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Pacific’s WCC potential remains an intriguing open question

With a big name coach gone it’s now on Leonard Perry to get the Tigers back to their Big West best.

NCAA Basketball: Pacific at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Damon Stoudamire’s offseason in the headlines didn’t end when the Arizona job got filled. The Wildcat legend was a logical candidate to replace Sean Miller, with the sensible idea that he could take what he’d learned over five seasons in charge of Pacific and revive things in Tucson. Though Arizona ultimately went with Tommy Lloyd, the Tigers were nonetheless, in the end, needing to hire a new head coach.

Last week, Stoudamire accepted a position on childhood friend Ime Udoka’s staff in Boston, ending a successful run in Stockton. Pacific quickly elevated assistant Leonard Perry into the top spot, who brings with him continuity and experience after a five-year run at the helm of Idaho from 2001-06.

But how much are the Tigers losing in Stoudamire? Along with ex-Portland coach Terry Porter he was a piece of intrigue sprinkled within the WCC as a big-time name building methodically at a smaller program. Unlike Porter, Stoudamire had gotten results on the court with a 23-10 (11-5) campaign in 2019-20 that was Pacific’s best in its brief time in the WCC.

That in itself underscores that after losing Stoudamire, the Tigers are very much still finding themselves in their new home.

The program left the Big West in 2013 as a boom time era came to a close. Bob Thomason spent 25 years in charge at Pacific, racking up more wins than any coach in Big West history and making five NCAA Tournament appearances. Throughout that run the Tigers held up the mantle as the tough out from the BW, notching a 12/5 upset over Providence in 2004 and a win as an eight seed over Pitt the following year.

Thomason’s final trip to the NCAA Tournament came as he retired in 2013, and the Tigers moved into the WCC as a program more likely to win 20 games than not. Three sagging seasons under his replacement, Ron Verlin, ended with Verlin being let go amid a suspension and inquiry by the NCAA into academic fraud allegations.

In stepped Stoudamire, who had been a Memphis assistant, to try and put Pacific back into the competitive rung in a markedly more difficult league. The year the Tigers left the BW it finished 16h in the KenPom conference standings, with the WCC at 10th. That gulf has, quite clearly, remained that way in the year since, buoyed in part by Gonzaga’s dominance, but also clear to the naked eye.

The WCC is a tougher league even if the Zags are taken out of the equation. With them, Pacific is another program vying to join Saint Mary’s and BYU in the tier competing to be a challenger to the Spokane powerhouse. Over the last few years, San Francisco, San Diego, Pepperdine and others have shown glimpses of being steady contributors to one of the tougher mid-major leagues.

Pacific certainly wasn’t without its own talking points with a young, famous coach and recent history of NCAA Tournament success. Stoudamire had seemed to make that project a reality in that solid 2019-20 campaign, which was the first time the Tigers had registered a winning WCC record, and first time they’d reached 20 wins or more since Thomason’s farewell season in the BW.

He’d shown the ability to consistently get results on the defensive end, finishing in the top four in the WCC the past two seasons and recruiting two league DPOYs in Namdi Okonkwo (2017) and Jahlil Tripp (2020). Those were the program’s first league-wide individual awards since Joe Ford took home DPOY in the BW in 2009.

Overall, Tripp was a major feather in Stoudamire’s recruiting and development cap. After being recruited from the JuCo ranks in 2017, Tripp started 96 games over a three-year career in Stockton, ultimately becoming the Tigers’ lone first-team all-league player in the WCC era with a tremendous senior campaign in 2019-20 (16.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG).

This past season was a step back from a record standpoint (9-9, 6-7) with Tripp gone, but the Tigers did nonetheless finish with their best KenPom rating (117) during Stoudamire’s tenure. Keeping that momentum would have been task next season with plenty of roster turnover, but Pacific does get the benefit of continuity with a coach in Perry who would’ve been involved with recruiting players like Alphonso Anderson, Niquel Blake and Luke Avdalovic.

Perry talked about the appointment in a release.

“I’m proud, thankful, humbled and appreciative of being named the new men’s basketball coach for University of the Pacific,” Perry said. “Coach Stoudamire has done an amazing job building the foundation of this program, and it will be the responsibility of our staff and players to continue that progress. I greatly appreciate the support of the administration, and look forward to working with Janet Lucas to make this basketball program the best it can be.”

Where that foundation can lead in the WCC — still very much an open question — now rests on his shoulders.