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UC San Diego is ready for its Division I moment

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The Tritons are knocking on the front door of the mid-major party, but will the Big West open up?

Andy Wilhelm

Perched in the center of the UC San Diego campus and rising eight stories is the Geisel Library, aptly named after Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

As the students who now populate the La Jolla, California campus were growing up, they surely stumbled upon Mr. Geisel’s popular book, Oh The Places You’ll Go!

The beginning reads,

"You have brains in your head,

You have feet in your shoes,

You can steer yourself in any direction you choose."

Well, those around the idyllic coastal campus have finally yanked the wheel hard enough to steer them in the direction they’ve wanted for years.

UCSD plans to go Division I.

For the UC San Diego men’s basketball team, the move, which is contingent on a D-I conference invite, has been a long time coming, and competitiveness hasn’t been the issue.

Although UCSD may not frequent the SportsCenter highlights, college coaches and players alike know these Tritons well.

"You have to give them a lot of credit," former Pitt Coach Jamie Dixon said after a closer-than-expected 2013 preseason warm-up against UCSD, in which the Tritons only trailed the Panthers by eight at the half and were tied at 49 with just under eight minutes left.

UC Irvine coach Russell Turner echoed Dixon’s sentiments after his own team faced the Tritons this past season in a tough battle:

"I give UC San Diego credit. They’re good."

They held a 15-point lead over the West Coast Conference’s Loyola Marymount in 2014, ultimately falling to the Lions by one point, and defeated the WAC’s Grand Canyon in 2013.

This year’s UCSD team reached as high as No. 6 in the Division II rankings and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA D-II Tournament.

But their highest profile moment from last season? Perhaps it was finishing (and winning) a game with only four players on the court.

Still, the upgrade isn’t set in stone.

The move to Division I relies on an invitation from the Big West, which has yet to extend an invitation, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

Entrance into the Big West would require a supermajority of seven yes votes from the nine current conference members. Four of those schools are fellow University of California system schools: Irvine, Santa Barbara, Riverside, and Davis.

In the meantime, recruits continue to come to UCSD with the talent to make a D-I roster. Some have even turned down D-I offers, like senior guard Aleks Lipovic, who said no to a full ride from Big Sky member Sacramento State. Jeff Van Dyke, meanwhile, transferred over from Pepperdine, and more recently, Christian Oshita from nearby University of San Diego.

The academic offerings are enticing for these players who have fully embraced the mantra that Lipovic explains helped him make his decision.

"It’s student-athlete, student comes first," he said.

Starting guard Adam Klie wasn’t only first-team all-conference last year, but also has a 4.0 GPA in bioengineering. He received first-team Academic All-American honors as well.

Fourth-year head coach Eric Olen explained their recent rise to the San Diego Union-Tribune:

"This is a different place. I think when you find people who value the things that we do, value the education, and find the guys who want to be here, that’s how we’ve had success."

But when it comes to the collegiate sports scene in the San Diego area, they had been largely dwarfed by nearby athletic giant San Diego State and to a somewhat lesser extent, the University of San Diego, which both field Division I athletics and football teams.

UCSD alum, and current University of San Francisco director of academic programs for their Sports Management program, Daniel Rascher, lamented in an interview following the D-I vote:

"I have people asking me, did you go to the University of San Diego, San Diego State? What is UCSD?"

This "lack of campus identification" irked many people who hold association with the university. Having Snoop Dogg show up to their massive annual campus concert in 2015, Sun God, wearing a SDSU jersey and jacket surely didn’t help.

Olen understands that the move to Division I may alleviate that local branding concern as well as aim to extend the impact that the university has.

"Athletics can shine a light on the whole university," he said. "When you play more nationally recognized schools, more people are going to see your school, your brand. So just expanding that [brand] outside not only San Diego, but outside southern California, and the west coast to other parts of the country, I think that’s a big thing Division I brings."

A referendum to move the athletics programs to Division I came and went in 2011, with the "No" vote prevailing.

With an undergraduate fee increase a contingency, the students were hesitant to support the vote, especially at a time when funding for the state’s public universities continued to shrink and tuition costs moved upward — already a point of discontent and protests among students.

For a school without a football program, men’s basketball is looked to as the marquee program that can bring in alumni support, campus involvement, and school spirit, as Rascher points out. Students weren’t opposed to the idea of moving up in the past, but the timing was never right.

That feeling that the time has come culminated with the annual men’s basketball Spirit Night game vs. Cal State Dominguez Hills this year. With almost 4,000 fans filling up RIMAC Arena, students, administrators, and locals felt the excitement of the possibility that this could be an occurrence at every game, not just once a year.

A sign held up in the student section provided finality to the idea that the timing for the vote was now.

"This is what Div. I looks like."

With the men’s basketball team’s success providing momentum, this past spring, with the referendum back on the ballot, almost 70 percent of students who voted selected yes to the move to Division I and the student fee increase that accompanies it, with the final vote coming in at 6,137 yes to 2,567 no.

Until UCSD makes the Division I jump, it finds itself in a strange spot athletically. It doesn’t fit in with the highly ranked academic institutions that have visible D-I programs (UCLA, Vanderbilt, Stanford etc.) and still operates on a larger scale than the academic giants comfortable competing at D-III (Carnegie Mellon, CalTech, MIT, and Chicago to name a few).

"If you look at our university, there are not a lot of places like us in D-II, if any at all," Olen said.

Among Division II athletic programs, over 50 percent have an undergraduate enrollment of less than 2,500. Over 98 percent have less than 15,000 students.

UCSD has almost 27,000.

So allowing them to join a conference that reflects not only their athletic ambitions but school demographic seems like a no-brainer.

Lipovic and his fellow teammates acknowledge the impact that the move has for the school’s brand. He recognizes that coupling the school’s academic reputation with success in athletics can only help.

"It’s just a matter of time until we’re a nationally recognized name," he said.

Another interesting aspect is the impact on recruiting that the move creates. Excellent players have come out of the San Diego area, TJ Leaf at UCLA and Trey Kell at local San Diego State being two of the more current names, and Southern California as a whole churns out many quality Division I players.

And among D-I mid-major prospects, a new team entering the recruiting game is bound to create some sweating among fellow coaches eyeing recruits who excel in the classroom.

Considering that a large part of the appeal of the current Big West conference schools, including UCSD’s fellow UC members, is the academic opportunities as well as D-I basketball competition, the demand for those players that fit the bill will increase greatly.

Once the invitation is extended, then the basketball team begins a two-year period of increasing scholarship levels and funds and then a transition period of four years, which means if everything goes to plan, the team would be a full Division I member by the 2023-24 season, but could be playing in the Big West by 2018 under provisional member status.

So although few of the current players on the roster may be around during their first season as a Division I member, the seeds have been sown for potential success in San Diego.

Sophomore forward Brett Oosdyke realizes that this move extends far beyond just the high level games the basketball team will be playing.

"Going Division I will improve the student experience, the alumni engagement, and ultimately the culture of UCSD," he said. "It’s a huge step for both the athletic program and UC San Diego as a whole."

Olen added: "Athletics in general can serve as something unifying for the students to come together and develop more school spirit."

The transition to Division I hoops isn’t always a smooth one. There are growing pains when it comes to competing with the best in collegiate basketball day in and day out.

But don’t tell these California boys that.

There are some lofty goals being set down south just as they have been doing academically for years. With the No. 7 Biomedical Engineering program in the United States and the No. 23 engineering school in the nation, they’re a dedicated bunch in the classroom.

Expect to see the same on the court.