There was a stretch, during early December, when San Diego made a statement to the rest of the country. The Toreros went into the jaws of The Pit, the fabled home of New Mexico (the court is 37 feet below street level), and pushed the Lobos in a 73-66 loss.
Five nights later, USD saw a last-second shot by Duda Sanadze carom out at home against cross-town rival, and trendy Final Four pick, San Diego State. The Aztecs escaped with a 65-64 win. San Diego emerged with the confidence that it could play with anyone, anywhere.
But in a season of twists and turns, USD sputtered once conference play began. With seven of their first nine games on the road, they began just 3-6. Even when the schedule shifted decidedly in their favor, with seven of their final nine games at home, it’s been difficult to find a rhythm, as a four-game slide in February attests. That hasn’t been helped by some rough luck—San Diego has lost six games this season, including four in conference, by four points or less.
Fortune has swung back their way of late, however, and USD looks ready to make a surge. They’ve finished the regular season by winning three of their last four, and they have impressive home wins over perennial WCC powerhouses Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s to their name.
The regular season ended on Saturday with a home game against travel partner BYU. Retribution for a crippling 87-53 January loss in Provo was on San Diego’s minds—as was the memory that they ended last season with a great run ahead of an impressive showing at the WCC tournament. (San Diego lost to Saint Mary’s in overtime in the semifinals.)
They lost 78-70 to the Cougars, moving them to 16-15 (7-11 WCC), but there’s ample reason to believe. Grier says that this team is perhaps the most cohesive he’s ever coached—truly absent of ego. They’re fans of each other, which was perhaps best represented in a February 15 road win over Pacific, when reserve sophomore guard Nick Kerr—a lefty, unlike his dad, Steve—hit his first four three-pointers, including three during a minute-and-20-second span late in the first half. You should’ve seen the way these kids celebrated that feat.
They’re led by two of the top juniors on the West Coast. Johnny Dee, arguably one of the best shooters in the country, is hitting 44 percent of his field goals, and 43 percent of his threes, while averaging 16.9 points—all career bests. He’s continued to showcase greater diversification in his game, boosting his free throw makes and attempts by over 20 percent from a season ago.
Chris Anderson, who followed up a 12-assist performance against UNM with 22 points against SDSU, is back to his all-around, influential best. He leads the conference in assists with 5.9 per game, and has been at his best of late. Anderson came within a whisker of a triple-double in that Pacific game, and flexed his all-around influence in the regular-season finale against BYU (22 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 4 steals). A healthy supporting cast has emerged around them, including senior and sophomore posts Dennis Kramer and Jito Kok. When the bench, which as of late has included Sanadze and versatile options Chris Sarbaugh and Brett Bailey, produces, this team plays its best. That’s been the case of late.
All of which is good news indeed for San Diego, which begins the WCC tournament as the 6-seed on Saturday against 3-seeded San Francisco.
SLAM: Where does that Gonzaga win rank among in your tenure at USD?
Bill Grier: It’s certainly up there at the top. Number one would be my first year, (in 2007-08), when we beat a ranked Saint Mary’s team in the semis of the conference tournament, and a ranked Gonzaga in the finals, then took out Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. (A 13-seed, San Diego beat the fourth-seeded Huskies 70-69 on a last-second jumper in overtime. They’d earned another marquee win earlier in the season, taking down Kentucky at Rupp Arena.)
But this is up there, because, if you look at the success Mark [Few] has had at Gonzaga, and his record against every team in this league. (Few is 193-25 in conference play, good for an .885 win percentage.) The only team that’s had a little success against them lately is Saint Mary’s, and not a ton at that. So we’ve all taken our lumps from them, because they’ve dominated this league for so long. Any time you can beat them, it’s great.
SLAM: What did you tell your team after the Gonzaga game?
BG: As a competitor, it shouldn’t matter who you’re playing—every game has the same importance. But that’s the thing about Gonzaga: every school in our league, pretty much outside of BYU and SMC, makes t-shirts that say, ‘Beat Gonzaga’. Every school did this even when I was an assistant at Gonzaga (from 1991-07).
