“I guess all you can really learn from a loss like that is to copy everything they do and do it yourself,” UCSB men’s basketball Head Coach Bob Williams said Feb. 5 after watching his Gauchos fall by 30 to Utah State.
It sounded condescending and cynical at the time, but maybe there was more to Williams’ desperate answer to the understood question. Maybe there is merit to the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em mantra, and maybe when Williams goes to shake Pacific Head Coach Bob Thomason’s hand tonight after what will more than likely be the Tigers’ 17th win in a row, he should ask Thomason, “So, what’s the secret?”
It’s the secret every mid-major coach wants to know: How do you transcend a system that, consciously or unconsciously, endeavors to disable the little guy? It seems that Thomason has done this, at least for the time being. His squad is now ranked #19 in the nation and is looking at a return to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year that could very well take them further than their second-round dismissal of last year.
What might even be more valuable to Thomason’s program are the nationally televised games his program has been awarded for its success. Saturday, the Tigers will be featured in ESPN’s “Bracket Buster,” which should make recruiting a bit easier up north with the added exposure.
“To get on ESPN is not easy for mid-level teams; to have a home game and to have a feature game I think is great,” Thomason said. “With our team ranked, I think the publicity we’re going to get is awesome.”
What would appear to be the ultimate destination for a mid-major program is even farther north in eastern Washington where Gonzaga University has forged a program that can’t even be considered a mid-major anymore. At Gonzaga, nearly every game is televised regionally, and many are televised nationally. The student body, in cohesion with the community, thinks basketball and little else.
This year though, Gonzaga is not alone in its mid-major conference in contending for an at-large berth in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. St. Mary’s, Pepperdine, San Francisco and Santa Clara all have built formidable resumes out of the humble West Coast Conference (WCC), and the conference that once was known as “Gonzaga’s League” is now the conference with the highest percentage of teams with winning overall records.
“I think what happened [was] the bar had to be raised by the other coaches in the conference to compete with Gonzaga,” Thomason said. “I think they’ve just raised the bar in recruiting and working hard and attracting people who want to beat Gonzaga and the league’s doing well.”
With the increased competition in the WCC, Gonzaga shouldn’t have as much trouble making a case for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, a privilege Pacific will probably go without in the coming weeks coming from the Big West, considering the conference’s #18 RPI ranking as a whole. Will Thomason be lending his support to any other teams in the Big West though?
“No. It comes in cycles. [A team] like Santa Barbara [that has] had a lot of injuries this year, they’re not that far away, they’ll get their guys back next year and start being competitive,” Thomason said. “But if everyone sees that we can do it, they probably will think that they can do it over the next couple of years. I think that will give everybody a lot of energy and enthusiasm to try and upgrade and I think our conference can be like the WCC in a few years. It’s just going to take three or four years of hard work.”
So it might take a little more pestering to get the advice out of Thomason. Maybe what Williams should instead whisper is, “Help me help you.”