Tuesday, January 29, 2008|They say San Diego isn’t a good college basketball town, but I wonder if there is more to explaining it than simply saying San Diego is a better football and baseball town.

Until recently, San Diego State and the University of San Diego hadn’t properly invested in their programs with suitable arenas, coaching staffs, budgets and scheduling attractive games.

Here’s my replay from a Saturday when San Diego State was home in the afternoon and the University of San Diego home at night.

12:15 p.m.: San Diego State, 14-5 overall and 4-1 in the Mountain West Conference entering a showdown with UNLV, holds a half-game lead over UNLV and BYU. It was best to arrive on Montezuma Mesa earlier than usual since the Aztecs expected a crowd of 8,000-plus (9,131 turned out) at Cox Arena.

By the way, Bill Walton, San Diego’s Mr. Basketball, considers Cox Arena a cathedral to basketball.

1:05 p.m. tipoff, 17:41 left in first half: Both teams start slowly, but athletic Aztecs’ freshman forward Billy White scores with a layup on a nice pass from junior Lorenzo Wade. UNLV 2, SDSU 2.

My thought: Wade, a Louisville transfer, is fun to watch with his high basketball IQ. The 6-foot-6, 226-pound forward runs with a graceful stride. He passes, he drives, he has smart shot selection and he plays traffic cop when the Aztecs are getting back on defense.

16:35, first half: Aztecs junior guard Richie Williams, the local kid from Steele Canyon High, enters to a warm applause in his first home game since returning from a wrist injury. With 13:54 remaining, he drives, scores, is fouled and converts the three-point play. UNLV 7, SDSU 7.

My thought: Maybe if San Diego State keeps building with its two NCAA tournament trips in 2002 and 2006 and NIT in 2007, more local players will consider being the hometown kid.

6:23 left in second half: White, injured earlier on a hard crash to the floor under the basket, returns to the game to a loud ovation and chants of “Billy! Billy!”

My thought: That’s another sign of a college basketball town.

0:38, second half: UNLV coach Lon Kruger calls for a timeout, but the crowd is so loud, after the first whistle blows, the referee blows harder and longer the second time to get a stop in play.

0:23, second half: UNLV’s Curtis Terry hits a three-pointer with Williams in his face. It turns out to be the final points in a 72-69 UNLV victory.

My thought: The student section had chanted “Air ball!” to Terry throughout the game after he missed an early three-pointer. It came back to haunt them.

Post-game: Comments from Kruger, a man who coached at Kansas State and Illinois before making the mistake coaching in the NBA with the hapless Atlanta Hawks.

“That was a really good college basketball game,” he says. “Two teams that made critical plays and it came down to a last shot. It was a good crowd, a hostile environment, and our guys had to keep working and keep working.”

My question for Kruger: Does he think San Diego can become a legitimate college basketball town?

He’s a good person to ask with his background and because this was UNLV’s second trip to San Diego this season. USD’s first-year coach, Bill Grier, wanting a more attractive schedule for fans, brought the Rebels to town for a game Nov. 17 at Jenny Craig Pavilion that UNLV won, 66-56.

“I think both teams are very well coached and have good athletes, so they’re going to do nothing but get better,” Kruger said. “San Diego State is good right now, and Bill will have USD right there in no time at all, I’m sure.”

What does he think about SDSU coach Steve Fisher, to his credit, saying the best thing for SDSU basketball is for USD to have a strong program and vice-versa.

“Anytime you raise the bar, both programs will continue to get better,” Kruger says.

Across the hall, Wade is unnecessarily accepting blame for the loss for scoring only eight points, although he contributed seven assists.

Here’s what Kruger had said after the game about Wade: “Even when he doesn’t score, he’s such a good passer, he still hurts you. That’s why he’s one of the best players in the league.”

3:30 p.m., leaving arena: Plenty of time to make it across town to Alcala Park for USD’s 6:05 p.m. tip-off against Santa Clara.

The Toreros enter the West Coast Conference game with 9-11 record and tied for third with Santa Clara (10-8) at 2-1 behind a first-place tie between Gonzaga and 24th-ranked St. Mary’s.

6:05 p.m., five seconds elapsed in first half: Junior point guard Brandon Johnson hits a runner in the lane for a 2-0 lead.

My thought: The last time Johnson shot, he made a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Portland five days earlier, 64-61. With a crowd of 2,304 fans at USD’s 5,100-seat Jenny Craig Pavilion, most basketball fans in San Diego don’t know Johnson is one of the best athletes in town.

He still needs polish to his basketball game, the sport he prefers, but the former football running back/cornerback at Houston Willow Ridge High was recruited as a cornerback by big-time programs. It’s not hard to see why when you watch him drive to the basket in traffic.

5:06 left in the second half: Freshman forward Rob Jones is knocked off-balance, but he converts a three-point play when he’s fouled for a 45-44 lead.

My thought: Another great athlete to watch. Jones (6-6, 230), like Johnson, was more highly recruited as a football player. Big-time schools wanted the San Francisco Riordan product to play tight end, but he prefers basketball.

2:17 left: Junior forward/center Gyno Pomare steals a pass intended for Santa Clara’s big man, John Bryant, who finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds.

Twenty seconds later, Pomare (6-8, 240), who finishes with his own double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds despite giving away two inches and 60 pounds to Bryant, scores a layup on an assist from Johnson for a 50-46 lead.

My thought: Bill Russell would love Pomare for his long wing-span.

0:06 left: After Johnson drives the basket, he’s fouled and converts both free throws for a 52-51 lead that would ultimately finish as a 53-51 victory. USD is 3-1 in conference, with the USF, Portland and Santa Clara wins all coming down to the final seconds.

Post-game: Comments from Grier, who spent 16 years at Gonzaga during the Bulldogs’ rise to national prominence: “I think I’ve aged 15 years the last three weeks, but that’s the nature of the profession. We found a way to get a stop, and Brandon made a heck of an individual play. I think we’re finding ways to win close games.”

Final thought: With no NBA team in town, SDSU and USD long ago should have started building what is now developing.

For now, most transplanted fans from the East and Midwest will be a hard sell with what they’re used to watching in the Big Ten — by the way, I’m a Big Ten graduate of Michigan State — and other conferences, but this could turn out to be a college basketball town, after all.

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

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