Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 21.
The countdown continues with the No. 10 team:
1997-98 Azusa Pacific Men’s Basketball
Golden State Athletic Conference Champions
Final NAIA ranking: 3rd
Postseason: NAIA Final Four
“We’re going to the final four!” -- Senior guard Jeremy Devries following Azusa Pacific’s quarterfinal win over Incarnate Word at the 1998 NAIA National Tournament.
Prior to the 1997-98 men’s basketball season those words hadn’t been uttered by a Cougar basketball player at the NAIA tournament. Not even the 1993 team, which made history of its own by earning the university’s first No. 1 ranking in the NAIA poll, nor any of the five straight GSAC championship teams dating back to that season, could make that claim. But in 1998 the top-seeded Cougars finally broke through what had been the most stubborn of obstacles in the program’s celebrated history, reaching the semifinals of the NAIA tournament after getting past the first round of the 32-team playoff just twice since 1968.
Since then four other Azusa Pacific teams have made the trip, with the Cougars reaching the title game in 2005 and 2010. But what separates the 1998 squad from the rest was its ability to get over a hurdle that for so many years had been the one thing holding it back from being a national power. The semifinal loss to eventual champion Georgetown (Ky.) may have ended the 1997-98 campaign, but it launched a new era of Azusa Pacific basketball.
There may have been more talented teams in Azusa Pacific history, but in terms of unabashed chemistry and teamwork, none can rival what the 1997-98 Cougars had. With a rotation that went 12-deep, and a coach that knew what to do with it in NAIA Hall of Famer Bill Odell, Azusa Pacific was a matchup nightmare for its opponents. The Cougars’ bench averaged over 42 points a game, while 12 different players led the team in scoring at least once. The Cougars also mastered the transition game, using their school-record 471 steals to outscore opponents by an average of 16 points per game.
“That may have been my deepest, most balanced teams and it was really fun to coach. It was a great group of guys, and a fun group that knew how to compete the right way. They were all so competitive, and when they practiced they practiced hard because so many guys could play and they were fighting for minutes,” said Odell, who led the Cougars to each of their record 13 Golden State Athletic Conference titles in his 16 years at the helm. “The depth, and what we were able to do with it, was a huge asset. Alongside Jim Hayford, we could create matchups because we were so versatile in what we could do.”
All-American T.J. Walker led the charge for a group that could do it all, by doing it all. The junior transfer from Pacific led the Cougars in scoring, assists and steals, and ranked second in rebounding in his first year with Azusa Pacific. He averaged over 15 points to go with 5.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 3.1 steals in his junior season, eclipsing the 20-point plateau nine times.
“He had so many qualities to him. When he came in he wasn’t a great deep shooter, but could make them, and at critical times. He had the ability to do that. He could do it all, and defended their best point guard. He was a very quiet leader and led by what he did,” said Odell.
On the floor Walker directed a group that shot 46 percent from the field, and nailed over 37 percent of its 3-pointers as part of an up-tempo drive-in, kick-out style that fit the Cougars to a T. With its ability to score from deep, in transition, and inside Azusa Pacific surpassed the 100-point mark nine times in a year that it averaged 88 points per game.
“Coach Odell just gave me an opportunity to play, and with the guys around me it was easy. I had so many weapons. Anyone that stepped on the court could shoot the ball. I just tried to play hard, and it worked really well because I loved to penetrate and kick it out for a three. That year everyone knew their role and did it well. It was an unbelievable group to play with,” said Walker.
One of those shooters was All-American honorable mention senior G/F Jeremy DeVries, who enjoyed his most successful season in 1998. DeVries didn’t see much time as a junior, and wasn’t expected to do much in his final year for the team. But one fateful meeting with Odell sparked an intense summer workout that saw the 6-5 tweener become one of the key components on a final four team.
“I had a meeting with coach about what I could do to play more and he told me that I was too small to be a four, and not fast enough to be a three. So I worked very hard over that summer, and when I came back a lot of my teammates recognized my improvement. Coach Hayford told me that he’d never seen a player improve that much from one year to the next,” said DeVries.
The 6-5 swingman shot a blistering 45 percent from deep en route to burying 80 3-pointers, which at that time ranked No. 2 on the program’s all-time single-season list. His 11.8 points per game, and 81 steals each ranked second on the team, but it was his outside shooting that his teammates really took note of.
“For a guy that liked to get in the lane, Jeremy was the perfect teammate. He was someone that I was looking for early because if he hits one, he might hit 10. He was that good of a shooter,” said Walker. “But beyond that he did all of the little things well. He was going to rebound, box out, and anticipate the action. He was willing to do anything the team and coach Odell needed, and that was pretty much the identity of our team that year.”
Jason Boswell and Corey Smith rounded out the Cougars’ top deep threats, while Nate Getz and Bryan Lucas did most of the team’s interior damage. Mix them in with dual threats like Justin Leslie, Micah Sullivan and Andy Newman, and Azusa Pacific had a lineup that could matchup with anyone in the country.
“If the other teams had a bigger strong guy inside Bryan would play, if he was smaller Justin would play. And then we had so many guys that just played hard. We were a tough team and didn’t back down. We weren’t overly physical, but we had guys that were strong individual players. Getz, Ty Clark and Brad Alley never backed away from a loose ball in their lives. So when you played us you were going to be in for a game. When you practiced you were going to get pushed,” said Odell.
