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Underdog San Diego is battle-tested heading into NCAA Tournament

TAMPA — You look at its status as a 13th seed, and perhaps it's easy to dismiss the University of San Diego as a Cinderella that found its way to the Big Dance.

You consider its lack of a national ranking or, heck, even a single McDonald's All-American and maybe you're surprised they're here.

And, besides, what in the world is a Torero, anyway?

Surely, San Diego is merely happy to be here facing heavily favored No. 4 seed Connecticut on Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum. Well, yes, that's absolutely true. But take a glance at the resume and maybe you'll agree this team has every right to be.

"We'll take whatever label people put on us," said coach Bill Grier, asked about the prospect of being considered a Cinderella. "We're in the tournament and that's what matters. But we've also beaten some really good teams this year."

Said guard Brandon Johnson, the team's leading scorer: "I think our team has been playing real well. Our road to the (conference) championship was tough. We played, I think, one of the tougher schedules in the country."

Considering San Diego's 11 games against NCAA Tournament teams, with signature wins against Kentucky (on the road), St. Mary's (twice) and Gonzaga when it mattered most, maybe Johnson's point is valid.

There certainly is no debate San Diego (21-13) earned its way into the NCAAs. The Toreros (that's Spanish for bullfighters, by the way) claimed an automatic bid after tearing through the West Coast Conference tournament, capping it with a come-from-behind victory against 25-6 St. Mary's in the semifinals and an upset of top-seeded and No. 20 Gonzaga in the final.

Now, their reward is to fly 3,000 miles, then face a 24-8 Huskies team hungry for a tournament victory.

But playing tough competition is old hat for these guys. In fact, the Toreros wouldn't have it any other way. Grier, who is in his first season at the school and already received a contract extension this week, issued a decree upon his arrival: Priority No. 1 was to upgrade the schedule. It was the same blueprint he saw implemented at Gonzaga, where Grier was the top assistant the previous eight seasons under Mark Few.

"We wanted to put together a tough nonconference schedule here, and we had 15 games against postseason teams this year," said Grier, who included the NIT in his total.

"Going into Kentucky and to New Mexico and to Nevada and to USC, those kinds of games did nothing but help us. I think you saw that come through in the conference tournament. We started playing better when we had a lead."

The Toreros looked anything but tournament-worthy in those early season matchups with the heavy hitters. Double-digit losses to NCAA Tournament participants UNLV, South Alabama and USC were both painful and humbling. But this young team — it has no seniors — grew from the experiences. Eventually, intimidation was pushed aside by confidence. It was then the results began to change.

The best example came in San Diego's win against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

"You have to respect Kentucky," Johnson said. "I think a lot of people took away from that win because (the Wildcats) weren't playing their best basketball at the time. But we looked at that as a huge win."

It bolstered the team's belief in itself, and never was that self-assurance more obvious than in last week's WCC semifinal. St. Mary's was rolling, leading by 17 in the first half. With 7:25 left, it had a 13-point cushion. Then the Toreros called upon those tough lessons they learned against their intensified schedule and embarked on a 15-2 run to close the second half. They would go on to win in double overtime and defeat Gonzaga the following night.

"That's what I'll remember about this season," said Johnson, who played a grueling 50 minutes that night. "We went into that locker room (at halftime) and we came out and gave everything we had. & That really brought this team closer together. We fought hard, and you can't ask for anything more."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

.FAST FACTS

Meet San Diego

Religious affiliation: Roman Catholic

Enrollment: 7,600

Founded: 1949

Conference: West Coast

Nickname: Toreros

Colors: Torero blue, navy, white

Did you know?

The Toreros have three alums who are NBA head coaches: Bernie Bickerstaff (Bobcats), Mike Brown (Cavaliers) and Eric Musselman (Kings). Also, Red Sox executive vice president and general manager Theo Epstein earned his law degree at San Diego.

Stephen F. Holder, Times staff writer

Underdog San Diego is battle-tested heading into NCAA Tournament 03/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2008 9:19am]

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