After finally getting on the floor, Pope shining for Triton Cagers

Torrey Pines graduate Bryce Pope (4) is off to a solid start as a redshirt freshman at UC San Diego.
Torrey Pines graduate Bryce Pope (4) is off to a solid start as a redshirt freshman at UC San Diego.
(Derrick Tuskan/UC San Diego)

Even by today’s crazy standards, the last two years have been an unpredictable whirlwind for UC San Diego redshirt freshman basketball standout Bryce Pope.

In 2019, the 6-3, 185-lb. Pope and his twin brother, Michael, led Torrey Pines High School to a 25-7 record and on Feb. 23 the CIF Open Division championship in UCSD’s RIMAC Arena. In addition to the section title, his senior trophy haul included a second consecutive Avocado West League crown, Avocado West MVP and CIF Player of the Year. Following graduation in June, Pope, sporting a scholarship from Head Coach Eric Olen, was ticketed to continue his hoops and academic careers at UC San Diego.

In Pope, Olen envisioned a skill set that could mesh seamlessly with his up-and-coming Triton program.

“Bryce can score, has good touch and just a knack for making shots,” said Olen, now in his eighth season at the UCSD helm. “He has excellent body control and balance and can finish through contact. He plays hard, tough and consistent.”

As pre-planned, Pope redshirted his first year in La Jolla, training with the team but not eligible to participate in games. The Del Mar native had to settle for watching from the sidelines as UCSD romped through its final year at NCAA Division II, sporting a 31-1 mark, capturing CCAA regular season and tournament trophies as well as a No. 4 national ranking. Olen’s charges earned a No. 1 regional seed entering the NCAA Playoffs.

Then came February of 2020, the Covid-19 virus and the derailment of perhaps the best season in school history, not to mention the blueprint for Pope’s orderly collegiate transition. The 2020 NCAA Playoffs were canceled before they started and a 2020-21 season, UCSD’s first playing a Division I and Big West Conference schedule, originally figured for a November tip-off, didn’t finally get underway for the Tritons until Dec. 22.

Following last weekend’s two-game split vs. Big West foe UC Davis, the Tritons are 3-4 overall, having seen seven games canceled by Covid protocol. But one of the unexpected highlights of the campaign has been the play of Pope.

Presumed to be someone who would be getting most of his court time off the bench, Pope has catapulted himself into the starting lineup. Through those first seven games (all as a starter, averaging 26 minutes per), he’s UCSD’s second-leading scorer, hitting at an 11.0 point-per-game clip while shooting over 50%, pulling down 2.3 rebounds a contest and handing out 10 assists. Pope racked up a season best 21 points against defending Big West champ UC Irvine.

From Olen’s perspective, it’s not entirely surprising—part preparation, part circumstance. “Watching Bryce last year, I’m not surprised he’s making an impact but the minutes were not expected,” admitted Olen. “We didn’t see him starting this soon but this is also not necessarily the roster we expected to have.

“Then again, coming out of a school like Torrey Pines, he was ready for this. It helps to play high school ball for a coach who’s as good as a lot of college coaches. Coach (John) Olive does such a good job and his kids come out ready to play right away. They know how to execute offensively. Bryce was ready for what was in front of him. He plays to his strengths and that’s directly attributable to the coaching he got at Torrey Pines.”

Pope is an economics major with two brothers, both athletes. Twin Michael began his collegiate career as a walk-on at San Diego State and is still at the school as a student while plotting his next basketball steps. Charlie, three years older, is a junior on the San Jose State track & field/cross country teams.

His own collegiate career hopefully on a continued upward trajectory with the return to some type of normalcy, Pope spent time recently sharing his thoughts on a variety of topics including his redshirt experience, the differences between high school and college competition and playing through the Covid pandemic.

Q—What do you remember about the first game you played in RIMAC Arena as a senior at Torrey Pines?

POPE—It was definitely memorable. We played against Foothills Christian in the CIF championship game and it was a war—a physical, low-scoring game. During the season, we had struggled a little bit in those type of games but that night we got off to a good start, they made some runs but we had enough of a cushion and made enough plays down the stretch to win it. It was electric in the arena and a really good atmosphere.

