After three years of dominating the Big West Conference, the Pacific men’s basketball team now finds itself in the unfamiliar stage of rebuilding.
The Tigers (5-10 overall, 2-1 in the Big West) have put together three consecutive 20-win seasons, a stretch that includes a 47-3 conference record and three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. Despite losing last season’s top three scorers to graduation, Head Coach Bob Thomason scheduled a tough slate of nonconference games to get his inexperienced team ready for another run at a Big West title.
“This is probably our toughest road schedule since I’ve been at Pacific,” Thomason said. “It’s a great schedule, and it will be very challenging. It will develop our team and will hopefully carry over and help us do well in the Big West.”
Pacific lost only 12 games in the last two seasons, but the Tigers are already approaching that mark this season as they went 5-9 in nonconference play. The difficult schedule proved to be too much for a team that lost 57 percent of its scoring from last season as seniors forward Christian Maraker, guard Johnny Gray and guard Mike Webb combined for 42.9 points per game. The trio made a habit of playing their best in big games, including a combined 58 points in a double-overtime loss to Boston College in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament. The loss of Maraker will hurt the most, as the reigning Big West Player of the Year and All-American led last year’s team with 17.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
“They lost a ton of players the year before, too, but the thing is, they didn’t lose Christian Maraker,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They don’t have that level of player coming back this year, but they do have some very good players.”
With last season’s trio gone, this season’s team has looked to a couple of returning Big West All-Freshman team members to shoulder the scoring load. Sophomore forward Anthony Brown leads the team with 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, while sophomore guard Steffan Johnson is averaging 11.2 points and a team-high 4.5 assists per game. Johnson has been joined in the backcourt by surprising freshman guard C.J. Morgan, who is third on the team in scoring at nine points per game.
Despite their youth, the Tigers still received plenty of preseason respect as they finished first in the Big West Coaches’ Poll and second in the media poll. While the slow start to their season and the hot starts from UCSB and Cal State Fullerton have dampened expectations a bit, the Tigers are still firmly entrenched in the Big West title hunt. The nonconference losses did not look good on paper, but they did allow a young team to grow and prepare for a conference season where every opponent will still circle their date with Pacific on the calendar.
“Their record isn’t important at all right now because they’re going to be a good team,” UCSB junior guard Alex Harris said. “They’re an outstanding program with a great coaching staff. [Thomason] is brilliant and he’s going to work with them to make them effective. They’ve got a winning tradition and they’ve kind of got it rolling right now in the Big West.”
With conference play finally getting under way, the Tigers are once again in their comfort zone. Pacific has won 94 percent of its conference games over the last three years, including a perfect 18-0 record in 2004-05. The Tigers defeated Cal State Northridge 68-64 on Dec. 30, 2006 to win their conference opener behind 21 points and nine rebounds from Brown. Seniors center Michael White and forward Anthony Esparza added 14 points to the effort, in what could end up being an ominous sign for the rest of the Big West.
In their first road win of the season against Riverside (3-13, 0-4 Big West), Pacific was able to shoot 53.3 percent from the field in their 62-49 win. Brown’s game-high 18 points and career-high 15 rebounds led the Tigers to their second straight conference win. The Highlanders were held to just 34 percent shooting from the field and a meager 20 percent from beyond the three-point arc as junior guard Larry Cunningham’s team-high 13 points could not carry Riverside past the streaking Tigers.
The road into Northridge proved more formidable for the Tigers, who could not overcome a 16-point first half deficit before the final buzzer. Pacific was held to 33.3 percent shooting from the field in the first half and even with Brown’s fifth double-double of the season, the Titans were able to hold on for the 76-70 win behind senior guard Bobby Brown’s game-high 21 points.
With Brown, Johnson and Morgan getting better every game, any significant contributions from the veterans on the squad would be a very good sign for the Tigers as they continue to improve.
“Last year, they got better and better as the year went on, and I suspect the same thing will happen with them this year,” Williams said. “I don’t know if they’re the team to beat, but don’t count Pacific and Bob Thomason out.”
While this season’s team is not as good as the last few Pacific squads, the Tigers will still be a force to be reckoned with as the season progresses. After three years of being hunted by the rest of the Big West, the Tigers have now become the hunters.