UCSD to USC: Bryce Pope’s San Diego Story

UCSD to USC: Bryce Pope’s San Diego Story
Image by Hana Tobias for The UCSD Guardian

It is November 15, 2022, and Bryce Pope is stranded on an island with a Golden Bear. His only lifeline, singular route to escape, is the basketball resting in his left hand, under constant attack from the hounding figure standing directly in his path.


Left, right, right, left, bounces the ball as Pope sizes up Cal’s leading scorer, Devin Askew. Less than twenty seconds remain, and fewer on the shot clock. Pope’s dribbles are sharp and deliberate, more Stockton than Iverson, as each bounce seems to represent — rather than a tornado of physics-defying, gone-in-a-flash histrionics — a cog in a cohesive, deliberate plan of attack. One dribble after the next, predicated upon hypnotically lulling unsuspecting defenders into backpedaling trances of respite before Pope responds with a barrage of three-point missiles or one of the slasher’s key signature point-guard maneuvers — such as whizzing past a knackered opponent before hoisting up a concoction from his assortment of nifty floaters, finishers, and around-the-basket gesticulations.


Askew gingerly mirrors Pope’s encroachments, surrendering little ground as the Triton inches closer and closer towards the three point stripe. The basketball oscillates between Pope’s legs as precious seconds tick away. The defender is no stranger himself to big moments, having won a FIBA gold model in 2019 and having already played at Kentucky and Texas before arriving at Cal. Pope searches for a moment to pounce, a brief split-second window to put forth a move worthy enough to faze the veteran defender. As if in collective realization, the island swells as the other players scurry aside to clear space for the duel emerging at the top of the key.


The chance for a masterpiece is beautifully infused by the scores of late-game heroics from the game’s past: from his present spot on the floor, if Pope stays right where he stands, he could side-step into a replica of Damian Lillard’s Thunder-defeating shot from the 2019 playoffs. Duck and drive to the right, and he could pull up for a Kobe-esque midrange jumper like the one that defeated the Suns in overtime in 2006. Or, channeling Chris Paul against the Spurs in 2015, Pope could wind the clock all the way down, jostle his way to the low block, and then, at the last possible moment, nudge a soft floater off the window and into the basket, over the outstretched fingertips of a smothering defender.


Seconds to go with infinite possibilities — the world at his hands and eyes on his back — reflects a reality neither unfamiliar nor daunting to Bryce Pope. 


“I was a guy who loved big moments,” he affirms. “I feel like the bigger the moment, the better I played.” 


Fourteen seconds to go, five on the shot clock, UCSD up by one. A loss tonight, at home at Liontree Arena, would mark the Tritons’ third straight to start off the 2022-23 campaign. At this early stage in the season, it would be difficult to characterize the contest as anything but a must-win. Back on the island, Pope pounds a crossover, instantaneously sweeping the ball into a comfortable shooting pocket, and then, as if to catalyze an animation from the video game NBA 2K (where a defender even in optimal position is rendered ineffective against a green shot meter, the “perfect shot”), Pope rips a three-pointer from along the top right corner as Askew lunges to avoid drawing a shooting foul.


Swish. Final: UCSD 64, Cal 62.


Given that the story of Bryce Pope involves a great deal of patience, delayed gratification, and, in Embiid-speak, trusting the process, it makes sense that what this flashpoint moment sparked for the Tritons would be realized a season later. The 2023-24 campaign was the best year in recent memory for the Tritons: a 21-12 (15-5 Big West) record in Eric Olen’s fourth season at the helm, and a a tantalizing preview into what could be a new standard of excellence for the newly-minted Division I program.


While one three point heave may not have single handedly jump-started a new era of basketball excellence for a program venturing into unknown territory, it certainly appears to have elevated to a higher level — confidence-wise — one of the program’s brightest stars. 


“Probably the best moment I’ve had in my career,” Pope remembers of the night. “Just the electricity in the building that night.”


