Crumpacker: Isaiahs Leading Toreros
Pineiro & Wright guiding San Diego to record-setting start
By John Crumpacker #WCChoops Columnist
A couple of years ago, Kyle was the go-to name in the West Coast Conference. It seemed every men’s basketball team had a Kyle on the roster; one team even had two.
This season, Isaiah is the name to know at one WCC school.
In an 8-2 start at San Diego, best in school history after 10 games since becoming a member of the WCC in 1979-80, the Toreros are relying on a pair of Isaiahs to drive this little engine that could. Point guard Isaiah Wright and forward Isaiah Pineiro combined for 30 points and 13 rebounds on Tuesday night in a 69-59 win at Colorado of the Pac-12.
“I have no idea,’’ Toreros coach Lamont Smith said when asked how he came to have two Isaiahs on his roster. “I’m glad we have both of those guys.’’
Is he ever. Even though he said he doesn’t necessarily look to score, the 6-foot-7 Pineiro is San Diego’s leading scorer (15.1) and rebounder (6.4). The 6-2 Wright is a big contributor across the board with 13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
In terms of single-game highs this season, the Isaiahs have the two highest scoring games, the highest rebounding game, the three highest assist totals, the two highest steals total and the equal highest block total.
Clearly, the “I’s” have it in what San Diego civic boosters have long referred to as America’s Finest City
How Pineiro and Wright, a couple of Isaiahs, came to be teammates is a common story throughout college basketball. Pineiro decided Portland State was not a good fit for him so he transferred to San Diego and sat out the 2016-17 season as a redshirt. At Utah, Wright felt he needed a greater opportunity to show what he can do so he packed up and moved to San Diego and likewise spent 2016-17 as a redshirt. Both are redshirt juniors with another season to drive the I-Train.
“The location is obviously amazing,’’ Pineiro said. “The city and the coaching staff were the things that got me. It’s high-level coaches, they know the game and they believed in me. Coming from the Big Sky Conference to the WCC, it’s a higher level of competition and you have to really prove you can play on a higher level. They believed I could.’’
At Utah, Wright was the backup point guard yearning for more playing time to give full expression to his game.
“The Utah experience was a good experience,’’ Wright said. “I learned a lot. But I felt the opportunity for me wasn’t there. I wanted to prove I could play on the Division I level.’’
That both Isaiahs ended up at San Diego was a happy happenstance for the Toreros.
When Pineiro decided to transfer from Portland State, he took an official recruiting visit to San Diego and was sold. Smith, too, was sold after a friend had recommended Pineiro when he was playing at the junior college level at Sierra College in Northern California. “We were able to nab him,’’ Smith said.
As for Wright, he had been recruited by a member of Smith’s staff, assistant coach Sam Scholl, and when he decided to transfer from Utah, he took a visit to San Diego and said, in essence, “Where do I sign?’’
When it was suggested to Smith that based on the statistics to date that the Isaiahs are his two best players, he demurred, saying, “People ask me about that all the time. We have guys in our program who have started 60-plus games (namely, Olin Carter III, Cameron Neubauer and Tyler Williams). All those guys bring tremendous value to our team and give us great depth.’’
Having two players named Isaiah on a roster of 18 players can be confusing, so Pineiro is referred to by his teammates and coaches as “IP’’ while Wright goes by either “IW’’ or “Zay.’’
“That’s how they distinguish us,’’ Wright said. “We have the same major (Communications), so we have been taking classes together.’
To the amusement of their instructors.
“At first, it was kind of funny,’’ Pineiro said. “I haven’t met too many Isaiahs. We go by different nicknames on the team. We’ve had a couple of classes together and teachers get a kick out of it. They think it’s funny.’’
What’s not funny is how San Diego has started the season. The Toreros won their first give games, lost consecutive games to city rival San Diego State (66-57) at home and to UC Santa Barbara (67-57) on the road before winning three straight over New Mexico State in Las Cruces, Northern Arizona at home and Colorado in Boulder.
The Toreros are rolling. If they manage to close out their non-conference schedule with home wins over North Texas and Life Pacific, they would be 10-2 heading into conference play Dec. 28 against San Francisco at what is the greatest nickname for a college basketball facility, the Slim Gym, aka Jenny Craig Pavilion.
“Going into the season, we knew we were going to be a good team if we put it together,’’ Pineiro said. “I don’t think this is a shock for anyone in our program. We knew we could get there. We’re not satisfied. … I think we’re playing confidently. No one is really surprised about our start. We know if we defend, we’ll be in a lot of games.’’
That’s an important point, as San Diego is first in the conference in fewest points allowed (59.6, more than 10 points better than No. 2 Saint Mary’s), first in field goal percentage defense (.361) and first in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.218). The victory at Colorado was like a load of coal shoveled into this little engine that could.
“It was a big win for us,’’ Wright said. “We’re trying to get this thing going and get used to winning. No one has ever been 8-2 at the school. We’re playing more and more confidently each game. We’re trying to get better every day. That’s our goal, to finish strong (in the non-conference schedule). We’re just trying to build momentum.’’
Smith said scheduling such opponents as San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara, New Mexico State and Colorado was all part of a plan.
“We set the schedule up in hopes it would prepare us for the grueling WCC,’’ the coach said. “You have to get yourself prepared. Being able to go into Colorado and get a win will give us momentum going into WCC play. What the non-conference has done so far is give us confidence knowing we can play well. That will help us as we get to WCC play. You’ve got to have some toughness and grit.’’
A couple of guys named Isaiah doesn’t hurt, either.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards. Crumpacker has been covering #WCChoops since the 2014-15 season.