When Lamont Smith took the reins as head coach of the University of San Diego men’s basketball team prior to the 2015-16 season, there was an understanding that success would not come quickly or easily.
That first team of Toreros carried just three upperclassmen — junior Brett Bailey and seniors Duda Sanadze and Jito Kok — and won just nine games on the season. The team’s on-court struggles covered any signs of potential promise the program flashed that year, including an upset win over crosstown rival San Diego State.
Fast-forward to today, however, and that potential is growing more and more evident. The rebuild that began Smith’s tenure at Alcalá Park is beginning to pay dividends, and the mediocre program he first inherited appears primed to take a significant step forward during the upcoming 2017-18 season.
“From a personnel standpoint, we have players now who fit our system and how we want to play,” Coach Smith said. “We’re a lot deeper this year as a team. I love the culture this team has, and I hope our guys continue to develop. We’re definitely headed in the right direction.”
A large part of that progress comes in the improved experience the team will have on the court this year. The Toreros return nine players from last year’s squad, a luxury Smith and the rest of the coaching staff haven’t been able to enjoy in prior years.
“The biggest difference this year is the continuity within the program and the experience that comes with that,” Smith said. “We were heavy with underclassmen before, and now we’ve developed a group of guys who have been here and know what we’re looking for.”
The headliner of that group of returners is junior guard Olin Carter III, the team’s second-leading scorer last season with 15.3 points per game. After being asked to play point guard during his first two seasons as a Torero, Carter III will be able to return to his natural position at shooting guard this year, which Smith expects will allow the star scorer to continue to improve his play.
“I’m expecting him to take some big steps forward this year after playing out-of-position in each of the last two seasons,” Smith said. “Now that he’s back at shooting guard, he should be able to get free and score the basketball a little bit more. His game’s definitely going to be elevated by that. I think his leadership has improved tremendously as well.”
Those expectations resulted in Carter III being selected to the preseason all-conference team and earned him a nomination as one of the team’s captains entering the season. Both are roles Carter III is vocal about embracing as an upperclassman.
“I’m grateful that my coaches and teammates see me that way,” Carter III said. “It really magnifies how I need to keep improving and that I can’t take a day off. I need to help make sure our guys are ready to play and bringing everything they have every game.”
Carter III is far from the only impact returner on the Toreros, however. The team will also welcome back two redshirt juniors in guard Isaiah Wright and forward Isaiah Piniero. Both sat out the 2016-17 season due to NCAA transfer rules after beginning their college careers at the University of Utah and Portland State University, respectively. Each will be expected to take on meaningful roles with the Toreros immediately, with Wright taking over the primary point guard duties and Piniero providing height and a high motor in the paint.
Coach Smith expressed his enthusiasm about finally getting the duo on the court in Torero blue.
“These are guys I’ve been excited about since we added them,” Smith said. “Wright was part of a Sweet 16 team at Utah, and Piniero put up good numbers at Portland State. Both of these guys are going to be starting for us right away, and we’re expecting a lot from them.”
Carter III echoed his coach’s sentiments, pointing to Wright as a name fans need to know going into the season.
“He’s one of our team captains,” Carter III said. “He makes our offense go, and I’d say he’s probably the best defensive player in the West Coast Conference. He does a great job of making the guys around him better. Coming from Utah, he has that experience against big-time opponents, too. It’ll be interesting to see how it goes.”
The two Isaiah’s will be joined by a physical group of front-court additions fronted by redshirt sophomore Alex Floresca, who missed all of last season while recovering from shoulder surgery, and Belarus native and freshman Yauhen Massalski, nicknamed “Big Squirrel” for his height and energy.
The duo projects to present Smith with the ability to better battle the game plans of opponents.
“Alex really worked on his body over the offseason, and that’s going to allow him to be very physical in the paint even if he’s giving away a few inches to guys,” Smith said. “We also added Yauhen, who has a knack for the ball and can really move. They’re young, but they present bodies for us and we can match up a little better because of that.”
The front-court pairing will be supplanted by sophomore forward Juwan Gray, who led the team in steals last season, and center Andrew Ferguson, a freshman from Australia and the first 7-footer in program history. For a team that struggled to establish an inside presence last season, Toreros such as Carter III are optimistic about the ability of the group to diversify the team’s approach on offense.
“Having these guys on the court will definitely make my game easier, and is going to let the entire team have a more all-around game when we have the ball,” Carter III said. “We’ll be able to go inside and out to find scoring chances, which isn’t something we were really able to do as much last year.”
USD’s on-court progress was evident during its slate of preseason exhibitions, as the Toreros throttled UC-Riverside in a closed-door scrimmage before dropping a tight matchup with Pac-12 school Arizona State. For Smith, the showings point to the potential the 2017-18 season could carry.
“When it’s for real, there’ll be a little change, but for the most part, both of those games were played like real games,” Smith said. “I think you got a glimpse not only of what we’re good at, but also of things we need to improve on. I thought it was a great tune-up.”
Despite the promise, USD remains picked to finish just sixth in the West Coast Conference, and still sits some distance away from joining the top tier of WCC teams that includes St. Mary’s, BYU, and last year’s national runner-up, Gonzaga. For Smith, that gap comes more from steady success than anything else.
“It’s all in the consistency and the details for me,” Smith said. “ You have to do it to know you can do it. We don’t know yet, but we’ve got guys chomping at the bit to chase down the top guys and to understand what it takes to be successful.”
Carter III is similarly optimistic about the potential of the program moving forward.
“We honestly have everything we need,” Carter III said. “On paper, it might not seem like we’re the most talented, but we can definitely compete with them if we do what we need to do. This is the best team we’ve had in my time here, and I think we’re starting to show where we stand and what we can accomplish this season.”
With a more balanced approach on offense and the experience that comes with veteran stability, the Toreros look ready to continue the program’s return to prominence in 2017-18.
All that’s left now is to play the games.
USD opens its season on the road at San Jose State tomorrow before returning home to face Robert Morris on November 15th.
Noah is a current undergraduate at the University of San Diego. In addition to his classes as a Business Economics student, Noah serves as the scouting director for the nationally-ranked USD baseball team and as an NFL correspondent with The Mighty 1090. You can follow him on Twitter @thebackseatlamp