Four years is about the length of time required to turn a presidential head of hair from a suave dark to a tottery gray, and exactly how long the Triton basketballers and their intrepid fans have had to intently wait for eligibility to compete in the NCAA tournament following the school’s mandatory Division I reclassification period. Yet with that now behind them, as the Tritons finally embark into the territory of March Madness and beyond, the player who helped put them in this position will watch what ensues from a competitive distance. 


San Diego local Bryce Pope, jersey number four, the fourth leading scorer in UCSD history, will don the red and gold of USC in his final season of collegiate basketball. The 2024-25 season will mark the first time ever that Pope will not be synonymous with San Diego basketball, and will represent a significant shift during a period of inspired resurgence in the anthology of Triton basketball.


Though Pope is outbound from sunny San Diego, some ties are timeless. During an extensive conversation with The UCSD Guardian, the new Trojan (by way of the transfer portal) recalled fondly upon a childhood spent becoming familiar with a hometown he would one day come to represent, and depart.


“What made me choose USC was, just, I think, the allure of staying in Southern California, staying on the West Coast,” Pope said of his transfer decision. “I took a couple visits to Maryland… Virginia …I came back from those trips and I thought about it and I really saw myself staying on the West Coast, and particularly in Southern California. I grew up in San Diego, so I feel like that’s more my style and, you know, having my friends and family be able to come up for games also played a role in that.”


Pope cut his teeth in brotherly competition against identical twin Michael, a guard at Cal State San Marcos. The Popes would team up to play high school basketball just ten minutes away from UCSD for the Torrey Pines High Falcons under the legendary John Olive, a former assistant coach on the 1985 Villanova national championship team.


Towards the end of his high school career, Pope set his eyes on a trifecta of goals he sought to achieve, outlined years ago in an article by Aaron Burgin for The Coast News Group: “League titles, CIF championship, and player of the year. In his senior season, Pope led Torrey Pines to both the Avocado West League title and the Falcons’ first CIF Open Division Championship,” then sealed the deal by bringing home the 2019 CIF Player of the Year award.


For as highly-touted a high school basketball player as Pope was, his transition to the collegiate ranks was not without adversity. When asked about his “welcome to college moment,” Pope’s answer reflected a marked level of introspection, as the guard recalled grapples with the twists and turns of his career that began to emerge before he even saw much action on the court.


“Someone asked me that the other day … I would say, like my first season as a redshirt, you know, I was kind of the man in high school, I won, like, CIF player of the year my senior year of high school and then I kind of thought I was the man and then I came and redshirted my first year at UC San Diego and yeah, those guys … they kinda had a chip on their shoulder and they saw this kid who was highly-touted coming in and guys took it to me that first year in practice … just those first practices as a redshirt, you know, guys maybe were better than I thought at the college level, you know, college is a lot different than high school so I think just the level of talent in college was kind of my welcome moment.”


Though it may have rendered difficult moments at times, Pope looks back with gratitude for his redshirt experience, crediting it with helping him develop into the player he is today.


“I think I had a good foundation but I think it was more about refining everything, all parts of my game, sharpening everything up. You know I’m grateful that I redshirted that year I got a lot better I think as a shooter, like three point shooter, yeah just got a ton of shots up, got my body right, my body fat percentage went like way down, changed my diet, and so that first year that I played after my redshirt year I was ready to go, like I was ready to hit the ground running and, yeah…the rest is history.”


It sure is. 


Under Eric Olen, the Tritons have enjoyed a steep upward trajectory in the win column. Seven wins, thirteen wins, ten wins, and then, this year, twenty one. Pope was definitive in dispensing credit for the turnaround.


