First things first: A crash course on the University of the Pacific, the opponent the University of Miami Hurricanes will face at 2:10 p.m. Friday in their NCAA Tournament opener. Don’t call it Pacific University. That one’s in Oregon.
This Pacific campus is in Stockton, Calif., south of Sacramento. The school’s nickname is the Tigers, and it has an enrollment of 6,710. Among its notable alumni are Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, former Oakland Raiders coach Al Flores and Michael Olowokandi, a first-round pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. Singer Chris Isaak also is an alum, and actress Jamie Lee Curtis attended but didn’t graduate from there.
Now, about their basketball team. The Tigers finished the season 22-12 and won the Big West Conference tournament championship. They are on a seven-game win streak. They have only one player taller than 6-8, one win against an RPI top-50 team (Saint Mary’s) and their strength of schedule the is ranked No. 146 in the nation. Miami’s strength of schedule, by comparison, is ranked fifth.
The 15th-seeded Tigers are hoping to extend the career of their retiring coach Bob Thomason at least one more game.
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“That was one of my personal goals in the beginning of the year to make sure that coach will be able to leave on a great note,” said senior guard Lorenzo McCloud, the Tigers’ top scorer (11.4 points a game).
They are well aware that two No. 15 seeds won last March — Lehigh and Norfolk State — and that gives them hope.
But they know the odds are stacked heavily against them as they face the No. 2-seeded Hurricanes. UM is 27-6, ranked No. 5 in the nation, and swept the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles.
“Obviously, playing Miami is a great challenge,” Thomason said. “They’re probably one of the teams that can win a national championship. I have a lot of respect for Jim [Larrañaga], and we’ve got our hands full. We know that.”
He said a reporter recently asked him if he could design a team, what would he want?
Said Thomason: “I said, ‘I want a quick point guard that can shoot, penetrate and pass that’s got speed. I want two wings that are 6-5 and strong. One can really drive and score outside and one can shoot.’ Then, you want a 6-10 four man that can go inside and drive. And you want a couple big guys inside. I think I might be describing Miami.”
Despite the differences in pedigree, the Hurricanes and Tigers have some things in common. They are both experienced. UM starts four seniors. Pacific has seven seniors on its roster, and three of them start. Both teams have veteran coaches. Thomason started coaching in 1971 and is in his 25th season at Pacific. Larrañaga has been coaching since 1977.
Thomason has never met Larrañaga but has rooted for him from afar.
“Jim changed college basketball when he took George Mason to the Final Four,” Thomason said. “It opened up the door for mid-majors. I really like guys that paid their way in coaching, and now they get a chance to play at a large school and see their coaching take over. There’s probably some coaches I would rather not end my career losing to, but Jim’s not one of them.”
Although UM is a No. 2 seed and got plenty of national attention this season, you’d never know by the players’ demeanor. None has ever played in an NCAA Tournament. They are as humble and excited to be here as the Pacific players. They embrace the underdog role, even though they’re not underdogs anymore.
Heck, even their media guide is modest. Of the eight teams playing here, UM is the only one that doesn’t have a media guide with a color cover. The Canes have a black-and-white printed handout. No glossy pictures.
“We play best when we have a chip on our shoulder,” said UM sixth-year senior Julian Gamble, who got a Mohawk haircut for the big event and joked that he is trying to be intimidating like the Heat’s Chris Anderson. “We’re going to continue to play with that chip.”
Larrañaga and his players have studied the Tigers and said they expect set plays, an aggressive guard in McCloud and tenacity. Thomason appreciates the respect but is remaining realistic.
“I don’t think our individuals are going to bother Miami too much. They played against Duke, North Carolina, all these teams that have great players, great guys they know about. They’re used to all that. If they have a bad night, and we have a great night, you never know what can happen.’’
UM sophomore Shane Larkin’s stock has risen so much in the past month that he has been having to field questions about whether he plans to leave for the NBA after this season. He said he is following the guidance of his father, baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin.
“With all the questions that have come in, I just go to him and ask him what he thinks about it,” he said. “Right now, I’m really just focused on the tournament. He hasn’t put any pressure on me on which decision to make. He wants me to focus on winning these games with my teammates because that’s the most important thing right now.’’