For the first time since the 1981-82 season, the Dons reached the 20-win mark in the regular season, though a quick glance at who handed the team its 10 losses on the season will dim some hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
The Dons (20-10) — who face San Diego (16-15) in the WCC quarterfinals Saturday — finished in a tie for second with BYU with 13-5 conference records, but USF is seeded third after the Cougars swept the season series. USF went 1-5 against top-seeded Gonzaga, BYU and fourth-seeded St. Mary’s this season.
Add to that home losses to Nevada and Idaho State, which went a combined 24-32 this season, and the 20-10 record looks a little less shiny as it would otherwise, and coach Rex Walters knows it.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Walters told The San Francisco Examiner. “I do crunch the numbers. You can’t lose a game at home to Idaho State and Nevada. You can lose to Oregon on the road, you can lose to St. John’s on the road, but those games really hurt us.”
Interestingly enough, the Nevada and Idaho State losses came before the season was turned on its head by the departure of preseason all-conference point guard Cody Doolin, who left the team for personal reasons after just four games. The team was 2-2 at the time, but managed to right the ship as others stepped up to fill the void.
“Guys that wanted the opportunity that they weren’t getting took full advantage of that,” said Walters, who was named the WCC Coach of the Year. “Each game, they got more and more confident in their ability to be more than just catch-and-shoot guys. Now they were given the opportunity to be players, to make plays off the bounce, make plays in different situations that they weren’t getting the opportunity to before.”
The rise of the rest of the team helped take the load off Cole Dickerson, who still led the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game and made the All-WCC first team. The Dons will need a big weekend from Dickerson if they hope to win the WCC tournament, likely their only way of making the NCAA Tournament.
“He has unbelievable and unwaivering confidence in his ability,” Walters said of Dickerson. “But ... he’s also sacrificed a lot. His leadership skills went up, but his unselfishness matched it. Everything was run through him last year. Even in the ball screens, even in the post-ups, now with Kruize [Pinkins] and with Mark [Tollefsen] and with Avry [Holmes], not every play was run for him. And he’s never batted an eye.”
At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
Thursday’s first round
Portland vs. Loyola Marymount, 6 p.m.
Pacific vs. Santa Clara, 8:30 p.m.
USF vs. San Diego, noon
BYU vs. Portland-Loyola Marymount winner, 2:30 p.m.
Gonzaga vs. Pacific-Santa Clara winner, 6 p.m.
St. Mary’s vs. Pepperdine, 8:30 p.m.
USF-San Diego winner vs. BYU-Portland-Loyola Marymount winner, 6 p.m.
Gonzaga-Pacific-Santa Clara winner vs. St. Mary’s-Pepperdine winner, 8:30 p.m.