While many fans of the WCC figured that the regular season championship would be a hotly contested affair, not many fans expected USD to be one of the teams competing for it. However, it was the Toreros who pushed Gonzaga and St.Mary's until the very end of the season, and it was the Toreros who won the WCC tournament. In fact, USD was the final team representing the WCC in postseason play after the losses by Gonzaga and St.Mary's in the 1st round of the NCAA tournament. After such tremendous success last season, the question remains, can the Toreros prove that last season was not a fluke? With former Gonzaga assistant Billy Grier as head coach, and every rotation player from last season returning, there is no reason why the Toreros shouldn't compete for the WCC championship and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Last Season's Results: While it was clear that USD was a good situation for Billy Grier to take over, I don't think there is anyone that could have imagined such a successful 1st season. Even as WCC play approached, it appeared that this was going to be another season that would end with USD in the middle of the WCC pack. The Toreros were able to secure an impressive victory at Rupp arena against the University of Kentucky, but for the most part, the Toreros struggled prior to WCC play. These struggles included losses to South Alabama, Stephen F. Austin, and Marshall. The only victory of note was the win over Kentucky that I mentioned before. USD entered WCC play with a record of 7-10, and were on the heels of back-to-back losses to Marshall and Cal State Bakersfield. However, once WCC play began, USD emerged as a different team. The Toreros jumped out to an 8-1 start in conference play, which included an impressive home victory over St.Mary's. USD kept up its impressive performance throughout conference play, and finished 11-3 in conference. With the WCC tournament being played on their home campus, USD was able to take advantage of the home court, and surprised both St.Mary's and Gonzaga on their way to an NCAA Tournament berth. The dream season continued, as the 13th seeded Toreros stunned UConn in the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament. A De'Jon Jackson jumper with 1.2 seconds left in OT propelled them to a 70-69 victory. Their season ended with a loss to Western Kentucky in the next round, but with a 22-14 (11-3) record, the foundation was set for a tremendous 2008-2009 season.
New Faces: With nearly the entire roster returning from last season, USD only has three new faces for this season. The lone freshman is Devonier Braswell. Braswell is a 5'10 G from Detroit, Michigan. However, Braswell will miss the entire season after rupturing his Achilles tendon during preseason conditioning work. The two other new faces are Roberto Mafra and Matt Dorr. Mafra, a native of Brazil, is a transfer from Southeastern CC in Iowa. The 6'9 F should see immediate playing time as a viable option off the bench for the Toreros. Mafra garnered 3rd team JC All-American honors last season, and his emergence should allow for Rob Jones to move back to SF. Dorr is a native of Spokane, and attended Spokane CC last season. He should provide some stability in the backcourt, especially with the loss of Braswell for the season. Dorr is a terrific long range shooter, but I don't expect him to see much of the court this season.
Players to Watch: Billy Grier returns his entire rotation from last season. Leading the way for USD is Brandon Johnson (pictured). The senior combo guard has started the past three seasons, and last year saw him emerge as one of the top guards on the west coast. Johnson began to emerge as an elite player with a 27 point performance at Rupp arena. This was only the beginning, as he went on to score 26 against Gonzaga, 25 against St.Mary's, 25 against LMU, and then 28 against St. Mary's in the WCC tournament. On the season, Johnson averaged 16.9 points and 3.5 assists. If Johnson can improve on his 37% shooting from the 3 point line, he could challenge Jeremy Pargo and Patty Mills for WCC player of the year. The key returning post player is Gyno Pomare. Pomare has been a key figure in the rotation since his freshman year, and should be considered one of the top bigs in the WCC. Pomare is coming off a season that saw him average 14.1 points and 7.4 rebounds. In his NCAA tournament debut against UConn, Pomare demonstrated how talented he is, when he scored 22 points on 10-12 shooting. If Pomare can avoid the occasional disappearing act that has plagued his career, then I see no reason why he can't average a double-double. In Rob Jones, USD has one of the hardest working and energetic players in the conference. Jones started last season as freshman, and averaged 9 points and 5.8 rebounds. Jones has a terrific understanding of the game and of his body, which makes Jones an elite rebounder despite his shorter stature. Jones should significantly improve on those numbers this season, as he will likely see more time at his natural position of Small Forward.
TKR's Concern-O-Meter: With all the attention that the out-of-conference schedule gets, I think that USD will prove to be one of the toughest opponents that GU faces all season. Very few teams have as talented and experienced of a trio like USD has in Brandon Johnson, Gyno Pomare, and Rob Jones. USD also has the secret weapon that no other school has, and that is a former Gonzaga assistant as its head coach. There is no denying the advantage that USD has when matching up with Gonzaga. Billy Grier is a tremendously respected coach, and as long as he is at USD, then they will compete for the WCC championship.
What We are Watching for: This game if full of intriguing matchups that should make the casual basketball fans mouth water. It will be interesting to see how Gonzaga attacks Brandon Johnson. Last season, Steven Gray was given the task of tracking Johnson around the court, and he was quite successful in limiting Johnson to single digit scoring when the teams met in San Diego. It will also be fun to watch Josh Heytvelt and Gyno Pomare battle. After his terrific performance against Wayne State, it seems that Heytvelt is 100% healthy. If this is the case, then it will be difficult for Pomare or any other member of the Toreros to contain Heytvelt. Lastly, it should be wildly entertaining to watch Mark Few and Billy Grier. These are two of the finest coaching minds in the country, and the added background of being such good friends makes this a must see game.