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Tuesday, March 14, 2006 | If he were the best scorer in the nation instead of the best defender, the National Invitational Tournament’s selection committee would want Corey Belser and the University of San Diego basketball team to add luster to its field.

If he were the nation’s leading scorer instead of the best stopper, you’d see his highlights repeated all night on ESPN. Slamming dunks and hitting three-point baskets in traffic make players famous. Instead, you had to be in the arena to marvel at how consistently Belser shut down NBA prospects.

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound senior forward from Spanaway, Wash., was named

But television cameras don’t have an eye for defensive plays. Neither, sadly for the game, does the NIT. The selection committee bypassed USD and Belser in filling its 40-team bracket Sunday night.

“Corey by himself shouldn’t get us in the NIT,” said USD coach Brad Holland of his 18-12 team. “But his defense should be a highlight for our team and a decision maker (with the NIT committee).”

Yes, I understand USD’s low RPI rating of 141 made it difficult to pick the Toreros, but my point is the selection committee no doubt would have found a way if it meant leaving out a scorer who doesn’t play defense such as Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison.

Imagine if defensive awards carried the weight of offense. San Diego would be enjoying Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament and USD in the NIT in the same year. Our little southwest corner of the college basketball world is growing.

I mention the offensive vs. defensive marquee difference, because I’m reminded of the late “Pistol” Pete Maravich playing in the NIT as the nation’s leading scorer when his 1969 LSU team wasn’t good enough for the NCAA tournament.

I remember as a kid thumbing through the photos in Sports Illustrated of Maravich playing in the NIT at New York’s Madison Square Garden and riding a horsedrawn carriage in a top hat in Central Park.

“We want to see scoring – that’s pure entertainment,” Holland said, speaking for the mindset of sports fans. “But the other half of the game is defense, so let’s celebrate that.”

A true basketball fan should be able to enjoy the defensive half of the game while watching Belser as much as the offensive half of the game while watching a player such as Morrison, Gonzaga’s All-American.

Morrison averaged 28.2 points and shot 50.4 percent from the field during the season. But in three games against Belser and USD, Morrison averaged 17.0 points – with a season low of 11 on Feb. 25 – on only 13-of-38 (36.8 percent) shooting.

You could find several big scorers in the country, plug them into Morrison’s role at Gonzaga and they’d put up numbers. But you’d be hard pressed to find a defender to plug into USD’s lineup and have him duplicate Belser’s defensive results against Morrison and others.

My favorite defensive play this year by Belser was against Loyola-Chicago in a December win at Jenny Craig Pavilion.

Midway through the second half, Loyola-Chicago’s Blake Schilb, a 6-foot-7 NBA guard prospect, got the ball down low. He leaned into Belser while going up for a shot, but Belser leaned back to avoid contact. Schilb, comically, lost his balance and threw up a missed shot as he crashed to the floor. Schilb finished with three points on 0-of-6 shooting.

“That was a very subtle thing Corey did, and it’s what makes him such a great defender,” Holland said. “One of my favorite plays was when (the University of San Francisco’s) Alan Wiggins had a breakaway dunk and Corey ran the length for a block. He got called for the foul, but Wiggins made only one of the free throws. It was a big-time hustle

USD beat USF that night, but the Toreros weren’t as fortunate in two near-upsets of nationally ranked Gonzaga, the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament champion.

All the Toreros needed on Jan. 21 in a 64-63 loss at home was for the referees not to swallow their whistles when USD guard Ross DeRogatis was hammered on a shot at the buzzer. All they needed on March 6 in the WCC tournament 96-92 overtime loss on Gonzaga’s homecourt was some balance in free throws when the Bulldogs shot 35-of-45 and Toreros 14-of-19.

USD and Holland submitted their bullet points to the NIT committee, among the points citing the WCC’s second best record, two near-upsets of Gonzaga and Belser’s national defensive award. But Gonzaga is the only WCC team in the postseason.

The NIT missed a chance to enlighten the college basketball world by highlighting defense with the nation’s best defensive player as a marquee attraction. Corey Belser’s clinics were worth the price of admission – not to mention a horsedrawn carriage ride in a top hat through Central Park.

Tom Shanahan is Voice’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at

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