Second Half Surge For The San Diego Toreros?


Coming into the season, a number of WCC teams had high expectations to disrupt the normal pecking order in the conference. With San Francisco having jumped Saint Mary’s last year and question marks surrounding the Gaels, BYU, and Gonzaga, there was room for a new team to emerge. And there were many candidates to fill that role.

November 27, 2014; Fullerton, CA, USA; San Diego Toreros guard Christopher Anderson (00) moves to the basket against the Xavier Musketeers during the second half at Titan Gym. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland and San Diego had deep and talented teams that combined youth that was full of potential and veteran leadership. San Francisco had a track record and confidence returning most of their breakout team. And Pepperdine had a young core with some of the best underclassmen talent. With such a large group of potential breakout teams, it seemed certain that one if not multiple teams would jump into the top ranks and make for a wild season full of competitive games.

But instead, things have stayed pretty true to form as all of the above teams have struggled. San Francisco and San Diego have looked downright awful, much less any kind of breakout candidates. Portland has been  better, but they have suffered bad losses that don’t suggest they are ready to take that next step, Even Pepperdine, the only team in the group off to a good start, struggled before their upset win over Saint Mary’s last week.

Mary Harvill had a great piece recently looking at the state of the Dons. But what about San Diego? They showed a lot of potential in a victory over BYU, much of it all the qualities that made them a breakout candidate in the preseason. And with three straight wins and the way so many teams are close together in the standings, they could be in line for some serious movement upward the rest of the way.

Let’s take a look at both why the Toreros could be the breakout team of the second half of WCC play and why they might not.

Why The Toreros Could Have a Second Half Surge

1) Quality Defense: This was on full display in the game against the Cougars. It was one of the best defenses in the WCC taking on the best offense in the entire nation, and the Toreros their defense won the day. While they don’t particularly stout defense, their style of play slows down teams. You’re much more likely to get stuck in a low-scoring game with them than you are forcing them to run and gun with you.

Jito Kok continues to be one of the best defenders in the conference, and his blocking numbers are off the charts. They aren’t great inside, but he is a big presence that goes a long way towards slowing down opposing big men. And in a conference where there are some talented bigs, that goes a long way.

Defense is always a valuable asset, and the Toreros have it. They just sometimes lack the offense to support it. But it’s much easier to improve the shooting than it would be to build up the defense. So with this foundation in place, it allows them to hang around in a lot of games. They really don’t get blown out, so there’s a good chance we see more games where the Toreros can stay in a game and hope they do just enough to win.

2) Playmaking Ability: While the offense is never going to reach BYU levels, the Toreros are a sound team that finds ways to get opportunities for their playmakers. Chris Anderson is once again leading the WCC in assists, and he’s one of the best at slicing to the hoop to create an opportunity for himself or timing his passes to give a good look for a teammate. Because of his ability, he makes everyone around him better.

That feeds into the other quality players on the roster. Johnny Dee is still one of the best shooters around, and his ability to come off screen and catch and shoot is a perfect complement to Anderson’s court vision. That duo has been doing it for four years, and they can keep the Toreros in games all by themselves. Combined with the inside presence of Thomas Jacobs that gives Anderson another option, and it’s a very good trio of core players.

3) Untapped Potential: One thing that was looked at positively in the preseason was the depth on San Diego’s roster. Besides returning all but one starter, they had a good incoming group of freshmen along with Cal State Northridge transfer Brandon Perry. The big man was going to play a big role in replacing Dennis Kramer in the frontcourt, and the freshmen were going to fill out the rotation. Especially the high scoring Marcus Harris and the do-everything Vasa Pusica.

November 28, 2014; Fullerton, CA, USA; San Diego Toreros guard Duda Sanadze (10) moves to the basket against Princeton Tigers during the first half at Titan Gym. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

That potential has not been fulfilled yet unfortunately. Perry has had his moments, but he’s been overshadowed by the emergence of Jacobs and hasn’t done it consistently. All the freshmen have gotten good minutes, but they look  very raw and far from having an impact. Duda Sanadze was a key third option behind Dee and Anderson last season, but he’s been hampered by injuries in what is amounting to a lost season for him.

And yet, you can see all of them wanting to break out. Perry has looked good with more minutes while Kok was battling a minor injury recently. And after being stuck in a large rotation of freshmen and other bench players, Pusica is taking on more minutes and looking better and better. He set and tied his career-high with 16 points the past two games, and he is becoming a legitimate option. Even Sanadze is finding his form again. Suddenly, the Toreros are going from struggling with only a couple real options to have a much deeper group.

There’s a long way to go, and it won’t be any surprise if the young players don’t fully emerge until next year. But if they can just do enough to support the stars, there’s a really good and talented rotation here. Similar to the Dons and the way they can shoot the lights out and beat anyone, if the Toreros can just tap into a little of this potential they suddenly become much better.

Why The Second Half Could Be More of The Same

1) Poor Shooting: The Toreros have been absolutely horrific in the shooting department in the first half of WCC play. They are getting buried at the start of games and leaving themselves no room to recover. It’s a bit of a mystery why this is happening, because it wasn’t that bad in non-conference play. But even Dee, one of the most accurate shooters in the conference and the nation, has had his share of struggles. And when he’s struggling, you know it’s a problem.

If they can’t fix it, they will never have enough offense to win many games. Defense is key, but the Toreros have been so bad offensively that it won’t matter how good their defense is if they keep shooting poorly. Fixing the shooting is priority number one to turning things around. It’s been much better the past few games, but it could run cold at any time.

2) Too Far Away From Competing: Even if the core players start to consistently play up to their potential, it’s not enough on it’s own. Some combination of role players and freshmen need to start producing more in support, but this late in the season it’s hard to believe that will happen. Most of them are probably in a growing year and won’t truly improve until next season. That’s great for the long-term future, but it doesn’t help the chances this season.

It’s more agonizing when you see how close many of them have come to breaking out. So many guys have had their moments, and that I mentioned untapped potential above. But it’s just not coming together. Guys have breakout games, then they disappear, reappear briefly, and so on over and over. So to expect it to all come together at one time is not realistic. To expect it to come together for the entire second half of conference play is even more of a reach. Can they continue the surge of this recent winning streak? Only time will tell.

3) Trouble Closing Games: Despite everything, the Toreros rarely get blown out. They play good defense, and it keeps them in games. But they have often been downright awful when it comes to closing out games. They go even colder than usual, and even if they’re in a game they let the other team slip ahead and pull away. It’s haunted them all season, even in their wins. In the second win of this recent streak, Santa Clara erased a large lead it was seemed like the blink of an eye before the Toreros held on for a win. And often times, the Toreros have been coming out on the losing end of these comebacks.

Just like they are in every game, they are also not safe in any game. No matter how well they play, it feels like every game is in doubt right up until the end. Hopefully the recent results are a confidence booster. And to their credit, they have looked much stronger in the clutch recently. But the wheels could fall back off very easily with their unpredictable nature. You never know what version of this team will show up each night. Not good when you’re climbing out a big hole.

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So far the second half of WCC play has been very impressive for the Toreros. And the conference is still wide open. As high as 3rd and maybe even 2nd is still a possibility, so the Toreros should be very motivated. If they can live up to some potential, they can still do some big things. Maybe they aren’t the breakout team in the WCC this year, but they can be the breakout team of the second half.