Underhyped Pacific rolling again
Quick, name the D-I school that has the fewest losses since Jan. 1, 2004.
Illinois? Duke? Kansas?
Here's a hint: The team's own head coach didn't know.
Old Dominion's rise.
The answer is the University of the Pacific, which has gone a remarkable 35-4 in that span, with two of those losses against nationally-ranked Kansas.
Even with a winning percentage just shy of .900 since the start of last year, the Tigers have been almost completely under the national media radar.
All it took was 23 straight Big West Conference victories, 12 straight wins overall and an RPI of 26 to start getting attention from people outside of the state of California. The Tigers are now knocking on the door of the Top 25 -- they were 27th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll and 28th in the AP poll this past week.
Long gone in Stockton are the days of Michael Olowokandi dominating the paint, but a pair of foreign players (and a seven-senior roster) are key components to this year's Tigers team, as well. Junior forward Christian Maraker from Varberg, Sweden, leads the Tigers in scoring (15.1) and rebounding (6.7). Not bad for a guy who had never heard of Pacific prior to being recruited by Thomason during a preseason exhibition trip to Sweden.
"I ended up playing against him and I had a good game, so we ended up talking afterwards and he offered me a scholarship," Maraker said. "I had no idea about Pacific. I had only heard of the big-time schools like Duke and North Carolina."
Thomason didn't have to go quite as far to find senior center Guillaume Yango.
Yango, originally from Paris, wasn't even a starter at JuCo power College of Southern Idaho. However, he flourished with Pacific at the end of last season, averaging 17.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in his last seven games. He's averaging a solid 11.9 points along with 6.7 boards this year.
Throw in forward Tyler Newton, a lanky 6-10 senior, and you are looking at a formidable frontline.
"I don't think there is anyone with a starting lineup of 6-9, 6-9, and 6-10 out there," head coach Bob Thomason said.
In the backcourt, replacing Big West Player of the Year and All-America honorable mention guard Miah Davis, is senior David Doubley, who shifted to the point guard position this season.
"What most people don't know is that David was injured for most of last season and wasn't able to do some of things he could have," said Thomason. "He doesn't have the speed that Davis had but he has other skills that he does very well."
The healthy Doubley is second on the team in scoring (12.6) and first in assists (4.4) but, more important, is the general on the floor that every successful team has.
"He's a good point guard who can score and also pass the ball and we need him on this team," Yango said.
Pacific all but sealed the Big West regular-season title with a 66-62 road victory over second-place Cal State Northridge last Thursday night in front of a sellout crowd at the Matadome. At 16-2 overall and 10-0 in conference, the Tigers hold a three-game lead over Northridge with eight conference games remaining.
Even more, they sit 3½ games ahead of dangerous Utah State, last year's regular-season co-champs.
|“||There is no reason why we shouldn't get an at-large bid. ”|
|— Pacific coach Bob Thomason|
As such, the buzz has now turned from a conference title to a possible at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. The Big West historically has been a one-bid conference (as evidenced by last season's snub of a Utah State team that went 25-3 before losing to the Matadors in the semifinals of the conference tournament). But with an RPI of 24 and a non-conference SOS of 28, the Tigers could have a backup plan in case they slip in the Big West tournament.
"There is no reason why we shouldn't get an at-large bid," Thomason said. "They talk about teams like St. Mary's and Southern Illinois, yet they overlook us. We are a good team and we have the ability to be a great team by the time the NCAA Tournament rolls around."
After going 17-1 in conference play last season, the Tigers defeated Northridge in a 75-73 thriller in the Big West tournament final, earning them an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and a No. 12 seed. Pacific then proceded to upset No. 5-seed Providence and give Kansas a run for its money before fading in the second half.
Pacific has backed that run up this season against a challenging slate (the lack of which hurt Utah State in the eyes of the NCAA committee last season). The Tigers have defeated three WAC teams on the road (Nevada, Fresno State and San Jose State) along with dropping a rematch with the Jayhawks, in Lawrence, Kan.
A fourth WAC opponent is on the way. Pacific will face UTEP in the marquee game of ESPN's Bracket Busters series on Feb. 19.
"If we defeat UTEP, not only should we get the Big West title but the WAC title as well," joked Thomason, who would have preferred to play an opponent from a different conference, such as the Missouri Valley.
All jokes aside, Pacific is proving to be no joking matter.
Marcus Vanderberg is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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