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Thomason Inspires Pacific Success

Coach erases last season's disappointment and turns Tigers into Big West co-champions. They play in a semifinal tonight.

March 12, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Popular perception says the name synonymous with basketball at the University of the Pacific is Michael Olowokandi. But that wouldn't give Bob Thomason his due.

Granted, Olowokandi, a Nigerian-born center and eventual No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, took the coach to his first and only NCAA tournament in 1997. But the program is alive and well.

Pacific has the second-longest winning streak in the nation at 13 games. The Tigers enter tonight's Big West Conference tournament semifinal against Idaho with a regular season co-championship and the second seeding with a 22-7 record.

The Tigers were picked to finish eighth by the media and sixth by conference coaches. With Thomason's presence on the sidelines, however, some say their season is no surprise.

"One of the things he's good at is he's a great teacher of the game," said Adam Jacobsen, a former player and current assistant coach. "He knows the game as well as anybody and he has done an outstanding job throughout the year challenging our team.

"You look at great teams and they improve as the year has gone along. He's about developing relationships and being able to find ways to keep the team motivated."

The 55-year-old Thomason is a fixture in Stockton. He was an all-conference guard on the 1970-71 team that advanced to the NCAA tournament. After coaching on the high school and junior college levels, he spent three years as the coach at Cal State Stanislaus before returning to his alma mater in 1988.

Pacific has had a winning record in 11 of 16 seasons, including four 20-win seasons. This one may be the most rewarding for Thomason because he has won with a star guard (Miah Davis), a talented forward (Christian Maraker) and role players who rebound and play tough defense.

It makes up for a disappointing 2002-03 season in which the injury-riddled Tigers finished eighth in the Big West, leading to low preseason predictions.

"Our players had a sense that we were going to be a good team," Thomason said. "We had to prove it. If you want respect, you've got to earn it."

Davis, a senior from Bremerton, Wash., has led the way. He was the only player in the Big West to rank among the top 15 in eight categories. The result was his selection as conference player of the year.

In the last 12 games, Davis, a one-time Division II player at Stanislaus, has averaged 18.2 points, making 54.8% of his field goals and 46.4% of his three pointers.

"He's really kind of pushed us through a lot of tough times," Thomason said. "At one time, he was too unselfish almost to a fault. He had a pretty good intermediate shot but his decision-making wasn't great.

"Now he can shoot a three, pull up, go to the basket or find someone. It's just a matter of taking what the defense gives you and he's playing with a lot of confidence."

Said UC Riverside Coach John Masi: "The guy's a leader. When you've got that in a point guard, that's hard to beat."

The seeds of a fruitful year were planted early on. Their second game of the season was against powerhouse Duke in the opening game of the Great Alaska Shootout.

Duke broke open a tight game in the second half, building its lead to 22 points. Fueled by a game-high 24 points from Davis, Pacific stormed back to within eight before finally losing.

"I think we learned well from that game," Davis said. "We learned that any team could be beaten if we played our 'A' game. If you do what the coaches ask, the game is simple.

"It looked like they got a little scared. We're a mid-major and they're the No. 2 team in the nation at the time. I saw the confidence rise within our team."

Now the Tigers are the hottest team among the four left at the tournament. Masi said they and Utah State are the class of the conference.

"They have balance," he said. "You can't take away one thing and say that's going to stop them. They can take the ball to the basket, shoot the ball on the perimeter and they can post you inside. Not many teams in our league can say that."

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