Even though Pacific's basketball season will probably be remembered as Bob Thomason's retirement tour, the longtime Tigers coach insists he'd prefer the focus to be on anything besides him
Thomason's goal before he retires at the end of the season simply is to help Pacific maximize its potential this season and build momentum entering next year's transition from the Big West to the WCC.
The Tigers have made great strides the past two days with upset victories over previously undefeated Xavier and Saint Mary's in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the DIRECTV Classic in Anaheim. Those two wins have earned Pacific a title game appearance against Cal, quite an accomplishment for the Tigers considering Big West teams were only 4-11 in the first five years of the Anaheim tournament.
"How many times does a Big West team have a chance to win one of these preseason tournaments?" Thomason said Friday evening. "We're the first team to be in the winner's bracket from the Big West. To be in the finals is a positive thing, and to win it, with all the teams in this tournament and how well-coached these teams are, it would be fantastic."
Few would have projected Pacific would be in this position as recently as three days ago because the Tigers were off to a slow start. They lost 19 games during a rare rebuilding season last year, they were projected to finish in the middle of the Big West this season and they dropped their first two games against Division I opponents to Fresno State and Oral Roberts.
Thomason took some positives from both those losses, noting how competitive his team was in both.
Pacific led Fresno State by one with three minutes to play before the Bulldogs' defensive pressure forced a couple key turnovers and fueled an 8-0 run to seal a 66-61 victory. Then the Tigers were tied with Oral Roberts in the final two minutes only to see the Golden Eagles score on back-to-back possessions to eke out a 69-67 road win.
"We played pretty good at Fresno," Thomason said. "We were up with three minutes to go, but their pressure bothered us. It was our first road game and we didn't pass the ball the way we should have. We missed a couple shots, they made a couple shots and they won the game. And then Oral Roberts is really good. They're as good as any of these teams we played in Anaheim."
Perhaps the experience of a pair of close games helped Pacific in this week's tournament.
Trevin Harris scored 16 points and Pacific shot 56.9 percent from the field as the Tigers built a nine-point final-minute lead on Thursday and held off Xavier 70-67. The following day, Pacific blitzed Saint Mary's with a 24-6 run midway through the second half, building a 19-point lead that held up for a 76-66 victory.
Although point guard Lorenzo McCloud scored 18 points and the Tigers shot an efficient 53.1 percent from the field, the key to Friday's win was the defense on Saint Mary's star Matthew Dellavedova. The Aussie point guard only scored 16 points and attempted just 10 shots largely because Pacific trapped or switched every ball screen, forcing someone else to beat them.
Dellavedova's teammates didn't give him enough help, Saint Mary's got frustrated and it affected the Gaels' defensive effort during the decisive Pacific spurt.
"I'm really proud of how we played," Thomason said. "Last year, I just had a whole new team. We played pretty good, but we weren't a great team last year. We just didn't have the depth. This year, we added depth, and that's made all the difference in the world."
It has been a while since Thomason's program has earned two bigger wins than the ones it has notched in Anaheim this week. Pacific contended for the Big West crown for more than a decade in the 1990s and 2000s, but the program slipped toward the middle of the league in recent years and fell further last season after the top 10 scorers from the previous year departed.
This Pacific team lacks a go-to threat or even a set rotation at this point, but it has the depth and guard play to challenge Big West favorite Long Beach State and fellow contenders UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.
What Thomason is hoping is these two wins and perhaps another strong performance against Cal on Sunday will be the jolt of confidence his team needs to believe it can win the Big West.
"Last week, I thought we were playing like we thought we were good enough but we weren't sure," Thomason said. "Hopefully back-to-back wins against good programs and good teams can give us that feeling that we belong."