By Conor GeregFollow @CTGereg
In the final installment profiling college basketball’s newest programs, we’ll be examining the arrival of UC San Diego to the Division I ranks. This winter the Tritons will make the leap from the Division II California Collegiate Athletic Association to the Big West, joining Bellarmine (KY), Dixie State (UT), and Tarleton (TX) among those making the segue to Division I competition.
A Goal Realized
UC San Diego had plans to join the Big West last decade though a litany of complicating factors kept the Tritons out until this past July. One of the obstacles that precluded the school’s ascension was the conference’s 2012 addition of University of Hawaii which meant the league had already reached its wish of maintaining ten member schools.
With Division I membership comes the financial component of honoring additional athletic scholarships, a hurdle that was at last cleared for this upcoming season and thus paved the way for Big West affiliation, and a marriage that’s perfect for both the school and conference. “We are excited about the opportunity to see where we stack up,” Head Coach Eric Olen told College Hoops Digest. “I think having four other UC schools in the conference makes it a natural fit for us and has the potential to create an exciting atmosphere on our campus.” The addition of UC San Diego makes for a California-centric league with the exception of Hawaii’s Rainbow Warriors; here’s how the Big West looks in order of last season’s standings:
UC Santa Barbara
Long Beach State
UC San Diego
Gods of the Sea—and the CCAA
The program’s mascot, the Triton, a Greek God of the sea and son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, has owned its share of basketball successes while a member of the Division II CCAA. UC San Diego was nothing short of godly last year in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, posting a record of 30-1 and ranking 4th in the nation.
The Big West is a seismic step up for the Tritons who will be joining the 20th-best basketball conference per last season’s NET rankings. The league featured a pair of top-200 teams in UC Irvine (114) and UC Santa Barbara (177) which will prove to be a challenge for the program to overcome though the league’s basement is represented by a pair of schools that failed to win double-digit games in Long Beach State (306 in the NET, 9-21 overall) and Cal Poly (323 in the NET, 5-23 overall).
The campus’ home in La Jolla, a seaside community residing within northern San Diego, is already a sporting hub, playing host to PGA event Torrey Pines, formerly the Buick Invitational. An on-campus selling point for the program will be RIMAC arena, one of the largest athletic complexes in the nation and a facility that featured a $10 million dollar renovation that was completed in 2009. These factors won’t absolve the Tritons from perhaps an even larger threat to sustained success: competing programs in and around the San Diego area.
A Path to Survival
Belying UC San Diego’s chances at immediate success is the recruiting factor in that the Big West features ten other California schools all competing over the same turf, and more than half of these programs reside within a short drive of one another.
To date there are 26 Division I basketball programs within the Golden State, and within the city limits of San Diego, the Tritons are a distant third in comparison to the prowess of San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference and The University of San Diego residing in the West Coast Conference. Both the MWC and WCC, rated respectively as the 10th and 9th best leagues according to last season’s NET ratings, dwarf the level of competition of the Big West. But is there enough talent in basketball-fertile California to feed another program? History says yes.
Among 2019 prospects, California produced 26 players who ranked within the top-300 of their class, per 247 Sports. Within the most recent crop of prospects, 36 players finished as 300-level recruits among the 2020 cohort. There are a lot of mouths to feed when surveying the bevy of California basketball programs but there may be a niche for the Tritons, and in turn, a path to securing enough local talent to survive.
Since joining the staff as an assistant in 2004, incumbent Head Coach Eric Olen has seen the program grow while he’s served multiple roles including recruiting coordinator and post-player coach. After just one season as an assistant, Olen was elevated to Associate Head Coach before taking over the perch in 2012 where the Spring Hill College (Alabama) alum began his tenure for the Tritons going 31-22 over his first two seasons. Since then, Olen has achieved unprecedented levels of success in La Jolla, guiding the program to five consecutive 20+ win seasons and saw his team’s one-loss season truncated in March due to the pandemic. The 8th year coach will take his reputation of winning with him and some key holdovers from last year’s group in hopes of making an immediate impact at this new level.
A Ready Made Roster
UC San Diego will enter Division I competition armed with a collection of talented players this season. While a fifth consecutive tournament appearance may be a tall task this season, the team still has plenty of firepower. Headlining this group is point guard Tyrell Roberts who will begin his junior season as a multifaceted scorer sure to give opposing scouts headaches. The 5’11” Sacramento native can fill up the stat sheet, pouring in 45 points to begin last season before finishing the year with a team-high 19.2 PPG. The Tritons were 6th in Division II in three-point attempts and this offense will likely feature Roberts getting his share of long-range shots. Roberts won’t be alone in carrying the load in the program’s inaugural D1 foray. Senior and local product Marek Sullivan gives the Tritons size at 6’6” and rebounding prowess (5.9 RPG) the team will desperately need in the Big West. Worth noting is the ascension of senior Mikey Howell, who at 6’3”, will contribute at all levels for Olen and co.
Recruiting will be vital for Olen and his staff however the move to Division I has already netted his team plenty of talent both locally and from abroad. “We haven’t changed our approach to recruiting. Identifying and recruiting the best players we can that are prepared to thrive in our academic and athletic environment will always be our goal,” Olen said. “The biggest difference is the transition to the Big West has widened our range and increased the pool of student-athletes we are able to attract.” Olen’s new talent pool couldn’t be wider as entering this season the coaching staff has been able to reel in a trio of interior weapons through the transfer market, adding 6’8” Australian Matt Gray (via Drake University) along with 6’5” Jake Killingworth of San Carlos, CA. (via Columbia University) and another international product in 6’8” Swiss big man Toni Rocak (via Regis College).
It’s easy to see why Olen is able to entice talent to campus considering the Tritons’ style of play. UC San Diego finished top-10 last year in assists per game, a feature of a program that prides itself on team-centric basketball and perpetual improvement that’s sure to keep the Tritons trending up. “I want everyone in our program to be focused on consistently improving. We always talk about working every day to reach our best basketball. I feel like if we do that then we will live the results.”
Those results, even at college basketball’s most challenging level, will have the Tritons challenging for Big West titles sooner than later.