Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007| They were in their seats early, they filled the section behind the north basket and they were loud. They even had the obligatory students with “U-S-D-!” spelled out with blue paint across their chests.

Who were those guys (and girls)?

I’m writing about the University of San Diego’s student presence at Saturday night’s Nevada-Las Vegas game against the Toreros as I prepare to leave for Monday night’s San Diego State-USD game when they’ll be out in force again at the Jenny Craig Pavilion.

Did somebody tell USD’s students the San Diego State game was Saturday? Or did they misunderstand new USD coach Bill Grier when he said he was from Gonzaga and think he said Gonzaga was playing?

Traditionally, USD’s students have turned out for only SDSU and Gonzaga. But Saturday night — a gritty, 66-55 loss to Nevada-Las Vegas that was heavy on defense — was different.

And because students filled seats, Grier didn’t let his players return to the locker room following the final horn.

“That was awesome to have the student body out there, and I made sure our guys thanked them for coming,” Grier said. “If we’re going to create a home court advantage, it has to be with the students. I’m excited they were here to help us out. You could tell when we making runs they were getting into the game.”

San Diego might still become a basketball team now that USD has committed resources to the sport, following the lead San Diego State took nine years ago when it hired Steve Fisher.

The former Michigan coach took over a woeful roster in 1999-2000 and has since guided the Aztecs to the post-season four times, including the NCAA in 2005-06 and the NIT in 2006-07.

“That first year, I counted that I spoke to 73 different groups,” Fisher said. “Some of them were coffee groups and some were groups of 300. We went to every dorm on campus to get students involved.”

It began with a trickle, but the students and fans around town began coming as the Aztecs started winning.

“We have grown our crowds,” Fisher said. “When I first came, my wife would count the crowd and it would be under 1,000. But last year we averaged 8,200 for (Mountain West) Conference home games. That’s fantastic, and we’re going to grow that number.”

Fisher pointed to a 16-2 record at home last year as a product of the Aztecs developing a student section and homecourt advantage.

“They call themselves, ‘The Show,’ and they’re entertaining,” Fisher said. “I’d hate to be on the other bench. They help energize our team. When you fill up a building and they’re all cheering for you, it makes a difference.”

Grier arrived at USD after 16 seasons as a Gonzaga assistant, so he annually saw what the JCP was like — a beautiful arena without a bad seat in the house, by the way — when it’s filled.

The last time Gonzaga didn’t win the West Coast Conference tournament title to claim the automatic NCAA bid it was because of a loss to USD in 2003 at the JCP. And there have been several regular-season scares, including a 2006 game when a non-call at the buzzer prevented USD’s Ross DeRogatis from going to the free throw line for a chance to win the game.

“There was a lot of work behind the scenes to get more students involved,” Grier said. “There are a couple of guys in the student body that are working hard, and our athletic staff is working hard to create the environment in college basketball.”

Whoever those two college guys are, Barack Obama or John Edwards should hire them for their campaigns.

Fisher and Grier are rivals for attracting recruits and fans to their campus, but that doesn’t mean Fisher doesn’t want to see Grier succeed across town.

“He’s an exceptional basketball coach, and he will bring great things to this city,” Fisher said. “I’ve always said the best thing that can happen for basketball in this city is for both of us to be really good, to play each and have tickets difficult to get.”

If you were here in the 1978-79 season when the Clippers and World Free attracted 9,000-plus fans a game to the Sports Arena (those were respectable NBA crowds in those days before Donald Sterling dismantled the franchise), then you know San Diego can become a college basketball town.

Hey, maybe even a two-team college town.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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