“I think it starts with coaching. You know, I think Coach Olen, he’s gotten some slack in the past for, you know, playing a unique style of basketball and, you know, I think in those first few years of Division 1 where we maybe didn’t have as much success, you know, I think, you know, people maybe gave him a hard and time, but I think he saw the vision, you know, I think he understood that, you know we’re not just gonna … necessarily go out and try to go get some other star players, I mean we obviously got some transfers this year that have been great in Tyler McGhie and Aniwaniwa Tait-Jones, and then also Hayden Gray, but you know, I think he felt like … Bryce can lead a team, you know. We don’t need to try to find a guy that’s better than Bryce … it’s about loyalty to him, you know, he’s been loyal to the guys that have been loyal to the program, you know, I think that’s kind of what his mindset was, was like, ‘Alright, we have the foundational pieces in place, now we just need to go find a couple of other, like, supporting players … that’s kind of the approach he’s taken and you know I think a lot of other coaches in the country are just totally trying to revamp their program, you know, especially after, you know, a couple years where we didn’t have as much success but, you know, I really appreciate that he didn’t do that, you know, he believed in the guys in the locker room and he knew that as long as we got just a couple of other supporting cast guys from the portal that we could be really good team and obviously this past season we had an unbelievable season. To win twenty plus games in Division 1 basketball is a really good, really remarkable feat and it’s a testament to Coach Olen, I would say.” 


Pope’s ascent has followed a similar path to that of the Tritons’ resurrection. In his redshirt freshman year, Pope dropped his career high in UCSD’s first ever Division 1 game with 21 points against UC Irvine. The following season, he clocked in at third on the squad in minutes played, and increased his scoring to 12.3 points per contest, good enough for second on the team. 


But Pope still only considers the following year, last season, as the point when he started to feel comfortable in Division 1. 


“Last season, 2022-2023. That’s when I took a big jump. I think the first game of the year I had 25 in our season opener and … in my head I was like, wow, I think I can play with anyone in the country, I think I can put up a lot of points against any team we play, any team on our schedule, you know, whether it’s a high major like, you know, Cal, obviously, had some success against them, Washington, San Diego State, I just felt super confident in my ability to score the basketball and you know play with anyone, play against any guard in the country so I would say that last season is what I took that, like, big jump.” 


A big jump indeed; Pope’s playing time in 2022-23 soared to a conference-leading 38 minutes per game, as he finished the season as the Big West’s second leading scorer, while becoming just the fourteenth player in school history to crack 1,000 career points. Expectations were high for his senior year, but who could have predicted what would come next? 


In his final year as a Triton in 2023-24, Pope authored one of the finest single seasons in UCSD basketball history. He became the first Triton ever to attain Divison 1 NABC All-District recognition and was a finalist for the Lou Henson Award, recognizing the best player in “mid-major college basketball”. Pope led the Tritons in scoring with 18.3 points per game, and finished fifth overall in the conference. 


A prolific scorer at 6’3, Pope is a remarkably fearless shooter; in a three game stretch this past February, the guard hoisted up 31 three-pointers, yet another reflection of the analytical approach that goes into Pope’s outlook — his desire to evolve along with the tides of the sport. 


“[Three-point shooting] is a valuable part of the game and it’s the direction that the game is going to … I think what has helped me, too, is like, not only can I shoot threes off the catch, catch and shoot, but I can also shoot threes off the dribble, and not a lot of guys can do that, you know, very few guys have that kind of capability of just kind of pulling up in transition from three and, then, also, just in the half court, like, coming off ball screens and just being able to fire threes off the bounce, you know. I think having both of those in my kind of arsenal, in my toolbox, has made me more of a versatile player and a better player.”


With such a storied career at UCSD, some fans may be left wondering why Pope is looking to depart. Pope addressed those queries while opening up about when he started to feel like his last moments in San Diego were upon him.


“I think, you know, I’m super appreciative of my coaches, they’ve been so great for me, particularly Coach Olen, you know, he’s given me so much freedom and let me kind of blossom into the player I am today … and I think it like a couple weeks, two or three weeks to go in the season, you know, he kind of came up to me … thought I had a chance to maybe be the Player of the Year in the Big West, came up a little short but was pretty close so I think he kind of understood that like after this season I would have a lot of options about what I wanted to do and he was super transparent with me and, you know, especially with the NIL landscape with college athletes being paid, you know I think he understood that if I had offers to go somewhere else and make potentially a lot of money, he completely understood and supported me and, you know, gave me all the freedom in the world to do that and there was no, there’s been no ill will at all, all those guys are super happy for me so I’m really appreciative, you know, for the coaches I’ve had.”


