For ten games now in the 2017-18 season, the University of San Diego has grounded its identity in keeping opponents off the scoreboard.
The team leads the West Coast Conference in scoring defense (59.7 points per game) and shooting defense (37.3 percent), and leads the nation in three-point shooting defense at 22.4 percent. The defense-first philosophy has kept the team in games in challenging environments already this year, resulting in impressive wins at Western Athletic Conference leaders Grand Canyon and New Mexico State.
The formula held true again Tuesday night, as USD took to the road again to face a Pac-12 favorite in the University of Colorado. With the 7-2 Buffaloes looking to avenge a 27-point loss to Xavier suffered over the weekend, it was clear the Toreros were going to have their work cut out for them if they wanted to return to America’s Finest City with a win.
Suffice it to say: mission accomplished.
USD’s dominant defense held the Buffaloes to a measly 25.9 percent shooting percentage from the field and a truly ghastly 16.8 percent success rate from deep. The result: an eyebrow-raising 69-59 road win for the Toreros as they climb to 8-2 on the year, the best start in program history at the Division I level.
“I’m just so proud of our basketball team,” head coach Lamont Smith said after the victory. “These guys have stuck with us, believed in our system, and now they’re showing some great toughness and being able to stay together and be gritty on the road to win.”
On the offensive end, USD had four players — Isaiah Wright, Tyler Williams, Olin Carter III, and Isaiah Pineiro — score in double figures, with Wright leading the way with 20 points. The redshirt junior point guard, a former Utah Ute who sat out all of last year because of NCAA transfer rules, may have played his best game in a Toreros uniform to date, adding six rebounds and two assists to his team-leading point total.
“We go as Isaiah goes,” Smith said. “He’s got great command of our basketball team, and when he’s dialed in, he’s as good as any point guard in the country, really getting us into things and also being able to score the basketball for himself.”
An underrated star of the game was sophomore Juwan Gray, who logged 24 minutes off the bench for USD and stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, five rebounds, two steals, and two blocks. His contributions, especially on the defensive end, have epitomized the Toreros thus far this season.
“I told Juwan as he was coming off that he may have played his best college basketball game tonight,” Smith said. “He was just all over the place with his length. He had some great matchups, and I thought his mental approach was as good as we’ve seen from him.”
Gray’s experience from last season also represents a theme on the Toreros of players who are young in years, but who have more than a handful of games under their belts at the collegiate level.
“Juwan’s a guy who started 30 games for us last year,” Smith said. “Now he’s coming off the bench and he’s really accepted that role, and he’s vital to our team’s success.”
The Toreros now return home for winnable matchups against North Texas, who sits at a decidedly-average 6-5 on the year, and NAIA opponent Life Pacific. With expected victories in both of those games, USD projects to enter conference play on December 28 with a 10-2 mark.
College hoops prognosticators would’ve given little chance of that record when the season first tipped off. However, behind a stifling defense that thrives on physicality and high energy, the Toreros have offered a clear message to the rest of the country: Don’t sleep on us.
If you do, we might just beat you on your home floor.
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