It’s the biggest game in the world when Gonzaga comes to town, and the players want it so bad that sometimes they don’t perform against them. But I told our guys before that it’s just another game, and they played relaxed and played really hard. Gonzaga is a really tough team to beat, but we took care of the ball—we only had 8 turnovers.
SLAM: You’ve lost 10 games in conference this season, but six of those were by single digits. You slammed Saint Mary’s at home and gave Gonzaga its biggest scare at the Kennel. When viewed alongside the serious challenges you gave New Mexico and San Diego State in non-conference, how would you gauge this team’s current standing?
BG: We’ve lost six games by four points or less, so if we won those…but our guys have been resilient, and they’ve played well, whether on national TV or in front of a big crowd.
There’s no secret, we don’t draw great here (at the Jenny Craig Pavilion). But you’ve got a variety of game times here, so it’s hard for fans. And San Diego is one of the nicest places in the country, and there’s so many great things to do, so you’re always fighting for attention. In our three biggest games at home this season, we’ve had great crowds, and in those games, our guys have played with poise. Our kids relish those kinds of raucous environments—they are really inspired.
There was one game on the road, at BYU, where we kind of laid an egg (aforementioned 87-53 loss), but that was kind of the ‘It’s not who you play, but when you play them’, effect. It was the first time BYU had lost four straight, and they weren’t losing that game when they played us. That was in the second week of January, and it’s been awhile since.
SLAM: You alluded to those rocky stretches in January and early February. It’s been an interesting conference schedule—for instance, you finish with seven of nine games at home.
BG: It’s been an unusual conference schedule. (Portland head coach Eric) Reveno and I were talking: Portland had seven of nine at home to start, and boy, you feel so much pressure to hold serve with all those games, and then you’re on the road for awhile.
It’s kind of vice versa for us. Our guys felt pressure down the stretch in those early road games, but they finally started relaxing and playing, especially with these two games at home against Portland and Gonzaga this last weekend. But it’s been different for everybody in conference. Everyone can have a gripe.
It got us off to a tough start when we got swept in L.A. (losses to Pepperdine and LMU) to start the conference season, but so did BYU. It was also weird to play both the LA teams within the first five games of the league. Weird schedule. Like I said, we’ve lost six games by four points or less, and four of those came in league. Two of those losses came when we made silly decisions down the stretch, or didn’t make free throws. It’s tough to have lost those ones, but our kids have been resilient and they’ve kept battling.
SLAM: You’re closing the regular season with three tough games at home. You’ve taken the first two, against Portland and Gonzaga. Given how strongly you ended ’12-13, including that run in the WCC tournament (USD lost in OT to Saint Mary’s in the semifinals,) do you sense you’re ready to make another surge?
BG: I do, and I think one of the things is we’ve gotten better play off the bench in recent games. For a stretch, we weren’t getting much off the bench. Dennis Kramer played maybe his best game of his career at Saint Mary’s, (25 points and 9 rebounds in a loss on February 13), but since then he’s struggled, so his minutes aren’t what they were. And those other guys have come in off the bench and played well.
Jito Kok is finally scoring—he had nine points the other night against Gonzaga, which is seven more than we usually get. I think some of the guys on the bench, along with Jito, are playing some of their best basketball of the season.
Chris [Anderson] and Johnny [Dee] have been pretty consistent, Duda [Sanadze] has been up and down, but he’s scored well. But with the bench and Jito improving, I think that’s why we’ve been playing well.
SLAM: You thought Brett Bailey could make a real impact as a freshman. He’s started a few games for you of late. What’s his growth been like?
BG: His confidence has grown. Our staff, and other coaches that saw him in high school, we all felt he’d be an impact guy right away in college. He got off to a tough start, though, and really for the first time in his career he went through adversity, and he didn’t know how to handle it. He lost confidence.
But he’s long, he’s a good athlete, he can guard and rebound, and he was a big scorer in high school. He’s struggled to score this season, and that affected his confidence. I put him in the (starting) lineup because Duda sprained his ankle at Saint Mary’s, and then didn’t play at Pacific.
So for Brett, having the opportunity to play with the four other starters was huge. Usually he’s coming off the bench, and it’s not the same as being out there with Chris, Johnny, Jito and Dennis. That really helped his confidence. Then Duda got back to play (against Portland) on Thursday, but we kept the lineup the same, and we probably will. It helped Duda, too. It cut his minutes by four or five a game, and then down the stretch in the Portland game, we went to him and he delivered.
