by Conor Gereg
Change is in the air when it comes to college basketball which sits on the precipice of seismic NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) legislation. But there’s change happening at the membership level too as 2020-2021 saw the NCAA welcome four new teams to Division I. In Part 2 of our series profiling Division I’s newest programs, we catch up with Tarleton State (TX) and UC San Diego (CA).
In the previous installment: Bellarmine (KY) and Dixie State (UT), published May 10th.
UC San Diego
W-L: 7-10 (4-8 in the Big West)
NET Rank: 244
KenPom Rank: 231
Haslam Metric Rank: 252
Torvik Rank: 247
No other first-year program joined a league quite as formidable as UC San Diego joining the Big West in 2020-2021. The conference finished 16th (of 32) in overall NET rank and featured four programs that landed inside the top 150 programs in the nation, UC Santa Barbara (48), UC Irvine (102), UC Riverside (106), and Cal State Bakersfield (145). That all amounts to an uphill slog for a rookie program that’s accustomed to winning–and winning big.
Before joining the league last season the Tritons went 98-33 (.778) during their final four seasons in Division II. In their inaugural Division I season, the Big West’s newest school faced only four of the ten teams in the conference, giving an incomplete picture of their new league.
Despite the year’s COVID complications, the Tritons won three of their final five games, including back-to-back wins to finish. Head coach Eric Olen told College Hoops Digest that he hopes to “build on that momentum” in an “extremely competitive Big West.”
The Tritons’ success to end 2020-2021 is especially impressive considering the challenges to the start of the year, a season that didn’t begin until December 22nd—nearly a month after their counterparts.
“We were one of the last D1 teams to play vs a D1 opponent,” assistant Nick Booker said. “Our first DI opponent was UC Irvine on Jan 9th who had played a total of seven DI teams before our game. So the challenge was more so we did not have proper preparation time to get ready to play a D1 schedule.” Despite the lack of practice, the Tritons finished inside the nation’s top-50 programs in Effective FG%, 3PT%, and 2PT%, per KenPom.
The jump to the Big West competition did come with some significant hurdles on the court. The Tritons were 187th in KenPom’s “Height” metric which measures each team’s collective stature. “The size is the most obvious and immediate difference,” said assistant Clint Allard when speaking to the league’s physicality. “Most of the teams we played had true big men, and often played two posts on the floor at the same time, which was different to most of our Division II opponents.”
Despite not playing a full round-robin schedule, the Tritons worked to adapt to Division I competition’s physicality, speed, and strategy. “We didn’t play every team this year,” Allard added, “but with the opponents we did face, we noticed those guards could pressure and be disruptive knowing they had rim protection behind them.”
Beyond the sidelines, the program has a reason for optimism. Not only has head coach Eric Olen proven his offensive style translates to the D1 level, but the team returns a litany of rotation players to compound a university that’s poised to attract players.
“The bar has definitely been raised,” said assistant Brendan Clowry, “the competition is fierce but UC San Diego is a top 10 public university in the country, one of the best in the world, we have amazing facilities, perfect weather, a successful and stable coaching staff and we’re just a few minutes away from the beach. We have some built-in advantages that make UCSD a very desirable choice for recruits.”
With San Diego serving as a destination for recruits, the net for potential players has expanded. “In our Division II era, recruiting was much more regional,” Allard added, “where our Division I transition has allowed us to expand more nationally and internationally.”
W-L: 10-10 (5-7 in the WAC)
NET Rank: 253
KenPom Rank: 261
Haslam Metric Rank: 237
Torvik Rank: 203
Tarleton State joined fellow newcomer Dixie State (UT) as league additions in 2020-2021 though this pair is only a small part of the rapidly reconfiguring Western Athletic Conference. Next year, the WAC will add four more teams, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, and Abilene Christian, which reinforce the league’s Texas-centric feel.
The Texans are however equipped with the personnel needed to ascend the remodeled league. Few low-major or small conference programs can claim to stature their head coach’s credentials quite the way Tarleton State can with head coach Billy Gillispie, the household name the Texans needed to attract the type of talent TSU will need to climb the conference hierarchy.
“We’re going in here and trying to win,” Gillispie told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before opening night. “We’re not trying to win 15 years from now. We’re going in trying to win now. It’s not a bold statement. It’s just a fact.”
Gillispie knows a thing or two about success at the highest level of the sport. From 2004-2008 Gillispie took three separate programs to the NCAA tournament, beginning with UTEP (2004), Texas A&M (2006 and 2007), and Kentucky (2008).
Rebuilding programs is another specialty of the 61-year-old coach. Gillispie took somnambulant Ranger College from a 0-38 record in 2015-2016 to 31-4 just three years later as part of a run to the NJCAA championship game. He seems poised to do something similar at his new home in Stephenville.
The combination of Gillispie’s resume and Tarleton’s Division II success spell propitious results beyond this year’s 10-10 record. Fans saw glimpses of what’s ahead with notable victories like a top-200 road win over Utah Valley and a home win over conference heavyweight New Mexico State.
Those highlights aside, TSU may not have dominated the WAC quite the way they dominated the Division II ranks but the program hasn’t been deterred by a sub .500 record in-conference in their first season. “The only way you do that is to get great, great, great players,” Gillispie said when referring to his winning formula. “We have so much to offer in this town, this area, this university.”
Should the Texans see the return of some of their key freshmen and sophomores, there’s no doubt that Gillispie will have found success yet again.