Khalil Kelley (center with ball) and the Tigers Can Make A Strong First Impression in the WCC With a Win Over St. Mary's on Monday
At first, I wasn't totally sure about the decision to include Pacific in the WCC starting this season. For the longest time, the prime candidate to round the conference number at 10 seemed to be Seattle University, who used to be a basketball powerhouse (Elgin Baylor went to Seattle) and were looking to rekindle some of their lost luster with the hire of Cameron Dollar and the move from Division II to Division I a few years back. Add that with the fact that they were also a Jesuit Catholic school (like USF, Santa Clara, LMU and of course, Gonzaga), the move seemed natural for the Redhawks.
Instead, the school in the Northern California from the Big West was given the invitation, not Seattle, and while the "non-Catholic" school count in the WCC rose to three (including Pepperdine and BYU), the decision so far to include the Tigers seems to have been a sound one. The Tigers, under first year coach Ron Verlin are 9-2 to start the year with wins over Utah State (ranked 72 in KPR), Fresno State (154 in KPR) and UC Irvine (110 in KPR). While the Tigers were blown out by Oregon and Princeton (lost by 20 plus in both contests), they have showed that they should be taken seriously in conference, even though the WCC is a big step up in competition over the Big West.
Pacific will get a chance to make a statement on Monday against a St. Mary's squad that is reeling after three straight losses in Hawaii (South Carolina, Hawaii and George Mason) at the Diamond Head Classic. The Gaels continue their holiday travels on the road, and going to Stockton won't be a walk in the park for this 9-3 Randy Bennett-led squad. After all, both San Diego and BYU had their troubles in their first conference road contests of the year, as they dropped games to underdog squds Pepperdine and LMU, respectively. While it will be difficult to say how the home environment at the Spanos Center will be with this Christmas Break still in progress, it won't be an easy contest for a Gaels team that is probably road weary after a lot of travel and a rough tournament showing in Hawaii. Even Ken Pomeroy thinks this game has tremendous potential, as he rates it as the 4th best game of the day with a thrill score potential of 56.6.
But, this really isn't about the Gaels. Yes, the Gaels need a win to rebound after a tough stretch. They need to stay ahead early on in conference play, especially since the conference seems so wide open with BYU's recent loss and the Zags struggling in the post with Sam Dower out due to injury. That being said, this game is equally important to the Tigers. With a win, they suddenly have a chance to snag a WCC crown that many people thought was well out of their reach in the preseason. With a loss, they may prove again to be another WCC team that feasted from a relatively soft non-conference schedule.
So what are the Tigers' chances in this one? Ken Pom has this one close, as he projects a 74-73 win in favor of the Gaels, and gives the Tigers a 45 percent chances of winning. Those are good odds for the Tigers, even better than the odds the Lions had going into Saturday's contest against the Cougars. But, looking past the individual game itself, this is a vastly different Tigers squad from previous squads under long-time coach Bob Thomasen, and it'll be interesting to see if this "new-look" Tigers squad can continue to develop and earn a big-time win under their first-time head coach.
Verlin was a long-time assistant under Thomasen, so he is familiar with the program and the style that Tigers have preferred over the years. Under Thomasen, the Tigers were a slow-it-down team, their pace usually ranking in the low 60's on an annual basis. This year, with full-control of the reigns, Verlin has elected to speed it up, as the Tigers have increased their Tempo to 68.7, which is higher than anything Thomasen has done since 2003 (the furthest Ken Pom's stats go back). The plan to play a faster-kind of ball has worked well to the Tigers' advantage, as they have been efficiently offensively, as evidenced by their 109.0 Adjusted Offensive rating, which is 69th best in the nation. They have shot the ball well beyond the arc this year (38.3 percent, 58th best in the nation), and have been overall a pretty solid shooting team, as evidenced by their 51.4 effective field goal percentage, which is just outside the Top-100. The faster pace has also made this Tigers a deeper team as well, as Verlin has relied heavy on his bench this year, as he utilizes his reserves 37.1 percent of the time. Considering how heavy Gonzaga and SMC have relied on their starters this year, the deeper Tigers may have an advantage over the long course of the season thanks to the experience the reserves earned during their non-conference slate.
Offensively this is a better team than the one that made the tournament a year ago (they had a 104 rating last year). But defensively, there are still issues that make one wonder how "real" the Tigers are. Last season, the Tigers ranked in the Top-100 in steal and block percentage. This season? They are 139th in block percentage and 269th in steal percentage. They have some size on their team, as evidenced by their +1.3 effective height rating and the presence of players such as 6-10 senior Tim Thomas (who leads the team in block percentage at 5.9 percent) and 6-8 forwards Tony Gill and Khalil Kelley. That being said, how the Tigers will adjust on the defensive end of the court may be the key to whether or not they separate themselves from middle of the pack in the WCC. The WCC has a lot of offensively-proficient squads, with St Mary's and Gonzaga continuing that tradition (both rank in the Top 15 in Adjusted Offense), and San Francisco displaying amazing ability and efficiency on the offensive end (they rank 31st) if not on the defensive side of things (317th in adjusted defense). Pacific certainly can play with the best of them in the WCC when it comes to putting the ball in the hoop. Whether or not they can prevent other conference teams from putting the ball in the hoop will determine whether they are a possible 20-win squad, or just another middling team that hovers around .500.
There is some talent on this Tigers squad that makes a possible WCC crown possible. 6-7 senior Ross Rivera leads the team in offensive efficiency at 118.1, highlighted by a 60.6 true shooting percentage and 40.8 free throw rate (made better by his 90 percent FT percentage). Kelley has been a beast on the offensive glass, as he is posting a 16.4 offensive rebounding rate, 25th best in the nation. And though senior guard Samu Taku hasn't necessarily been the most efficient player on this Tigers squad (96 offensive rating), he has improved from a year ago (91 offensive rating) and his numbers should improve if he can find the better shooting touch he displayed from a year ago (37.1 eFG percentage this year in comparison to the 43.5 percent he shot last year).
Sometimes, when a long-term assistant takes over a program, their are some growing pains and some coaches rarely realize the success of their predecessor and mentor. Ed DeChellis (who took over at Rhode Island for Jim Harrick) and Bruiser Flint (who took over at UMass for John Calipari) are prime examples of long time assistants who couldn't match their former coach's success. Verlin has a long way to go, and as stated before, the Tigers feasted on a non-conference schedule that probably could make even the most mediocre of coaches look good. That being said, St. Mary's will be a good barometer check not only for Verlin, but this Tigers squad in general. An upset win, and Pacific will announce to the WCC world that their seasons debut may be the start of something special for years to come.