Drew Dyer was ready for an exciting senior season. Entering his final year alongside fellow seniors Zach McMillan and Hunter Walker, the UC-San Diego Tritons returned three All-California Collegiate Athletic Association Second Team players and all of their starters. They were poised to return to the DII National Championships for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

“I think our guys have high expectations,” UCSD head coach Eric Olen said. “We always talk about playing to a certain standard. We felt like we were close the last two years. Two years ago [Olen’s first season] we started two freshmen and two sophomores. We’ve seen those guys grow. Having that continuity in the program and building together as a group has been the biggest part of our development as a team.”

The UCSD Tritons are off to one of their hottest starts in the program’s history sitting at 11-2. After last night's 73-48 victory on the road against conference rival SFSU, they sit tied atop the CCAA at 6-1. The feat is even more impressive when you look at how difficult the early part of the schedule has been and the injuries they have been dealt

UCSD started the season with seven straight wins, including victories over then-No. 10 Colorado School of Mines and then-No. 4 California Baptist. Their first loss of the season was against then-No. 3 Western Oregon

“You always have those tough league challenges, but we really challenged our guys non-conference-wise the year before on the road,” Olen said. “Playing well last year, understanding that we can compete at this level gave us a lot of confidence coming into this season and those home match-ups.”

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The Tritons entered the NABC polls as a ranked team for the first time in the program’s history on December 2nd landing at No. 22. They headed into the holiday break after a victory on December 20th — one in which they had to finish the waning minutes with just four players on the court due to players fouling out or being injured — sitting at No. 11 in the nation.

Coming out of the break they faced a daunting task. Their first two games of the new year were on consecutive nights against conference rivals Humboldt State and No. 7 Cal Poly Pomona. They would fall to Humboldt on Friday, but Dyer rallied the troops and they came out strong the next night. “He wasn’t going to let us lose,” Olen said of his senior.

“We have a younger group right now,” Dyer said. “I thought it showed a lot of resiliency from our team and a lot about our character — the way that we are going to battle every game and not take anything for granted. I think it showed a lot about us, and gave us a lot of confidence moving forward knowing that if we play our game we belong on the court with anybody.”

Dyer suddenly finds himself as the lone senior on the floor. Walker — their senior guard/forward who was an All-CCAA player and leading scorer the year prior — was lost in the first half of the second game of the season with an ACL injury. Senior big man McMillan, who was one of the team's top rebounders when he went down, has missed the past two games with a foot injury. 

“Drew is not only one of the better players we have ever had in the program, he’s probably the best leader in terms of the way he works,” Olen said. “The energy he brings on a daily basis; he’s our emotional leader. Guys love playing with him and for him. He’s playing the best basketball of his career right now.”

Dyer achieved a major accomplishment that Friday night in the game against Humboldt State. The senior would eclipse the 1,000-point mark in his career amid a 23 point, nine rebound night. 

“Those points were from my teammates,” Dyer humbly explained. “James McCann, when I was a freshman, was a great point guard and got me a lot of good threes. My coaches always trusting in me and having teammates that allow me to make plays for us; I’m very fortunate to be at this university and play with these guys. Those points are more of a testament to our team and the program that we are building here.”

Dyer has been on quite a journey — the cliched emotional roller coaster at times — in his tenure in a Tritons uniform that has seen its fair share of ups and downs. He has seen a head coaching change, an 11-win season, consecutive winning seasons, two CCAA tournament appearances (which doubled the amount the program has had in its 16-year CCAA history), and now sees his team with their first national ranking in school history

“That’s what has made my college experience really great,” Dyer said. “I have really watched it grow and take off. It starts with our guys. The seniors when I came in as a freshman were really great guys. When you talk about our program you have to talk about James McCann and Mackenzie McCullough [seniors two years prior]. They were the first stepping point of us going in the right direction

“We’re all coachable. We’re a team, there’s no individual egos, it’s all about winning. It’s about Coach Olen, the way he coaches, the way he leads, the way he lets us be ourselves and compete and grind and battle.”

The Tritons have battled hard this season, primarily behind a defense that sees them ranked No. 2 in the country in scoring defense allowing 62.3 points a night. They are also a force in the paint and off the glass, with the second best rebounding margin in the CCAA

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“Effort and toughness,” Olen said of why the Tritons have been so successful on the defensive end of the court and boards. “You can cover up for a lot if you play really hard and you play together. There are still parts of our defense that I think we can improve. We talk about trying your hardest to do your job and win that possession, and then move on to the next one and compete again.”

It isn’t simply defense that makes the Tritons go, however. They have a team of hard-nosed players that seemingly look forward for their opportunity to make their mark

“It’s a really nice combination of experienced veteran guys who are setting the tone and doing a good job of leading, and younger guys who are buying in right away and stepping on the floor and making an impact,” Olen said of his squad. “We have a lot of good players, but we have a lot of great competitors. They are tough kids who really like to embrace those challenges. The way that we have responded to a difficult schedule is a great example of that. We’re dealing with injuries and are embracing every opportunity. It’s an unselfish group.”

Unfortunately for Dyer and his Tritons, his path to that first NCAA tournament birth of his career is no easy task. The CCAA is a challenging conference that currently has three teams in the nation’s top 25 (No. 7 Cal Poly Pomona, No.17 UCSD and No. 20 Chico State) while Humboldt State received votes finishing right on the cusp of those honors. It doesn’t stop there in the CCAA as every night is a challenge.

“The thing that makes our league so difficult is the depth,” Olen said. “Top to bottom, if we don’t play well, everyone is capable of beating us. I told the guys Friday night, that we’ve played very well and have a few big wins, but all that has really done is create a target on our back. People are really excited to compete against us. Right now, we’re concerned about being ready for everybody’s best shot and not simply the ones that people may have circled as the big games.”

“We’ve beaten some top ten teams, but I don’t think we considered them upsets,” Dyer said of the competition thus far in 2015-16. “I think we believe we belong here. Our league is competitive, everyone can play, and if you don’t bring your game you’re gong to lose. It’s our team attitude that whoever steps on the court with us, we’re going to put our hard hats on and just get after it for 40 minutes.”

Win or lose, Dyer has had an incredible career as one of the leaders of a DII Men’s basketball program on the rise. From an 11-win team just three seasons ago all the way to entering the national rankings, Dyer has been and continues to be a driving force for the Tritons. While he hopes that his season extends to that elusive NCAA tournament, either way he seemingly will walk away with no regrets

“I’m extremely blessed as a senior to be leaving the game of basketball and this to be my final team,” Dyer said. “I couldn’t feel more grateful to work with these guys everyday.”