Looking ahead to his first taste of basketball in a foreign land (Los Angeles), Pope is equal parts analytical and bright-eyed. 


“…I think just the brand of USC and how many high level athletes they’ve produced kind of won me over in the long run,” Pope gushed.


The changes, though, he admits, will be stark. 


“It’s different, you know it’s unique … I’ve had a lot of resources because I’ve grown up in San Diego, my parents still live in San Diego…whenever I need anything I can just go, you know, stop by the house or, you know, call my dad or meet him for coffee or something. It is a change … moving to another city even though it’s Los Angeles, which is pretty close by but it’s still different, you know, it’s not San Diego. You don’t know where everything is all the time, you know? I know San Diego really well, obviously, spent a lot of time here, and so, I think that’s kind of exciting too for me though, going to experience something new…”


Though dazzled and intrigued by the mystique of USC’s storied athletics history, Pope remains assertively unfazed by any potential spotlight that may adjoin his transfer.


“Yeah, I haven’t really thought about [my first moments on the court at USC] too much, I think … it’ll be similar, you know, even though it’s a bigger stage than maybe UC San Diego is, I think it’s just a similar feel like, you know, kind of that nervous excitement I would say, but, you know, I’ve been here before … I’ve been in some intense high pressure situations on the court and so I think you just go into it like any other game and I think there’ll be some butterflies but I think it’s good to, you know, have that, good to be a little nervous, so I’m not too worried about it.”


Though Pope won’t be playing for the Tritons any longer, he still plans to keep up with the team’s achievements — and is confident for the future.


“Yeah, I’m definitely going to be following this season … you know … obviously, losing Francis Nwaokorie as well, with him going to Loyola Chicago, I think that’s a blow, for us, for UC San Diego. You know, I think me leaving was probably somewhat expected but, you know, I think his loss will hurt but I think they’ll do well … that kind of standard of winning is still in the locker room and in the arena every night you know that doesn’t leave and I also think that you know we’ve kind of put UC San Diego on the map as a brand so now I think guys are just gonna be more willing to transfer to UC San Diego, you know they’ve already gotten a couple transfers who are pretty good, pretty high level guys, and I think people … saw what we did last season and they’re like, ‘I want to be a part of that’, you know, so, I think they’ll be fine and I think they’ll do well in the Big West.”


Pope also departs UCSD with a degree in real estate and development, something he intends to use in a future career one day down the line that doesn’t involve basketball. 


But one that does is very much in the cards.


“Yeah I mean, it’s gonna depend on how this season goes. I’m definitely open to playing professionally, I’ve talked to a couple NBA scouts about potentially playing in the summer league next year which would be really cool out in Las Vegas, but obviously I gotta go out and have a good year this season. Post basketball, I would say, yeah, I mean I’ve got a few connections in a couple different industries, you know I think commercial real estate, particularly like, even some like real estate development stuff … maybe working in real estate, and I also know a couple of people in investment banking as well, so I think one of those paths is what I’m kind of looking for post basketball and, you know, I’m getting an MBA from USC which obviously will help me, you know, with those future endeavors. But as far as coaching goes, it’s not that I’m against it, but I see myself doing something else.”


Basketball, from player to setting, brings along with it a palpable ethos. Under the shadows cast by towering buildings and encompassing bridges, New York’s concrete pavements and sneering, chain-link rims produce the game’s great assuagers, the Mark Jacksons and Kenny Smiths, and flashy showmen, such as Lamar Odom and Earl Monroe. Conversely, on the west coast, dual-threat guards like Demar Derozan, Baron Davis, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden slash, weave, and scurry through fast breaks and opposing lanes as they resemble the countless highways and intersections that aggressively intersperse Los Angeles. 