Brett has an opportunity to be a really good player, and his confidence is coming along. It’s not quite all the way there but he’s improved tremendously, and there’s definitely versatility to his game.
SLAM: Duda Sanadze was a bit of an unknown entity coming into this season. Has he surprised you at all with how quickly he’s become a key scorer (13.0 points)? What does he still need to work on?
BG: I think his inconsistencies have come from this being his first year playing college basketball. The game is so different here than the one he grew up playing in Europe. While he redshirted last season, it’s different than playing in games. There’s things we need him to do for our team, and there’s things he needs to get better at doing, that he kind of struggles to understand the importance or value of sometimes.
That’s just a cultural thing. (Sanadze is a native of Tbilisi, Georgia.) You go through the cultural shift, and there’s the grind of going to college and going to class. On the road, that means you might have to study for an exam the day between games. That’s just different for a European kid that’s never been through anything like that. That’s part of the inconsistency.
He lost a year (of eligibility) because he played a year professionally in Europe after he graduated from high school, but I can see him having a really good junior and senior year for us. He played really well last weekend. He does have…a toughness about him, a fight. That’s been good for our team, to have a guy that’s willing to just…he won’t back down from anyone. That’s really helped us.
SLAM: Dennis Kramer has emerged as one of the most dependable low-post options in the conference (11.4 points, 6.7 rebounds.) How far has he come since he got to USD?
BG: I think that he’s really shown that he’s a strong low-post player this year. In high school, Dennis was a guy who had tremendous hands and footwork, and he had low post skill, but he was much more comfortable when he had space. He wanted to show that he could step out and shoot, like a lot of Europeans do. (Kramer was born in Cologne, Germany, and attended La Costa Canyon High in Carlsbad, Calif. Last summer, he represented Germany at the World University Games.)
Last year, he really fought a bad hip flexor (Kramer suffered the injury just weeks before the start of the season), so he wasn’t as mobile, and he struggled to move. When some shots didn’t go in, he really lost his confidence and never really got on track. The way he’s playing this year doesn’t really surprise me. I always felt he could do it, but he’s been injury-free and his confidence has really grown, and that’s helped him have a really good senior year for us. Surprisingly, he’s done most of his damage in the post; he’s rarely had games where he’s lived on the perimeter.
SLAM: Johnny Dee’s fighting through tendonitis in his knee. How impressive has he been, even while playing hurt?
BG: He’s like Captain Hook with the peg leg. It’s been painful to watch him go through it. Watching him warm up, it looks like he’s got a leg that doesn’t even function. It’s been like that since, probably, about two weeks before conference started.
He’s got this bipartite patella in his (knee)—the kneecap is not one whole piece, and it’s joined by some fibrous material, and that piece has become inflamed, and it’s causing him tendonitis. Our doctor and surgeon say there’s nothing that’ll fix it but rest.
It just shows how tough the kid is. Last year, we played four conference games in an eight-day stretch against teams that were picked at the beginning of the year to finish in the top four of the league. We lost a tough one at home to Gonzaga on Saturday, then went to LMU on a Monday, and got a win in OT. In that game, with five minutes to go, Johnny sprained his ankle as bad as I’ve ever seen anyone do it, right in front of me.
I thought after that, we wouldn’t have him for two weeks, and then that kid played on Thursday—off a sprain. This kid is tough. In that run of games, he plays on this bad whale against BYU and he still gets 19 (points) in our win at home.
He has this incredible threshold for pain, and this season, he’s fighting through this thing, and I don’t know how he’s doing what he’s doing. I feel bad, because without these problems, he could’ve had an even better year. I thought he’d made strides defensively in the off-season, but now he can’t push off on that leg.
Where he’s improved the most is on offense, off the dribble. As a freshman he was more of a one-trick pony as a shooter. Then he got better off the bounce last year, and he made a big jump this year. He’s coming off ball screens or getting into the paint with a nice floater. That’s where he’s doing a lot of damage.
