Program Reviews: UC San Diego’s best-ever season comes at the perfect time

One of the most unfortunate things about the loss of the 2019-20 college basketball postseason, obviously, was the NCAA Tournament. No, not the Division I men’s tournament – the Division II one. While the upper-tier tournament obviously would’ve been a fun, wild ride, this year’s Division II men’s basketball Tournament promised to be maybe its most competitive in history. The top four teams – Northwest Missouri, Lincoln Memorial, UC San Diego, and West Texas A&M – all entered the Tournament with one loss on the season. The fifth-best team, Florida Southern, was merely 29-2.

In the Division II Tournament, they treat the Elite Eight as Division I treats its Final Four: a neutral-site tournament that, if you make it to, you have as good a chance as anyone else to win. Plus, the teams are reseeded, creating even more chaos. In last year’s Elite Eight, 1 seed Northwest Missouri played 6 seed Point Loma for the national championship, and Point Loma may have not even been one of the six best teams in the Tournament to begin with.

This is where a great, unique school nestled in San Diego comes in. The UC San Diego Tritons actually ranked first overall in Massey Ratings’ survey of Division II and were in the top three of basically every metric I found. Considering most metrics sites had UCSD, Northwest Missouri, and Lincoln Memorial as near-equals (with West Texas A&M and Florida Southern very close by), it stands to reason that a game between any of the three would’ve been full of the excitement and tension we associate with the month of March.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen, but UC San Diego’s special season – their best in program history – is coming at an ideal time. In under seven months, the Tritons will begin play as a member of Division I’s Big West Conference, and considering Massey had the Tritons as favorites over more than half of D-1 teams this year, they’re in a great position to succeed. Bart Torvik’s initial 2020-21 ratings have UCSD as a competitive figure in the conference already, and it’s reasonable to suggest that they’ll overachieve their initial rating. We watched Merrimack turn itself from a Division II squad into the best team in the NEC in their first year. Who’s to say UCSD couldn’t do something similar, albeit in a tougher conference?

I talked to UCSD head coach Eric Olen about the challenges of this move upwards, along with why this particular season was so successful and what it’s like to take over a program that was previously a D-2 also-ran. From 1995 to 2015, UCSD made just one NCAA Tournament postseason appearance, and it wasn’t until the last five years that Olen had turned this program into one ready for D-1 play. This year’s team could’ve ran into Division I on the backs of a national championship, but standing here after a one-loss season is a solid consolation prize.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

Will Warren: Describe your program philosophy in a few sentences.

Eric Olen: “We want to have a program that’s committed to excellence in athletics and academics. We want to have competitiveness and resiliency, and we want to have guys that are well-rounded, high-achieving individuals. I think that UCSD lends itself to that type of person, because we have a high level of education.”

WW: You’ve spent your entire professional career at UC San Diego, first as an assistant and now as a head coach. What makes UCSD a special place to be?

EO: “I tell people all the time that San Diego is an unbelievable location – great weather and the beach! Our facilities are great, we have world-class education, but the best thing about our program are the people and kids in it. They make it fun to come to work everyday, and they’re a big part of why our whole staff has been together for a long time.”

WW: Behind Northwest Missouri, your Tritons were the second-most efficient offense in all of college basketball, per Synergy. What set this offense apart from previous teams?

EO: “Well, that starts with having really good players. The things that made this team special were talent and how mature and experienced our group was. They understood what we were trying to accomplish, in terms of our system, our shot selection, and buying into their own roles. All of those things help with your efficiency. It’s about both individual growth and collective growth.”

WW: You take over half of your shots from the field from three, which would be remarkable on its own…and yet, you hit 40% of said threes, which makes it even crazier. Why do you value the three-pointer this much?

EO: “Honestly, because we have good shooters. It’s not that we go into any season thinking we want a million threes. It’s more about taking what we can get and playing to our strengths. If you’re a good shooter, shoot it; if you’re not, don’t. I think that if you’re not a great shooter, shoot the wide-open ones and pass up contested looks. I think the higher-volume guys are typically shooting them the best. If you’re not going to hit them, we’ll limit how many you take. We got more than our share of catch-and-shoot looks, but we have players that can shoot well off-the-dribble, too. It wasn’t the plan to shoot a thousand threes, but sometimes we get more good threes than other shots.”

WW: I’ve talked about your offense, but your defense was excellent this season and deserves its own question. Your players did a great job of running shooters out of catch-and-shoot situations and forcing them to pull up off the dribble instead. Do you place extra emphasis on that?

EO: “Yeah. Some of that is scouting and personnel-dependent, in terms of how we want to dictate shots. We certainly try to protect the three-point line on our end. Sometimes, you look at your percentage you’re giving up and it may not be great, but I don’t know how much you can control the makes and misses as much as you control the attempts. Open catch-and-shoots are something we don’t want to allow. If you look at the efficiency numbers on what our opponents shot on catch-and-shoots, they weren’t good percentages for us, but we didn’t give up many in the first place.”

WW: What’s been the biggest change from the day you took this job to the end of this season?

EO: “Wow. There’s been a lot of changes. Our talent got a lot better – we’ve really upgraded our depth. Part of that is the transition to Division I and the resources we have now. That’s certainly a big part of it. Then you can start looking at facilities, all the things that are being renovated, support staff, etc.”

WW: As a program, you’re making the transition to the Big West this coming season. What is the thing you’re most excited about, and what is your biggest question you have to answer?

EO: “I mean, there’s some overlap in that question, honestly. The challenge of moving up a level and competing against better, bigger, faster, and stronger teams is both exciting and also a worry. It’s going to be a big change, going from being the favorite every single night in Division II to starting that climb all over again in Division I. Part of that is exciting, and part of that will be a huge mental adjustment for everybody. How will we handle that adversity? If we have some results that we’re not excited about, how will we handle them?”

WW: Obviously, this year’s UCSD team was a truly special one, and you had as good a shot as anybody at winning the national title in your final year of D-2 play. What will you remember most about this year’s team?

EO: “Just how special of a group they were. The belief in the locker room was a different feel, in terms of how they always knew they’d find a way to win. It’s hard to quantify, but you could feel it. We had some nights where we didn’t play good basketball, but they always found a way. Guys who’d play great second halves, get big stops when we needed them, playing through adversity and injuries, etc. Every basketball team has that, but when you have the resume we put together, you can take it for granted a little bit. It was a special, mature group that knew how to compete and how to win right from the start. It was really fun to be part of their team.”

WW: What’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

EO: “I’ve got a two-year-old and a four-year-old, so it’s mostly Frozen and the YouTube cartoons we watch. When everyone falls asleep, though, we’ve started Ozark recently. That’s been something we’re getting into when I can get my wife to turn the reality shows off.”

Here’s a short highlight video containing some of my favorite plays from the games I sampled.

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