Craig Robinson was already working on getting the University of San Diego on the Oregon State men’s basketball schedule when the possibility of playing a nonconference game in Las Vegas came up through the Pac-12.
The decision to move the Pac-12’s conference tournament from the Staples Center in Los Angeles to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas had been made during the offseason.
The conference and the casino wanted to bring in a few teams for a dry run.
“The opportunity to play at the MGM came up through the Pac-12 and we still had a game to get, so we asked San Diego if it would be OK if we played them there,” Robinson said. “They agreed, we agreed and that’s how it came about.”
The two-day Holiday Hoops Classic was born.
The Toreros will stick around in Las Vegas and play James Madison on Sunday, also at the MGM.
The Beavers will be the only Pac-12 team involved. That will give them a leg up when they return for the conference tournament on March 13-16.
“I love the fact that we’re going to get to do sort of a dry run,” Robinson said. “It’s highlighted by the fact that we’re the only team that gets to do it.
“Our kids will be more familiar with the setting, the baskets, the court, all that stuff.”
It will be the first basketball game played in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which has been the site of boxing and mixed martial arts events along with major concerts.
The Beavers and Toreros will be the first teams to take the court.
“I think it’s going to be a big advantage, especially when we’re playing in the Pac-12 tournament,” junior guard Roberto Nelson said. “We’re going to have played there before, so it’s not going to be just another away game for us. It will feel more like home because we’ve already played there and already made a couple shots there.”
Any Beavers making their first trip to Las Vegas will get a good glimpse at the surroundings, so there will be no surprises in March.
The Vegas Strip area has a 24-7 party atmosphere that can be distracting if a team isn’t prepared.
“That’s why it’s good to get a little dry run, so we can see what the environment’s going to be like,” Robinson said.
Adding San Diego to the schedule was attractive to Robinson because Southern California is a major recruiting area for the Beavers.
San Diego basketball seemed to be on the upswing when the Toreros finished the 2007-08 season with a run through the West Coast Conference tournament, defeating ranked teams St. Mary’s and Gonzaga to take the title, and then stunning Connecticut in the first round of the NCAAs before falling to Western Kentucky.
Instead, the program stalled and then went into a free fall. The Toreros went 16-16, then 11-21 and 6-24, before finishing 13-18 last season.
Robinson said it’s only a matter of time before the Toreros turn it around.
“When I first got here they were an NCAA tournament team,” Robinson said. “Great campus, beautiful school, great population of kids to recruit from. That program’s going to be back up there soon.”
This season, the Toreros are 6-6 and coming off a 72-56 loss to San Diego State.
USD is led by 6-foot sophomore guard Johnny Dee with 14.5 points a game.
Chris Anderson, a 5-7 sophomore, mans the point and averages 9.8 points and 6.2 assists.
Senior forward Ken Rancifer (6-5) does damage inside with 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds.
“It’s going to be a tough game and we can’t afford to have a slow start like we’ve had in the previous games that we’ve had,” Nelson said.
“I still think we’re moving in the right direction and we play a tough team at a neutral site. With Ahmad (Starks) going 3 for 4 from behind the 3, that’s showing signs of the old Ahmad and to have him back, it will make the team feel a lot better and we feel a lot more confident going into that game, so I think we’re pretty much ready.”