Q—What drew you to UCSD out of high school and how do you enjoy playing at RIMAC Arena on a full-time basis?

POPE—A lot of things. First of all, UCSD is a great academic institution. Basketball and the entire athletic program have grown a lot and this year’s move to Division I and the Big West Conference was a big incentive.

It is also close to home so my friends and family will be able to go to games once the pandemic is behind us. I’m a local guy and San Diego is a great city. La Jolla is a beautiful location, right near the beach, and from the first time I played in RIMAC Arena, I thought it was pretty cool.

Q—What was it like to be part of history, beating UC Davis last week to give your school its first victory against an NCAA Division I opponent?

POPE—It felt really good, getting that first one under out belt. And to do it pretty convincingly against a good team like UC Davis made it extra special. Our coaches were really fired up. It was an exciting night for sure.

Q—What was your role last season as a redshirt, how did it help your game and what did you learn about where you needed to improve?

POPE—There were a lot of workouts, a lot of practices. It was tough, but I looked at the practices as my games and that kept me motivated. I wanted to show myself, prove myself and get better. Overall, it was a good experience and I felt like I improved a lot.

I think I got better in almost every area. In college, you quickly realize the pace is a little different than high school. The players are clearly better and everything is happening faster.

After my redshirt season, I used spring and summer to keep working on getting my body in even better physical shape. Specifically, I leaned out a little bit and improved my athleticism. Defense was also a point of emphasis, in particular becoming a better on-ball defender. Working on my body helped me improve defensively. At the other end, I concentrated on my three-point shooting. I feel like I made big strides there and came back much more confident in my shot.

Q—Once the current season actually started, were you expecting to be in the starting lineup and making this kind of contribution?

POPE—We came back to campus in September so we’d been practicing a lot before we actually played any games. Based on those practices, I saw that I could play a role on this team and wanted to be ready when the opportunity presented itself. I played well enough early to get a spot in the regular rotation but I guess maybe I was a little bit surprised to find myself in the starting five. I think that was the result of showing up ready to go.

Q—How difficult has the rollercoaster environment of redshirting, Covid-19 and everything that came with it been to navigate?

POPE—The whole Covid thing has definitely been tough. You’ve just got to find ways to keep yourself motivated. I love the game and knew putting in the hard work would eventually pay off. It’s started to.

Q—Do you have regular Covid testing and what’s the process?

POPE—We get tested often—several times a week. There are vending machines throughout campus that provide testing kits. A couple are in the arena so it’s very easy to do it before or after practice.

Thankfully, as a team we have not had any problems but a lot of the teams on our schedule have. We even had one game canceled the morning of.

Q—What do you like about Coach Olen?

POPE—He’s a players’ coach for sure, very relatable. He has a lot of confidence in us and lets you play through mistakes. If you’re not making shots, for the most part he’ll have faith that the next one’s going in.

He really takes his job seriously. He watches a lot of film, puts in the time and does everything he can to make us succeed. As far as his system, I really like it. It’s high octane, we play fast and shoot a lot of threes. I think my game fits well.

Q—How did you benefit from for Coach Olive at Torrey Pines?

POPE—Just the whole environment he built—it gets you ready for what’s ahead. He treated the Torrey Pines program like a college program—the way we watched film, prepared for opponents and all that type of thing. It was a smooth adjustment to college in that respect.

Coach Olive is one of the top high school coaches in the country. He’s coached and played at the highest level and seen it all. In tight games, he can be the separator, almost like having an extra player.

Q—What’s it feel like not having fans in attendance at your games?

POPE—Obviously, we would prefer there be fans in the arenas. There’s just so much more energy in the building when they’re there. It feels a bit unusual now but it doesn’t really change the flow of the game. When we’re playing, we’re so locked into the game you don’t notice a lot of what’s going on off the court. One thing I would say is that with the lack of noise, it’s much easier to communicate with the coaches.

Q—Based on what you’ve observed so far, how do you think UCSD stacks up in the Big West Conference?

POPE—Obviously, the Big West is a big step for our program. I like our group though. We’re still trying to figure some things out and get adjusted to the athletes at this level. That said, I’m optimistic that we’ll be winning some games this season and make ourselves felt in the conference.