Toreros men’s basketball tips off 2015-2016 season
NOAH HILTON | CONTRIBUTOR
The leaves have browned and fallen, the trick-or-treating has concluded, and there’s a noticeable chill in the air. While this may signal a hiatus to San Diego’s seemingly-eternal summer, sports fans can rejoice in the fact that colder weather also brings the return of University of San Diego’s hardwood heroes.
This Friday, the school’s men’s basketball team will officially open their season a few hours north against the University of Southern California Trojans. Senior Jito Kok spoke about his team’s preparation for the game against USC.
“I think it’s good for us,” Kok said. “We can both get a real feel for where we are at as a team as well as let the rest of the world know what we are about. We want to show what we’ve got, and we have a good opportunity for that right out of the gate.”
The game will mark the beginning of noted alum and new head coach Lamont Smith’s career at the helm of the Toreros. Smith replaces former coach Bill Grier, whose eight seasons included a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2008, but few other noteworthy successes.
The 1998 USD graduate will have a tall task in front of him. At 39 years old, Smith is relatively young compared to 70-year-old Steve Fisher of San Diego State or 68-year-old Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. It is only appropriate that his team will carry just four upperclassmen in 2015-16.
Kok, a shot blocking machine, should anchor the defense from the post, while fourth-year guard Duda Sanadze will likely be looked to as a much-needed scoring threat after averaging 6.6 points per game last season. Juniors Brett Bailey and Brandon Perry will also need to provide leadership in the frontcourt for the Toreros.
Outside of those four, USD will count on a squad of babyfaced ballers to take big steps forward in order to stay relevant in the increasingly-competitive West Coast Conference.
After graduating the program’s all-time leaders in points (Johnny Dee) and assists (Chris Anderson), sophomores Marcus Harris, Khalil Bedart-Ghani and Vasa Pusica will be needed to fill the team’s gaping hole in the backcourt. Kok discussed his feelings on the team’s fresh scoring options.
“I think we have a lot of potential with this team,” Kok said. “There are a lot of talented young guys that work very hard. I don’t see Johnny and Chris’ graduation as a loss of scoring but more of an opportunity for others to create and get more shots. We’ll find the scoring somewhere.”
Look for freshman Olin Carter III to have an impact on offense as well. Described by Coach Smith as a flat-out winner who plays with an extraordinary level of skill, Carter will look to build on his noted high school scoring exploits.
Meanwhile, freshman power forward Alex Floresca is expected to compete for playing time after an All-State senior season at Webster High in Missouri.
If the Toreros’ opening game was any indication, the team might be well ahead of the curve already. Granted, it was only an exhibition against the Cal Tech Beavers, a lowly Division III foe, but the Toreros showcased eye-popping potential that could make this campaign far more than just a rebuilding season.
All 12 players who suited up scored at least four points in the blowout 95-42 victory, with Olin Carter III’s 13 points and Marcus Harris’ 12 points leading the way on offense. Kok enjoyed a personal block party by rejecting eight Beaver shots, and Vasa Pusica showed strong defensive instincts after coming up with five steals.
With Dee’s departure leaving the team without a true no. 1 scoring option, that kind of all-around effort will be needed throughout the season for the Toreros to have success.
The team will face a smattering of non-conference opponents early in the season. Trips to play the Western Michigan Broncos and Cal State Fullerton Titans will be followed by a voyage to Anchorage for the GCI Great Alaska Shootout.
The schedule really gets interesting in its second month. An outdoor game against local powerhouse San Diego State on Dec. 5 is sure to bring a sizeable crowd to Petco Park, which will be hosting its first basketball game. Kok insists that the change of environment won’t have any sort of crippling effects on the team’s style of play.
“I think every basketball player has played outside before and that’s never really been an issue,” Kok said. “I don’t really focus on where the game is but [rather] who we are playing, and how we are going to beat them.
West Coast Conference play will bring the likes of NCAA tournament regulars like the Gonzaga Bulldogs, St. Mary’s Gaels, and Brigham Young University Cougars to the Jenny Craig Pavilion. All three of those pesky conference rivals should provide stiff tests for Lamont Smith’s squad.
Ultimately, while there may be some growing pains for the young Toreros team, the 2015-16 season looks to be a strong preview of the program’s immediate future and good preparation for conference title runs down the road.
The team will host the Bethesda University Flames on Dec. 2 for its home opener before welcoming the Denver University Pioneers and UC Davis Aggies before finals week.