In his second season, Damon Stoudamire has the Pacific Tigers on the rise in the West Coast Conference.
VIDEO FEATURE: Click Here to check out the segment on the Pacific Tigers back in December.
Pacific has won six of nine games to surge into a tie for third in the West Coast Conference standings. For head coach Damon Stoudamire, in his second year rebuilding the program, the turning point occurred after a 67-66 win over BYU on Jan. 3rd.
“Until they feel in their mind what you’re saying is golden, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying,” Stoudamire said. “They saw if we played together and did everything the right way we could beat anybody.”
The Tigers bottled the confidence they found on their Spanos Center home court that evening and carried it along through the WCC regular season race. With only seven scholarship players on the roster, and each one playing a critical role in the rotation, Stoudamire is somewhat surprised how quickly the Tigers have jumped from bottom feeder to contender.
“Each one of our guys, I don’t think they understood how hard you have to play. Man, you have to play hard. The one thing about the mid-major level of basketball, this is the nuts-and-bolts of it. Toughness will win you games, you have to be mentally tough, prepared for the grind. It ain’t the bells and whistles of it. They’ve developed a toughness they didn’t have at the beginning of the year and that’s one reason we’ve been able to jump out there and win some games.”
Stoudamire walked into a shaken hornet’s nest when he took over the Tigers after a lucrative 13-year NBA playing career and five seasons as a college assistant at Memphis and Arizona, where he is one of the best players in program history.
Infractions committed by former Pacific coach Ron Verlin led to recruiting restrictions and probation (which the program served in 2015-16) handed down by the NCAA last September. Pacific enjoyed a sterling 25-year run under Bob Thomason, the Big West Conference’s career victories leader. He retired after steering the Tigers to the NCAA tournament during his final season, 2012-13. His longtime assistant, Verlin, took over as the program joined the WCC, making a significant upgrade in competition, especially in the top tier.
The hierarchy within the WCC is clear. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are the class of the conference, competing annually for the title. The Zags have competed in 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments, trailing only Kansas, Duke and Michigan State for the longest streak, and were the national runner-up last season. Saint Mary’s has averaged 26 wins per season since 2007-08 and is 47-7 vs. its conference rivals the last three seasons, losing four times to Gonzaga. BYU is the third heavyweight, enjoying a rich tradition that includes eight NCAAs in the last 12 seasons under coach Dave Rose.
A Portland native, Stoudamire has followed Gonzaga’s rise since its initial lift under coach Dan Monson and through Mark Few’s impressive tenure. He’s become equally familiar with BYU and Saint Mary’s, their veteran coaches and rich tradition.
“All three have their own niche, know exactly type of player they want, who to identify in recruiting. I study a lot, I’ve seen the rise of Gonzaga, starting with coach Monson and moving on up,” Stoudamire said. “Randy Bennett found his niche with Australian players, putting an emphasis on skill development and shooting. BYU is one of the more underrated schools. The kids they have are tough-minded kids, physical bunch, come back from missions as grown men.”
That’s what made beating the Cougars in the third conference game of the season so satisfying. It’s Pacific’s only victory in 11 games against the Big 3 during Stoudamire’s two seasons. And nine of the defeats have come by double-digit margins. But the Tigers received contributions up-and-down the lineup, including a key jumper and two free throws from Jahlil Tripp, who is in his first year with the Tigers, as are the team’s other two double figure scorers, Roberto Gallinat, a junior college transfer, and Miles Reynolds, who played two seasons at Saint Louis.
“Once they mature a little bit more they’ll be even better,” Stoudamire said. “There’s always a immaturity at time when you get junior college players. They’re great kids. It’s no big deal, and that’s our job to help them become more mature.”
It’s a process and taking the Pacific program to unprecedented places in the WCC won’t be easy. To reach the top tier, a team has to remove another team that already enjoys living there.
Stoudamire, 44, certainly isn’t coaching for the money - he earned $100 million in his playing career according to sports-reference.com - instead, he’s committed to not only teaching kids the game of basketball but molding them into productive, responsible, successful men.
In his second season, he’s better adjusted to the responsibilities required of a mid-major coach and has adapted to the transition from assistant to head man.
“It’s definitely not as easy as we all think it is when we’re assistants sitting over there giving a hundred suggestions,” he said.
The benchmarks that define success for a coach in charge of a rebuilding project remain within reach. The Tigers are 7-5 in the WCC and 12-13 overall. With four of their final six league games against teams in the bottom half of the standings and also four of six at home, they are in position to finish with winning overall and conference records for the first time in five years. A postseason bid would be within reason.
If, in a year or two, the Tigers turn heads across the nation by joining the West Coast Conference elite, rest assured Stoudamire will remember a one-point win over BYU as the game that propelled his program.