Coach Stoudamire and his Pacific team getting better
For a coach who started with one hand tied behind his back, Damon Stoudamire is doing all right in his effort to build the program at Pacific in Stockton, California.
In his second season at the helm, the former Wilson High and Trail Blazers point guard has his Tigers 9-10 overall and 4-2 in West Coast Conference play after their 66-54 victory Saturday night at the University of Portland.
Pacific recently enjoyed the "the biggest win, no question" during Stoudamire's tenure at UP, a 67-66 thriller over Brigham Young at home The Cougars came into that game with a 13-3 record.
"That's a quality team, and Dave Rose is a great coach," Stoudamire says. "It was about as good a win as we could get."
Stoudamire is going with eight scholarship players — five below the NCAA limit — primarily as a result of Pacific's self-imposed sanctions after an NCAA investigation for academic improprieties. Coach Ron Verlin lost his job through the scandal, and Stoudamire inherited a team that had gone 8-20 in Verlin's final season, a program facing the loss of six scholarships over the next three years.
In his maiden voyage at Pacific last season, Stoudamire — in his first job as a head coach after nine years as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies and at Arizona and the University of Memphis — went 11-22 overall and 4-14 in WCC play. But the NCAA took back seven of those wins when it determined three of his players — all seniors — remained ineligible due to previous violations.
Pacific had its choice with how to distribute its six lost rides over the three years. Stoudamire opted to go with a full complement of players last season, then go four short this season and two under the limit during the 2018-19 campaign. It means the Tigers won't have a full complement of scholarship players until 2019-20.
The second-year coach kicked one of his scholarship players off the team prior to this season, meaning he is going with a decidedly short hand this winter.
"I have to be careful in terms of how I handle practices," says Stoudamire, 44. "I can't burn the guys out. I have to go back to my playing days and remember how it was going through a season.
"We have to get some work in, but I need the guys to be fresh in games even more. It's been challenging in one respect, but a blessing in another. I have a bunch of kids who want to be coached and allow me to push them to the limit."
Pacific has been blown out in a pair of road games, by Arizona State (104-65) and in its WCC opener at Gonzaga (81-48). Other than that, the Tigers have been competitive in every game. That with only three returning players — starters Miles Reynolds and Jack Williams and a seldom-used walk-on reserve — and eight newcomers.
"This has been a better year for me than my first one," Stoudamire says. "I've played a tougher schedule, so the record doesn't reflect it, but we're a better team.
"It's been difficult. I'm making do with what we have. But the kids have been just great. They've bought into what I'm trying to do. It's probably been an even greater learning experience for me than even being a first-year head coach."
In his two seasons on the job, Stoudamire has scoured the country for talent. Top scorer Robert Gallinat, a 6-3 junior guard, is from Atlanta. His backcourt mate, junior Reynolds, is a Chicago native. Stoudamire plucked sophomore forward Jahlil Tripp out of Brooklyn. Stoudamire's prominent 13-year NBA career pays off in the recruiting process.
"It's a relationship-driven business," Stoudamire says. "I have a name in a whole lot of places. I try to use all my resources. When I was an assistant at Memphis and Arizona, we recruited nationally. That makes it easier for me. We'll focus on California first, but I can recruit just about everywhere. Some of the kids wouldn't typically come to a Pacific if it wasn't for me."
Pacific has signed two players who will arrive for next season, both guards. Damian Wilson, a 6-5 transfer from Casper (Wyoming) College, and 6-2 Ajare Sanni from Houston will join the Tigers. Stoudamire also is looking to sign a post man.
The other starters this season are Williams, a 6-8 junior from Porter Ranch, California, and 7-foot senior Nambi Okonkwo, a Dallas native who transferred from Portland State.
"He has been a pleasant surprise," Stoudamire says of Okonkwo, who is averaging 5.4 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16.5 minutes. "I didn't know what I was getting. His numbers don't reflect what he's brought to the table.
"He catches everything around the rim and dunks it. He's a goaltender on defense. He has added a big dimension to the team. I'm happy for the kid."
Kendall Small, a 6-foot sophomore guard who transferred from Oregon, started 13 games but now is coming off the bench, averaging 8.3 points and 2.7 assists in 27.2 minutes.
"Kendall is getting better," Stoudamire says. "I may have put a little too much on him at first. He's settling into his role. He's still learning, but he's giving me good energy and production."
The Tigers are averaging 72.2 points per game and yielding opponents 74.5.
"I would love to play faster," Stoudamire says. "I'm also not a fool. We don't have a lot of depth. I'm going to play as it sees fit for my team. I'm not going to be stubborn. We'll play the way that gives my team its best chance to win.
"We need to play in the high 60s and low 70s. We're right there."
The Tigers are shooting only .312 from 3-point range, "but we're in the top 10 in the country in 2-point makes," Stoudamire says. "I'll take that. I'd love for us to shoot better, but we're not launching a bunch of 3's. The guys know their limits."
Pacific's new $1.5-million sports performance center, a state-of-the-art weight training and fitness facility that also features a practice court, opened in November.
"Not a lot of schools in our conference have that," Stoudamire says. "It's big, because kids nowadays want 24-hour access to the gym."
When hired, Stoudamire signed a five-year contract. After his first season, Pacific extended his deal another year, running his deal through the 2021-22 campaign.
"That was big," he says. "We've raised some money. Our profile is going to continue to be enhanced. We're building a better product. I have great support from the university, from my athletic director, from the community."
Staying patient, Stoudamire says, "is always going to be hard for me, but you have to see the bigger picture.
"Winning (against BYU) helped me," he says. "Now I have a nugget over those kids' heads. I can say, 'If you're doing the right things, you can beat good teams.' It's been a struggle at times, but we're on the right track."
Would Stoudamire one day enjoy to return to coaching in the NBA?
"I don't have a preference," he says. "Coaching is coaching. I like my situation. I can coach a little bit under the radar and learn from my own mistakes. I'm figuring out things on the run. If and when my time comes (to go to the NBA), I'll know it. For now, I'm enjoying every day, learning from my kids."