Bob Thomason retired last spring after 25 seasons as the University of the Pacific’s basketball coach. He finished with a 437-321 record and has the most victories in school history.
So when his longtime assistant, Ron Verlin, took over the program, one had to wonder if the Tigers would experience growing pains with their new coach.
But Pacific is 8-1 entering today’s 7:30 p.m. game against Princeton (8-1) in the Holiday Hoops Classic at the South Point Arena and Equestrian Center. In the first game, Bradley (5-5) and Portland (6-4) will meet at 5.
Pacific, which left the Big West to rejoin the West Coast Conference this year after competing in the WCC from 1952 to 1971, has victories over UNR, Fresno State and Utah State, all Mountain West members. When asked if the Tigers joined the wrong conference, Verlin laughed.
“Nah, I don’t think so,” he said. “We’re really excited about being back in the WCC, playing with the other private schools. It’s a great fit for us, both on and off the court. And it’s going to be a challenge for us. We have to learn nine new schools while they only have to learn one.”
Verlin prepared for this opportunity for a long time, having spent 19 years with Thomason.
“He was a great person to work and play for,” Verlin said. “He had a great ability to pay attention to detail, and that’s something that our staff tries to do. We want to make sure we’re prepared as best we can be to play every night.”
Pacific starts five seniors, who all were recruited by Verlin. Led by a strong backcourt of Andrew Bock (12.6 points per game) and Sama Taku (12.0 ppg), the Tigers are an aggressive, attacking team that is drawing contact and often getting to the free-throw line, where they are shooting 78 percent.
“We work on our free throws every day,” Verlin said. “It’s funny, but one of the things we wanted to be was more aggressive in getting to the basket. We did a lot of one-on-one drills all spring and summer and into the fall, and as it turned out, we’ve drawn a lot of fouls and have done a good job at the line.”
Pacific also is playing quicker under Verlin than it did under Thomason. With five senior starters, he can afford to give them a looser rein.
“There’s no question there’s a trust factor involved,” Verlin said. “The guys have been able to execute, and that creates a positive environment, and they enjoy being able to play a little faster.”
■ NOTES — The tournament concludes Saturday, with Pacific and Bradley meeting at 5:30 p.m., followed by Portland and Princeton at 8. … A Division II men’s and women’s tournament will be contested both days beginning at noon. … Tickets cost $20.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal. 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.