San Diego’s basketball ethos is best described as strangely arcane; take, for example, the interesting academic streak. Chris Dudley overcame a diagnosis of diabetes while at Torrey Pines in the 1980s, then went on to make three All-Ivy League teams at Yale, and spend two decades in the NBA before embarking on a career in politics. La Jolla Country Day’s Ryan Langborg scored 23 points to send Princeton to the Sweet Sixteen in the 2023 NCAA Tournament, and Helix High, less than a half hour away from UCSD, produced arguably the greatest college basketball player ever, UCLA’s three time national player of the year, the late, great Bill Walton. In 1977, the socially conscious big man led the Portland Trail Blazers to what remains their sole NBA championship.


But there is a parallel streak, one of “what-ifs” and wistfulness, stealthily running alongside the saga of hoops in San Diego, serving as a constant reminder of the great deal that remains unfulfilled. The Clippers were here, from 1978 to 1984, until, suddenly, they weren’t. Walton won a title, then NBA MVP in 1978, then got banged up, wound up on the Clippers (hooray!), and missed nearly 70 games his first year as his post-injury career never completely recovered.


The Basketball gods have rarely been kind to the Clippers, and large swaths of the team’s history have often resembled a divine vendetta of sorts against Donald Sterling and the “stepchildren” of Los Angeles basketball: injuries to Danny Manning, Olowokandi, Kaman, Livingston, and to this day, Kawhi and Paul George, darkly loom over the franchise’s past. In 2002, the Sacramento Kings should have made the NBA Finals, but in Game 6 of the conference finals, former Torrey Pines Falcon and Kings center Scot Pollard fouled out in just 11 minutes of action. The Kings lost the game, then lost again in Game 7, and decades later, many believe Game 6 to be the worst ever officiated — some even going as far as to accuse the league of rigging the outcome in favor of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers. Though the general consensus ultimately remains that the Kings got hosed by the whistle, Pollard makes no excuse. “That series, ultimately, we lost it, because we went home and we didn’t recover and we lost Game 7.”


Majestic and ever-changing, even through the difficult moments, reflects the tapestry that is basketball in America’s prettiest city. Like the ocean waves adjoining UCSD, the current seems to ebb back; Walton regularly sang San Diego’s praises and Dudley is still active in local charity work. John Olive spent the 1979 NBA season playing for the San Diego Clippers before taking up coaching, winning over 600 games (and counting) down the road at Torrey Pines High School — encountering on the way a set of twins, one of whom’s collegiate career would evolve into something that even he struggles grasping the entire gravity of to this day. To hear Pope, as accomplished a collegiate basketball player as few others, describe his UCSD journey in his own words is more akin to that of a walk-on: exuding gratitude at every turn, and expressing incredulousness at the way that these wonderful, magical events have unfolded. It seems as though even Bryce Pope keeps authoring the events of his destiny, nobody remains more surprised, and thrilled, by what promises to come next than the composer himself.


“Yeah, I mean it went, you know, better than I ever thought it would or could,” Pope admits, on his UCSD journey. “You know, I think I always felt like I was in a really good really fortunate spot, you know, I had some things go my way, just, you know, as far as roster wise we had some guys leave at certain times that helped me, felt like every time I kind of got lucky in situations…”


Then, the walk-on tone drops.


After years of walking the walk, Bryce Pope talks the talk. 


The talk of a superstar. 1,611 points, 104 games started. 


“… but, yeah, I mean, I’d like to think I was one of the best players to ever play at UC San Diego. In my opinion, I’m the best player ever, but I don’t think that’s a crazy statement. I think a lot of people would agree with that, so, yeah, it’s definitely surreal and, you know, cool that I’ll always have that going forward with my life.”

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About the Contributor
Hana Tobias
Hana Tobias, Photographer
Hana is a fourth year Cognitive Science major.
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