The task facing the University of San Diego men’s basketball team is simple and almost impossible.
It will take three victories in three days to win the West Coast Athletic Conference tournament this weekend.
In 14 conference games spanning 44 days in 1989, USD has managed to win just twice.
But USD Coach Hank Egan remembers all too well that the unexpected can happen in the tournament. Just two years ago, USD was on the wrong end of an upset.
With a starting lineup of four seniors and a sophomore, USD finished first in the WCAC in 1986-87 with a regular-season record of 13-1, 24-4 overall.
But in the second round of the conference tournament in San Francisco’s Memorial Gymnasium, the Toreros were upset, 64-63, by Pepperdine, the seventh-place finisher in the conference. The Waves had defeated No. 2 Gonzaga in the first round.
Santa Clara, tied for fourth at 6-8 with San Francisco and Portland, then defeated Pepperdine, 77-65, in the first WCAC tournament championship to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs.
“Pepperdine had a young team back then, like we do now,” said USD guard Danny Means, a senior and the only Torero who played in that first game. “But they were up and coming. They just hit us at the right time.”
USD can now return the favor.
Today at 2 in Memorial Gym, seventh-seeded USD plays a veteran second-seeded Pepperdine squad (many of whom participated in the game two years ago) in the first round of the 1989 tournament.
“We’re coming in playing the spoiler role,” Egan said. “But we’re coming in playing the best basketball we’ve played all year.”
So what chance does USD have to win the tournament?
Probably not much. The Toreros are inexperienced, inconsistent and probably incapable of producing three consecutive victories.
Barring upsets, USD will have to defeat No. 2 Pepperdine (18-11, 10-4) Saturday, No. 1 St. Mary’s (24-3, 12-2) Sunday and No. 3 Loyola Marymount (17-10, 10-4) Monday in the final, which will be nationally televised by ESPN.
USD was 0-6 against those three schools. The Toreros’ longest winning streak this season was three games--the first three games. Since then they have won only five of 24.
“I don’t think you can come in and be lucky three nights in a row,” Means said. “You have to have some skill.”
The Toreros do, but the question is whether USD can put it together for 40 minutes, three times this weekend.
“You can never tell with this team,” junior Craig Cottrell said. “The talent is definitely there. It’s just whether we can put it all together. I like our chances against Pepperdine though.”
USD (8-19, 2-12) finished tied for last with Portland but won a coin toss to gain the seventh seed in the tournament.
“We’re excited to be playing Pepperdine,” Means said. “Out of the top three teams, I think Pepperdine is the most beatable. For our style of play, we match up the best with Pepperdine.”
Center Dondi Bell agrees. “I know we can beat Pepperdine,” he said. “After that, we’ll just see what happens.”
Kelvin Woods, one of three freshmen who saw considerable court time this season, isn’t quite sure what to expect. “In the preseason (the older players) told me that conference play was twice as intense as nonconference. And when we get to the tournament, everything steps up. The intensity level is five times as high.”
Said Means, “I think we’ll have to play over our heads to win it all.”
Gylan Dottin was named co-freshman of the year at the WCAC tournament press luncheon Friday. Dottin becomes the second Torero in two years to win the freshman award. John Sanders won last season before transferring to California. . . . Dondi Bell, who led the WCAC in blocks with 55, was named All-WCAC honorable mention. . . . Craig Cottrell led the conference in field goal percentage making 65% of his shots. Making four of four in the final game of the season, Cottrell moved past Loyola Marymount’s Hank Gathers, the WCAC player of the year and the NCAA scoring and rebounding leader. . . . Danny Means, with 948 points, needs 30 more to move into 11th on the all-time Torero scoring list. He would pass USD assistant coach Gus Magee. . . . USD Coach Hank Egan is not in favor of the format for choosing a representative to the NCAA tournament via a single-elimination conference tournament. “The team that weathers the storm through the season should go to the (NCAA) tournament. I’m a purist, unfortunately. I’d rather they didn’t have (the WCAC tournament).”