COURTESY: WESTERN OREGON UNIVERSITY - Kadeem Strickland, a freshman guard from Jefferson High, has been a key reserve at point guard for Western Oregon, which is No. 1 in the NCAA Division II rankings.Maybe Jim Shaw should have been a head coach much earlier in his career?

In his first season with Western Oregon, where he attended and played in the early 1980s, Shaw has guided the Wolves of Monmouth to the top of the NCAA Division II men’s basketball rankings.

The Wolves reached No. 1 last week for the first time in school history, and then proceeded to handle business against Western Washington — rallying from 16 points behind — and Simon Fraser at Monmouth to move to 22-2 overall and 15-1 in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.

It has been a thrill for the Wolves, who are led by all-everything big man Andy Avgi, feature Jefferson High’s Kadeem Strickland as reserve point guard and have Shaw and assistant coaches with strong Portland and Oregon ties.

The Wolves do have some high hopes, such as winning the GNAC tournament, making and winning an NCAA regional and then going all the way to the championship.

“Yeah, but we don’t like to think about it,” Strickland says. “We don’t want to get our hopes up.

“We don’t really talk about (the national picture). We talk about our region and our league.”SHAW

In his first head coaching job, Shaw has lost only by four points to Central Washington — a GNAC team the Wolves later routed by 17 — and Pac-12 frontrunner Oregon, 88-60, when the Ducks’ speed, size and athleticism became too much to handle in the second half.

The Wolves have beaten UC-San Diego, Seattle Pacific twice and Alaska-Anchorage.

“I think we can compete with anybody we play on any given night,” Shaw says.

Western Oregon’s success starts with Shaw, although he inherited a great D-II player in Avgi, a former Woodburn High star.

Shaw coached the past two seasons with Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s, and the previous nine at Washington with Lorenzo Romar. At UW, he led the recruitment of the “Terrences” — Jefferson’s Terrence Ross and Terrence Jones. Ross played for the Huskies, and Jones went to Kentucky, and both play in the NBA. The Huskies won five Pac-10 championships and made the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 three times.

From 1994 to 1999, Shaw served as assistant coach to Rob Chavez at the University of Portland, helping the Pilots make the 1996 NCAA Tournament.

Earlier, Shaw was an assistant at Oregon State (1989-91), helping Jimmy Anderson and Gary Payton make the 1990 NCAAs. And he assisted at Chemeketa Community College, and the year after he left the Chiefs had a 33-0 record with a guard by the name of ... Pat Strickland, Kadeem’s father and Jefferson High coach.LEARY

Shaw’s WOU staff also has some Portland flavor. Graduate assistant Omar Leary played at Lincoln High and Oklahoma. Kegan Bone is the nephew of former PSU coach Ken Bone. Shaw played for Jim Boutin at Western Oregon, and Boutin is the all-time basketball great at Lewis & Clark. Gabe Palmquist-Clark was a Cleveland High basketball player.PALMQUIST-CLARK

Shaw also had stints at Oklahoma, Montana State, Southern Utah and Idaho State, his first job in 1986. Never had he been a head coach until the opportunity at his alma mater opened.

“I always wanted to be a head coach, and the biggest attraction (to WOU) was that I went to school here and played here,” says Shaw, a native of Chimacum, Wash. “They had talked with me a couple other times, when I was at Oklahoma and Washington. I didn’t feel the timing was right. The timing was right this time.

“I had always followed the program to a certain degree. I was a fan.”

The Wolves have seven seniors, and none more impressive than Avgi, a 6-6, 260-pounder. He earned GNAC most valuable player honors last year, and he’ll likely repeat after leading the Wolves to unprecedented heights. He’s averaging 22.0 points, shooting .574 (.422 on 3-pointers) and grabbing 5.9 rebounds.

“He’s an extremely different talent,” Shaw says. “He’s a phenomenal person. He’s the same guy every day. He has unbelievable hand-eye coordination. He has great touch; an outstanding 3-pointer shooter, free-throw shooter and really good around the basket. He puts it on the floor. He’s so wide and low to the ground.

“He’s probably a little more talented than I anticipated.”

Adds Strickland: “I’ve never seen anybody that big who can move that good and score that good. He’s kind of playing out of position (at center), too, but it’s to his advantage. He’s big and strong, and the bigs can’t post him up; on offense, they can’t stop him.”

Julian Nichols, the starting point guard ahead of Strickland, averages 12.1 points and 5.0 assists. Jordan Wiley, whose brother Drew played at Oregon, averages 10 points per game.

“We have a lot of good pieces. We play well as a team,” says Strickland, who’s averaging 4.2 points in 14.1 minutes.

The Wolves have had many games with few turnovers, and average only nine per game, emphasizing ball security. Says Shaw: “I do not like throwing the ball to the other team. I’d much prefer (a turnover) be a travel or illegal screen or a three-in-the-key.”

Overall, the Wolves have reached No. 1 because they have Avgi, veterans, good leadership, work ethic, shoot well and take care of the ball, Shaw says. Defense and rebounding, “we just try to survive. We still have room to get better.”

The Wolves have a lot of state of Oregon players, most from smaller communities: Avgi, Woodburn; Wiley, McKenzie; Tanner Omlid, Monmouth (Central High); Hunter Raglione, Corbett; Jordan Schriber, Tillamook; Connor Thompson, Glide; JJ Chirnside, North Valley; and big schoolers Strickland, Alex Roth (West Salem), Nick Nestell (Sheldon) and Isaiah Edwards (West Albany).

Strickland was heading to Holy Names University in Oakland, Calif., before hearing that Shaw had been hired at Western Oregon. He switched to the Wolves.

“I knew both sides of his family pretty well,” Shaw says, referring to Pat Strickland and Kadeem’s uncle Reggie Ball, a former PSU player. “He’s different than his dad. He’s a better shooter. His dad was a scrappy defender.”

Strickland likes to bring energy to the floor, and he has learned much from Leary, who played point guard at Oklahoma when the Sooners featured Blake Griffin.

“He’s a friend of the family. I know him pretty well,” Strickland says. “He works with me, gives me tips during practice.”

So, could history be in the making? The Wolves will play in the GNAC tourney at Saint Martin’s in Olympia, March 3-5. Eight teams, including three tourney champs, play in the NCAA Division II West Regional, March 12-15, and the high seed gets to host (rankings come out Wednesday). The regional winner plays in the eight-team NCAA Division II tournament, March 23-26 at Frisco, Texas.

“I’ve always looked at a season like a journey,” Shaw says. “I wanted us to be a work-in-progress from Day One. This group has a good attitude, good leadership, and they know what it means to be part of a team.”

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