San Diego made strides in the win column in coach Lamont Smith’s first two seasons, but the Toreros weren’t getting it done at the defensive end.
That didn’t sit well with Smith, named USD’s best defender in 1997 and 1999 during his playing days.
“We really didn’t have an identity so we looked at two Final Four teams, South Carolina and Gonzaga,” said Smith, whose Toreros face the Zags on Thursday. “We pulled up their numbers defensively and thought how ironic it was both teams were 1-2 in the country and how deep they were able to play into March.”
San Diego’s coaching staff made defense a priority throughout offseason workouts.
They knew they were on the right track when the Toreros dug out several nonconference wins despite scoring in the 60s.
“That allowed our guys to buy in,” Smith said.
The Toreros (15-7, 6-4 WCC) are perhaps the most improved team in the conference behind a stingy defense and impact transfers Isaiah Wright and Isaiah Pineiro.
Smith’s crew leads the nation in 3-point percentage defense (27.5), ranks 14th in field-goal percentage defense (39.3) and 21st in scoring defense (64.5). The Toreros also swat a WCC-leading 4.3 shots per game.
“Coming into the month of February, that’s a stretch where teams either let up or up your level of play,” Gonzaga senior guard Silas Melson said. “We know San Diego is not going to come in here and lay down.”
San Diego won two straight last week after enduring a 1-4 span. Pineiro, a transfer from Portland State, had 29 points and nine assists in an 89-82 win over Loyola Marymount on Saturday. Wright, who played two seasons at Utah, scored 21 points in a victory over Santa Clara last Thursday.
The two Isaiahs combine to average 30.5 points, 11.3 rebounds and nearly eight assists. Their scoring average climbs to 32.7 in conference games and 34.1 in 10 road games.
Smith figured Wright, who plays point guard, was special when he was leading the scout team to wins last season.
“He’s a guy that came in with a tremendous chip on his shoulder,” Smith said. “He also came from a program that had great success and couple of really high-level players in front of him. He was eager to learn and prove himself.”
Pineiro, a versatile 6-foot-7 forward, shoots 51 percent from the field.
“I’m not sure he has a true position, but the best thing you can say about him is he’s a basketball player,” Smith said.
“We can move him around the floor to different spots.”
The Toreros are 6-4 on the road, including wins over WAC-leading New Mexico State and Colorado of the Pac-12.
Smith identified three keys against the 14th-ranked Zags: transition defense and controlling tempo, limiting GU’s paint production and keeping the Zags off the offensive glass.
“With them,” Smith said, “you have to pick a couple of things you’re willing to give up because they’re so solid in so many areas.”
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