Entering the heart of Big West league play, the University of the Pacific men’s basketball team has reason for optimism. The Tigers have started the season 8-5 and, after their first conference game, are atop the Big West standings early on for the second year in a row.

In its first Big West game, Pacific hosted Cal State Northridge on Saturday, Jan. 2. The game was a rematch of the Big West tournament championship game from a year ago in which Northridge prevailed. However, this year, the Tigers flipped the script, earning the victory over the Matadors 52-43.

In the win, the Tigers were led by junior forward Pat Eveland, who scored 14 points, including four three-pointers, despite playing only 20 minutes. Senior forward Joe Ford also had his most effective game of the season, posting 10 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and two assists on 5-of-5 shooting from the field.

Thus far, Pacific has been extremely impressive, posting wins over quality teams and even winning the annual West Coast Classic Tournament. After discarding Santa Clara and San Diego State in home victories, the Tigers met Fresno State on the road in the title game of the tourney.

In the championship game, Pacific prevailed, beating the Bulldogs 70-58, thanks in large part to stellar three-point shooting and new scoring career-highs by two of its players. The Tigers hit a season-best 10 threes, shooting 10-of-26 from the great beyond. Junior guard Demetrece Young had a career high 18, and Eveland shot 5-of-6 from beyond the arc to finish with a personal career best of 17.

Young joined fellow junior guard Terrell Smith as the two Tigers to earn West Coast Classic All-Tournament Team honors. Smith averaged 14 points per game in the tournament, shooting 60 percent from the field. Young averaged 12.7 points per game in the Classic, including 7-of-13 from beyond the arc.

If there is such thing as a quality loss, Pacific has had its fair share this year. After losing a heartbreaker in the final 11 seconds against San Jose State on Nov. 28, the Tigers ran off two straight victories, including the West Coast Classic championship game win over Fresno State, before losing to preseason Pac-10 favorites California Golden Bears.

The home loss to the Bears (9-5, 1-1) on Dec. 9 was played at Stockton Arena, the Tigers’ first home game away from the regular Alex G. Spanos Center since 1981. Counted at 8,704, the crowd marked a new attendance record for a Pacific home game.

The Tigers’ third loss of the year came at the hands of a very good Saint Mary’s College squad. The Gaels are currently atop the West Coast Conference standings with a 13-2 non-conference record, and have posted quality victories over San Diego State and Utah State.

In its fourth preseason loss, Pacific fell to Santa Clara (8-9), who evened the season series between the two schools with a late-game 54-53 victory over the Tigers.

The latest loss for Pacific came on Dec. 29 at the hands of a very good 12-2 Oklahoma State team. The Cowboys represented the very strong Big 12 conference with a decisive 66-50 win over the Tigers.

Although losses are never looked upon favorably, the competition to which the Tigers have yielded could help the squad later in the year. With tough road games under its belt, Pacific may be less likely to fold in pressure situations deep in Big West play.

Leading the Pacific Tigers for the 22nd consecutive year is veteran head coach Bob Thomason. Thomason is currently the second winningest coach in Big West history, behind the legendary Jerry Tarkanian, who led the former Big West powerhouse UNLV Runnin’ Rebels to four Final Fours and one national championship. Last year, Thomason passed Tarkanian for most wins in Big West play, with 209 career victories.

The Tigers, if they are to achieve their lofty goals set for the season, must replace several key players from last year’s squad. Michael Kirby, a second team Big West selection as a guard, left the team via graduation. Furthermore, forwards Anthony Brown and Bryan LeDuc, a pair of All-Big West honorable mentions, with LeDuc also winning the sixth man of the year award, have departed and must be replaced if the Tigers are to improve on their 10-6 league record from 2008-09.

However, returning for the Tigers is the reigning Big West defensive player of the year, Joe Ford. Along with Ford, this year’s team has been led by junior forward Sam Willard, who leads the team in scoring, with 10.5 points per game and in rebounding with 7.8 boards per game, which is good for fourth best in the conference.

Armed with a roster that features nine upperclassmen, including three seniors, Pacific just may have the depth and experience to compete for a Big West title.