San Diego wound up exactly where it should have, despite being forced down a path the Toreros didn’t want to take.
Injuries derailed San Diego’s season not once, not twice, but three times. First it was starting center Yauhen Massalski (6.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), who missed three games in early December. Then it was starting point guard Isaiah Wright (13.6 ppg, 4.9 apg), who missed four straight spanning the New Year. After that, starting shooting guard Olin Carter III (15 ppg) missed five in a row from January into February.
Massalski went down three minutes into the Toreros game against Ole Miss on November 28th. It wasn’t until Feb. 7 against Loyola Marymount that the Toreros had their ideal starting lineup fully healthy for a game. The result: The Toreros struggled to regain their November form — league coaches selected San Diego to finish fifth in the preseason poll and I slotted the Toreros one better in fourth — and finished with the 7-seed entering the WCC Tournament.
But the team that earned that seed isn’t the team that’s playing at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas this week.
“A little over a week ago we sat in the locker room up in Provo after [BYU] beat us pretty good and instantly said, ‘Hey, here’s our track,’” head coach Sam Scholl said after Saturday’s 80-57 dismemberment of 3-seed BYU. “Day by day we’re going to keep getting better. We’re going to keep playing for each other and being connected and being really determined.”
If that sounds like coach speak, it is. But it also rings true.
Four seniors are in the Toreros starting lineup. And this was supposed to be their season. Looking to build upon a successful, 20-win 2018 season, San Diego put together a non-conference schedule that could have earned an at-large berth. There were games, both home and away, against power five teams and fellow NCAA Tournament hopefuls.
Yet because of all of the injuries, the season never came to be. Until now.
Even with the setbacks, the senior-heavy team has pulled together. When asked if this is the most connected this group has been since arriving on campus two seasons ago, redshirt senior forward Isaiah Pineiro (19.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg) gave an honest yes.
“We don’t want to stop playing for each other,” Pineiro said after the quarterfinals. “We don’t want our season to end right now. We’re doing whatever we can to keep our season going.”
Generally speaking, what they’re doing is being the team they were always expected to be. Specifically, though, it’s winning games on the defensive end. The Toreros committed to that end of the floor last season and have improved this season according to the metrics.
“To win games in March you’ve got to be good defensively,” coach Scholl said. “They understand that and know that our identity to win games is on the defensive end.”
In the first round of the WCC Tournament the Toreros held 10-seed Portland to a season-low 47 points. The next night, against 6-seed Santa Clara, the Toreros gave up just 45 points. And then, in their third game in as many days, they held BYU to 57 points.
The Cougars came into that game second in the WCC in scoring with an average of 79.7 points per game. On Saturday against San Diego, BYU trailed by as many as 44 points and only cut into the deficit once reserves were on the floor mopping things up in garbage time.
San Diego struggled through injuries, and then seemed to struggle some more once fully healthy. In hindsight, they just needed some time to regroup and remember how to play together.
Since returning to full-strength and before entering the WCC Tournament, the Toreros went 3-4 down the stretch. But, over the whole of the season, they’ve shown glimpses of just how good they can be.
They played Gonzaga closer than any team in the WCC with a 12-point loss at home and a 16-point loss in Spokane. Back in November, they fell on a buzzer-beater to the only NCAA Tournament-caliber team from the Pac-12, Washington, in Seattle. They’ve defeated quality teams in Colorado, San Diego State and Grand Canyon; in WCC play, they swept the league’s third place team, San Francisco.
Now, they’re not just showing flashes of their talent. The Toreros have put it all together and are absolutely rolling. Their immediate reward is a day off on Sunday before taking on a 2-seed in Saint Mary’s that has blown them out in both meetings this season.
“Now we get the day off and have a great chance to refresh and get recharged and get focused on a very good Saint Mary’s team that has had our number for a while,” coach Scholl said about his team’s plans for the off-day. “I know that these guys are going to be very determined in their preparation.”
“We’re going the movies,” Isaiah Pineiro added.
The Toreros are determined. And they’re determined to keep having fun together for as long as they can.