Lamont Smith on his first year
MATTHEW ROBERSON | SPORTS EDITOR | @mroberson22
The University of San Diego men’s basketball team has a different definition of success than other collegiate basketball programs. Given the small student population, the mid-major conference in which they compete, and the difficulties of recruiting top tier talent from Southern California, the Toreros cherish any positive moment and instance of improvement.
This is a philosophy that largely stems from Lamont Smith, the USD alumnus who just completed his first year as the head coach at his alma mater. Despite his team’s 9-21 record, which featured just three wins outside the Jenny Craig Pavilion, the always optimistic Smith has sunny memories of his inaugural season, during which he picked up many lessons about the profession.
“I think I’ve learned a lot,” Smith said. “When you move over six inches [from the assistant coach’s chair to the head coach’s], things change dramatically. But at the same time I think it’s all basketball. Not only myself, I think our team and our staff learned a lot about each other, learned a lot about the conference, and learned a lot about where we need to go in the future.”
Of course, there were some incredible highs to balance out the lows of the 2015-16 campaign. In just his eighth game as a Division I head coach, Smith guided his team to a 53-48 victory over the heavily favored San Diego State University Aztecs in a game played outdoors at Petco Park. Not only did the win serve as a statement about Smith’s coaching abilities, it was also the first time in 10 years that the Toreros were able to knock off the Aztecs. When reflecting on the signature win, Smith harped on the fact that the triumph was an entire team effort, from the coaching staff to the players.
“I thought we did a great job with our game plan,” Smith said. “I thought our guys were dialed into what we were trying to do from a scouting standpoint, and executed it at a high level. The other piece of it is, I think it was just absolutely sensational that we were able to send our seniors out on that kind of note. Having them have the opportunity to beat San Diego State for the first time, and go out as winners against a cross-town rival.”
While the team still had 21 more regular season games after defeating SDSU, the game certainly was a worthy culmination of the careers of senior center Jito Kok and fellow senior, guard Duda Sanadze. Both players made huge impacts on Torero basketball as a whole, and they will each have their names etched in immortality thanks to record breaking performances.
The 6’9” Kok, known for his rock solid defense and ability to rise to great heights, will graduate as the USD record holder for career blocked shots. Kok played in 129 games over four years wearing Torero blue. He finished his career with a flourish, posting a career high seven points per game and a 66 percent field goal percentage.
Sanadze capped his career with the greatest offensive performance in the 37 years since USD made the jump to Division I. He poured in 38 points against the University of Portland Pilots on Senior Night, setting the Torero record and ensuring that his last memories of the JCP would be favorable ones. His coach says that Sanadze’s offensive explosion on Feb. 27 was not only one of the most special moments of his first year, but also in the history of the university.
“I think as far as USD basketball, you would be hard pressed to not say that it was one of the best performances for a USD student athlete,” Smith said. “Breaking the points scored in a game record is outstanding. Obviously it’s one thing to have done it in a regular game, but to have done it on Senior Night, your last game, is pretty remarkable.”
The departures of Kok and Sanadze sets up for a ceremonial passing of the torch. Next year’s roster will be littered with youth, both in the form of returning sophomores and incoming first-years. With the transfers of guards Marcus Harris, Vasa Pusica, and Khalil Bedart-Ghani, the newcomers will likely be tasked with filling the minutes that the fleeing trio leaves behind.
In the backcourt, returning sophomores Olin Carter III and Tyler Williams bring the most experience. Both appeared in all 30 games for the Toreros, with Carter serving as the team’s primary point guard. Williams’ playing time spiked at the end of the season, perhaps in anticipation that his role would increase for the 2016-17 season. He averaged 22 minutes per game over the season’s last six games, and started alongside Carter for the final three. Both of the promising guards were key ingredients in the upset of San Diego State. Carter played a team-high 35 minutes and scored 12 points, while Williams sank two free throws in the game’s final seconds to help seal the victory.
Smith noted that Carter and Williams’ success in that game, just the eighth of their respective careers, could be a sign of happy times on the horizon.
“I think that obviously both those guys [Carter and Williams] played outstanding that day,” Smith said. “I would hope that would be a rocket launcher for success in the future, and not only success for the future but for them to understand what kind of plays need to be made in a big game like that to be successful. Both of them had a taste of it, so we’re going to count on them in the future to continue to do those things for us.”
In the frontcourt, Smith received commitments from recruits that hail from all over the map. The incoming freshman class will include Juwan Gray, a 6’8” wing player from Delaware, who has already signed a letter of intent with the Toreros. Gray will be joined by Frank Ryder and Jose Martinez, two 6’10” forwards that have given Smith a verbal commitment. Ryder played his high school ball in Colorado, over 1,900 miles from the Connecticut prep school that Martinez attended. Point guard Nassir Barrino of Jersey City, NJ, and shooting guard Mark Carbone of Manchester, CT have also verbally committed to USD.
Smith has put together a coaching staff with ties to the eastern seaboard, an accomplishment he credits to the team’s ability to land recruits from the other side of the country. Assistant coaches Chris Gerlufsen and Russell Springmann both grew up in highly populated Mid-Atlantic cities. Gerlufsen is from Philadelphia and Springmann grew up in Washington D.C., allowing them to form connections far away from Alcala Park.
“We have two guys on our staff from the East Coast, particularly Chris Gerlufsen on our staff has done an outstanding job with fostering those relationships on the East Coast,” Smith said. “We would be not very smart not to use their networking and use the guys they have contact with. That was part of the reason why I hired this staff, was to be able to cover a lot of the country. If you can play, we’re not afraid to go get you, wherever you are.”
The way things stand right now, next year will be another rebuilding season for the Toreros. With an influx of freshman and only one returning senior – forward Brett Bailey – the squad will have to build camaraderie and learn how to play together. Smith plans to approach the upcoming season with a realistic view, but while his goals are small, he believes that the future could be gigantic.
“I’m going to be really honest with you and transparent,” Smith said. “I just want improvement. I just want to see our guys, our basketball team, and our program improve. I will say, I think that people will be very excited about the young men that we’re bringing in. I think they’re extremely talented but I think they’re also great representations of our university and our community.”
No matter what happens next season, the first chapter in Smith’s head coaching story will always include several bright spots. From winning the city championship at Petco Park to Duda Sanadze’s legendary final performance, Smith has planted the seeds to his coaching career. He’s hoping that the new additions to the team will grow into something beautiful for the USD community to be proud of.