He can go in practice, but we limit him some. But he can sit and watch what we’re trying to accomplish and still have a pretty good feel for it. We limit his reps, but there’s other things where he needs more reps. In all, we’re trying to keep him as fresh as possible. He’s been really good about his recovery and spending the necessary time in the training room. It’s just gonna be like this until the season’s over.
SLAM: Chris Anderson’s performance in the loss at New Mexico (12 assists) was one of the best I’ve seen in any season. Where has he been most effective throughout this campaign?
BG: That was one of the best floor games I’ve seen from a point guard in a long, long time. The way he controlled and distributed was incredible. The thing is, when you’re at his size (5-7), to play at this level, you have to be ultra-competitive, and have belief, but that’s also one of his downfalls.
He has this unbelievable belief and will that he can take on anybody, and he’s had struggles sometimes when he’s tried to do too much, going in and creating a shot amongst the ‘bigs.’ Some of these games we’ve lost close, there was a little bit of fatigue that set in with him, and there were some silly turnovers down the stretch.
In the Saint Mary’s game, then against Pacific, and in these last two games, he’s done a good job of not trying to do too much. He’s shooting the ball over 40-percent (40.4%) from three in league play. (Anderson is 30-of-74, 40.5%, from three for the entire season.) That’s an area he’s really improved. But yeah, that New Mexico game was one of the better ones I can recall.
SLAM: With Mike Davis injured, was it almost imperative that Chris Sarbaugh step into a key role in his first season of eligibility?
BG: That injury really forced Duda into getting more action than we thought we’d get, which has turned out to be a good thing. But Mike’s injury (broken right hand) hurt us from an experience perspective; he was a fifth-year senior, and our staff and players felt he was playing his best basketball at the time of his injury. It’s been tough to see him go through it.
He could turn up the heat and go make a play; he could get to the rim or find someone with a pass on a slip to get us going. He had the experience of playing two years in the Big 12 (at Texas Tech). When we got in a little struggle last year, a big reason was because Mike was out nine games with a meniscus tear (USD lost seven of nine during that stretch—Ed.); then when we got him back before the WCC tournament, we played better.
It’s been tough without him. Guys like Sarbaugh, who’s a swiss-army knife who can do a little bit of everything on both ends, and has a good feel, have played. I don’t know if it opened up playing time a whole lot more; we planned on giving Sarbaugh minutes this season, but it’s probably meant more minutes for Brett (Bailey), too.
In my mind, Mike was starting for us this season. The way it’s worked out, I feel bad for him—awful for us—but worse for him. I don’t know if (a medical redshirt) will happen. He’s got some severe arthritis in his hand, and there’s some concern he could do permanent damage if he plays on it further.
SLAM: In Jito Kok, Thomas Jacobs, Simi Fajemisin and Kramer, you’ve got good options in the low post. What have you seen from them lately?
BG: Jito is such a good defender, but he’s had struggles offensively, and he hasn’t come on offensively like we thought he’d be capable of, until late in this season. Like every player, it’s confidence. What’s made it tough in this stretch was Jacobs and Fajemisin coming in, and neither was giving us much. Now that all three (Kok, Jacobs, Fajemisin) are giving some production, I feel it’s helped us and we played well last week with these guys.
SLAM: If you had to pick an area where this team needs to execute to make a run toward the postseason, what would it be?
BG: I think the thing that’s helped lately is…we’ve taken care of the ball, and that has to continue. I think we got back to defending the way this team is capable of, too. Those two things have to be what we hang our hat on going forward.
We are what we are offensively, and we’ve gotten better bench production, but early in the year, from a numbers standpoint, we were defending well, and we got a little away from that. We were a little too spread out, but we’ve gotten back into gaps, we’re helping each other, and to me, that’s been one of the reasons we’ve had success in these last three games.
We don’t have the offensive firepower to have run and gun shootouts, when we defend with a team, we’ve shown we can beat anybody. When we don’t, we can get beat by anybody.
These are key areas we’ve been so much better in. Even during the Saint Mary’s game on the road, we were fine until the last 10 minutes. At the under-12 timeout, we had 11 assists and five turnovers—and we ended with 11 assists and 13 turnovers.
There was a little fatigue, too many minutes played by some, and partly our bench wasn’t giving enough. Now they’ve given so much more these last three games, and they’ve played more minutes, and we’re making better decisions as a whole.