Tuesday, May 27, 2008 | By the time the University of San Diego’s unheralded men’s basketball team had shocked Connecticut on March 21, the Toreros’ nationally ranked baseball program was a month into its season.

If the baseball players hardly stopped to shrug their shoulders while going about their business — which includes being ranked in the Top 10 for the second straight year and winning a second consecutive West Coast Conference title — could you have blamed them?

After all, this is the third straight season and the fifth in the last seven that the USD baseball team has advanced to the NCAA Tournament.

This year’s club is ranked No. 7 in the nation as it prepares to face 20th-ranked Cal in the first round of a four-team, double-elimination NCAA Regional that opens Friday at Long Beach State’s Blair Field.

But USD baseball coach Rich Hill and his players say they did stop to enjoy the basketball team’s moment in the national spotlight.

And they think they benefited from it just as they have from playing in summer collegiate leagues, offseason workouts in the fall and the visualization exercises Hill puts his players through in practice and games.

“Big time,” is how Hill described the boost it gave his team. “Any time our players are around a culture of winning, that’s going to help.”

Hill’s ace pitcher, junior left-hander Brian Matusz, who will pitch Friday’s 2 p.m. regional opener with an 11-2 record and 1.88 ERA, felt the energy run through campus like an electric current.

Matusz is by far the biggest name in San Diego college sports. He could be the first pick of the Amateur Baseball Draft next month.

But Matusz says he and his teammates benefited from watching players that won’t see a fraction of the professional sports bonus dollars that are about to be waved at Matusz.

“Anytime you see your school’s name on ESPN and in the national spotlight, it’s exciting,” Matusz said. “USD is turning into a school where every program is good. It’s a special feeling to get the students involved and following the athletic programs.”

What USD’s basketball team did against Connecticut was capture a magic moment. It’s what USD’s baseball team hasn’t done in the past, especially last year when the Toreros were bounced with two straight losses despite being ranked No. 4 in the nation and seeded No. 1 in a regional they hosted at San Diego State’s Tony Gwynn Stadium (USD’s Cunningham Stadium doesn’t have lights, so the Toreros can’t host on campus).

“The next step on the ladder is for that national success and recognition,” Hill said. “That’s our goal.”

USD must survive the four-team regional that includes experienced NCAA Tournament teams Fresno State and Long Beach State to earn a berth in the Super Regional the following weekend. The winners of the eight Super Regionals advance to the College World Series. USD has never advanced to a Super Regional or CWS.

But the Toreros didn’t let last year’s disappointment deflate their opportunity in 2008.

“You’ve got to let it go,” Matusz said. “It was very hard on us. It was tough emotionally for everyone because it was a special team. But this is a special team and can be a special year. We just have to play our game.”

Of the 16 four-team regionals in the 64-team bracket, Hill thinks USD is in the toughest one. Long Beach State, which has won an NCAA title, is ranked No. 18 in the nation and seeded No. 1. Fresno State isn’t ranked, but the fourth-seeded Bulldogs were three-time Western Athletic Conference champions and one of the teams that beat USD in last year’s regional.

But this year Hill thinks his Toreros are more mature, which may be more important than being more talented.

“You can’t underestimate the value of experience in young people’s minds,” Hill said. “To be in San Diego last year, I think our guys felt like they were playing for the community to put San Diego college baseball on the map. That may have an extra amount of pressure and distraction.”

Yes, the experience is crucial, but Hill also thanks the basketball team for an unexpected lesson on how to put USD on the map.

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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