March 1, 2004
Realistically, Santa Clara got what it wanted out of its trip to the Northwest. Now we will see if that translates into a run in the conference tournament. After being on the verge of being blasted at fourth-ranked Gonzaga (SCU was down at one point 30-11), the Broncos showed grit and actually outscored the Bulldogs the rest of the way. Does that mean they can take Gonzaga in a Sunday semifinal? First they have to get there.
After the win at Portland, the Broncos assured themselves of no worse than a number five seed, which means a first round date with San Diego. On paper, that looks nice with USD losing 17 of 18 and not giving up fewer than 85 in its last four games.
However, the one win was against Santa Clara 74-71 with the Broncos jacking up a school-record 45 three pointers. Looking back at their body of work, the Broncos lost a chance at a higher seed with that one game. Make a couple shots which turns a brutal shooting night into merely a bad one and SCU would not have to play until Saturday with a first round bye.
"It was big only because the teams we're competing with already have won here," said top assistant Steve Seandel. "Pepperdine has already won here. USF has won here and when you're playing a team that's struggling for wins you've gotta beat them."
Last year San Diego made a run to the NCAA tourney on the strength of transfers Jason Keep and Jason Blair along with 2 senior role players. Due to graduation and an ACL injury to defensive ace Corey Belser, the Toreros are a shell of last year's team, now relying on zone gimmicks to have any chance to win. They baffled the Broncos with a 1-3-1 look using 6-10 Nick Lewis at the point of the zone making a pass over the top laterally very difficult.
Added Seandel: "Some way we need to get in there with the kicker that you're going to have to make some outside shots. It would help to put some in early because they are going to force you to make them the way due to the way they pack it in. It's hard because the three guys down the middle of it are big and long. I saw Portland's tape and they shot 24 threes in the first half. They figure you can't make enough outside shots to beat them. The other zone they play is a 3-2 and their post guys never leave the block. Making some outside shots will be key but we can't take 45 threes again. There has to be some balance in our shot selection."
At 4-25, they are completing their worst season ever in Division I. But USD feels like it has a decent draw to win a game in the tourney. USD believes they could have beaten the Broncos twice this year.
"The game at Santa Clara was one that we thought slipped away," said USD Head Coach Brad Holland. "Our offense is fine but we turn the ball over a lot before we can even get off a shot."
The turnover number will be a big one to watch in the game Friday. USD is last in turnover margin at about 19 a game, offsetting many great shooting nights. They were blown out at USF despite shooting 59 percent because of 24 miscues. Their latest injury makes them even more susceptible to coughing it up: Point guard Mike McGrain broke his hand leaving the ball handling to unproven Michael Hubbard. Even though Santa Clara isn't a high-pressure team, figure them to go after the kid who turned it over 12 times by himself in a loss to Winthrop. In that game, the Toreros turned it over 30 times.
"Down low they are big, thick and strong and have the ability to go right through you, better than any bigs other than Gonzaga's," says top assistant Steve Seandel. "Down there they just annihilated us. We are going to be attacked on the post and if we allow them to walk it up and just throw it in there, it might be a long night for us. Melton and Lechtenberg can really shoot it and make you pay for collapsing inside. It's a universal belief around the league they aren't a bad team. They just haven't been able to take care of the ball and we need to do a good job of pressuring them."