this level. A 2-5 second-half performance entering the WCC Tournament, though, wasn’t encouraging.

Momentum by winning, though, was the remedy. Knowing they’d have to play five games in six days just to challenge for an NCAA Tournament spot, USD went to work. They beat Portland, Santa Clara and crushed BYU in consecutive days to reach the semifinals. A 69-62 loss to Saint Mary’s March 11 ended the team’s NCAA Tournament bid, but thanks to its WCC Tournament run, a season sweep of San Francisco, strength of schedule and other factors, the loss to Saint Mary’s was not the end of the season.

It’s March after all and Scholl and his players knew what that meant. After the tournament, they took a few days off, but got right back into it later in the week as though it was just another game week with a “very-determined, we-want-to-play-for-each-other mindset,” he said.

Carter, a second-team WCC selection and second-leading scorer (14.8 points per game) despite missing five games, says he and his teammates are ready. “It’s win or go home now, everything’s on the line.”

Pineiro leads USD in many categories and has started all 35 games. He’s averaging 19.1 points per game, 9.5 rebounds per game and has 44 steals. Wright, a WCC honorable mention, has scored 13.8 points per game, but leads the team in assists (142, 4.7).

“Playing in March is different. It’s different in the way the bodies feel, the way you know opponents and the quality opponent that you’re playing knows you,” Scholl continued. “Last year served us well. We won 20 games and played in the CIT and someone said this is the bottom line. There’s only going up from here. That saying came into my mind when I saw our name (for the NIT). We did take a step up. We did improve.”

NIT History, Memphis Tigers

Tuesday’s game marks the first time a USD men’s basketball team has played in the NIT. Four other Torero teams have been in the NCAA Tournament – 1984, 1987, 2003 and 2008 — and a few have gone the same route that last year’s team did by playing in one of the minor complementary tournaments, the CIT and CBI (College Basketball Invitational) instead.

The NIT is considered the top second-tier postseason tournament, although it was created in 1938 and served for more than 45 years as the more prestigious tournament. The NCAA Tournament was the lesser of the two events, but eventually muscled its way into favor as the tournament to determine a national champion.

The NIT, however, is a very competitive event. While the first three rounds are played on the higher seed’s home court, the semifinals and championship game will be played at Madison Square Garden in New York City. USD was one of 22 teams to receive an at-large bid and is the only team selected from the WCC in the 2019 field. The Toreros are a sixth seed and the Tigers are a third seed in their quarter of the 32-team bracket.

Memphis’ last trip to the NIT was in 2010 and the Tigers won the NIT title in 2002. Tuesday’s game will be Memphis’ first since losing 61-58 to Houston in the American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals on March 16.

Former NBA standout guard, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, an alumnus of Memphis, is in his first season as Tigers’ head coach. His top players are senior guard Jeremiah Martin who has team-highs in points per game (667 points, 19.6), assists (151, 4.4) and steals (76, 2.2) in 34 games this season; Kyvon Davenport, a senior forward who is Memphis’ leading rebounder (239, 7.0 rpg) and averages 13.2 ppg; and Raynere Thornton, a senior guard-forward who averages 6.3 rpg and 7.2 ppg.

This is the first time USD and Memphis have met in a basketball game.

The winner of Tuesday’s game plays the Creighton vs. Loyola Chicago winner, also Tuesday, in the second round in a game that will be scheduled somewhere between March 21 and 25. If USD and Loyola Chicago win their respective games, USD would host the second-round NIT game as the higher seed.

— Ryan T. Blystone

Viewing parties for Tuesday’s 5 p.m. USD and Memphis NIT first-round game will take place on campus at Frank’s Lounge (between the UC and SLP) and off-campus at Dirty Birds Bar and Grill in Liberty Station at 2970 Truxtun Road #9, San Diego, 92106.

The USD men's basketball team is excited to make the program's first appearance in the National Invitational Tournament when USD plays at Memphis at 5 p.m. on March 19 in an opening-round game.The USD men's basketball team is excited to make the program's first appearance in the National Invitational Tournament when USD plays at Memphis at 5 p.m. on March 19 in an opening-round game.

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