Armed with a pair of All-Americans, and a group of guys willing and able to step in at any time, Azusa Pacific embarked on one of the most daunting schedules Odell had ever put together. Tabbed with a preseason No. 25 ranking, the Cougars were slated to face three reigning national champions in Cal State Bakersfield (NCAA Division II), Life (NAIA), and Christian Heritage (NCCAA).
Azusa Pacific also set up road games with Seattle Pacific and Western Washington, along with perennial Division II powers Cal Poly Pomona, and Cal State San Bernardino. Putting the schedule over the top, however, was a road tilt with a Utah team that was ranked No. 4 in Division I the day after a home showdown with Cal State Bakersfield.
“I thought we were going to be pretty good, and that’s why we took on such a tough schedule. I wanted us to be prepared for the tournament, so I was willing to play anyone,” said Odell.
And while a top-25 preseason ranking hinted towards the team’s greatness, a 7-0 start showed it off. Azusa Pacific opened the year with a seven-game winning streak, blasting its opponents by an average of 25 points a night. Leslie and Alley shared for the team-lead with 16 points in a season-opening 108-60 drubbing of Pacific Christian, and Walker poured in 26 points in an 88-66 defeat of Western Washington.
The following night it was Boswell’s turn when the junior guard scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the second half to upend Seattle Pacific. Two games later it was Smith’s time to shine when he paced Azusa Pacific with 17 points in a 103-75 beat down of Cal State Monterey Bay before Walker closed the 7-0 start with 20 points in a 95-89 victory over Bethany.
Azusa Pacific jumped all the way up to No. 6 in the NAIA poll, with two of its biggest tests looming over a two-day period that featured two of the best opponents the team would face all season. First up was a Cougar Dome matchup with a Cal State Bakersfield squad that had won three of the previous five Division II championships and was ranked No. 1 in Division II.
Billed as a heavyweight bout between the two winningest teams in California since 1992, the game didn’t disappoint. There were 11 lead changes, 10 in the second half, with 10 ties before the Cougars grabbed a 90-89 lead on a DeVries put back. The Roadrunners, however, converted a pair of free throws to grab the lead, and with four seconds left a potential game-winning opportunity was fumbled away by the Cougars on an uncontested path towards the basket. CSUB went on to win 92-90, handing Azusa Pacific its first home loss since 1996 in what some call the best game they’ve ever seen.
“Against Bakersfield the Cougar Dome was packed out. It was sweaty and nasty in there, and it was the perfect environment for a classic,” said Gary Pine, current Director of Athletics, who covered the team as school’s sports information director. “I just remember it being a back and forth battle between two great teams, and it was unfortunate that anyone had to lose that game because it was such a good fight.”
Making matters worse was the fact that the Cougars had to dust themselves off, get on a plane, and take on one of the country’s top ranked teams the following day. Utah, which was at No. 4 in the Division I poll, scheduled an exam-week matchup with the Cougars. But for the first 20 minutes, the heavily favored Utes, and their future NBA guard Andre Miller, were the ones being put to the test. DeVries, Boswell, and Walker each had six first half points as the Cougars stayed within reach with a 37-28 halftime deficit. Utah, however, pulled away in the second half for a 78-58 win.
The sting of the two losses was alleviated by the fact that they came against a pair that was a combined 72-8 over the previous three years heading into that weekend. Utah went on to make the final four before falling in the championship game, and Cal State Bakersfield went on to finish the year with a 25-3 record.
“Our non-conference schedule was like a Division I preseason,” said Walker, who played for Division I Pacific before his time at Azusa Pacific. “We could have beat Bakersfield and we didn’t know what to expect against Utah. But it was a great opportunity. It let us know that we could play with anybody. Those nights reinforced the fact that we could compete with anyone in the country.”
The Cougars then rattled off another seven wins, with Getz, Sullivan, Lucas, and Newman each boasting team-highs in scoring over the span before embarking on a cross-country trip to Marrietta, Ga. for an early January contest with the reigning NAIA champs of Life University.
The Cougars again put on a show for the ages, albeit delayed until late in the second half. Life, which was looking for its 74th consecutive home win, held a commanding 18-point lead with 7:30 to play before the Cougars finally woke up. In the final seven minutes of regulation Azusa Pacific drained five 3-pointers, three from DeVries, who had 14 points over that span, and two from Smith in a 36-15 run that saw the Cougars grab a surprising 98-95 lead with eight seconds to play.
Out of a timeout, Life threw up a prayer with two seconds on the clock, nailing a half court 3-pointer to force overtime before holding on for a 116-110 victory for Azusa Pacific’s third, and most painful loss of the season.
“I remember when we got there they didn’t think we were any good ... they thought they’d roll us, and initially they did. But we came back. I caught fire in the second half and we really started to play better as a group. It was a great game to be a part of, and it was a tough game to lose because of the way we lost, but I think it helped us grow as a team. It made us realize that we have to put teams away and it gave us more of a killer instinct,” said DeVries.
Each of the team’s three losses came against teams that were ranked in the top-4 of their respective poll (NCAA/NAIA).
“It’s funny how you remember the losses because that was one of the most memorable games of my career. That was a hard loss because we played really well. Jeremy had one of his best games and really led the comeback. I remember their sports information director yelling at me after the game about how I wish I would have fouled on that final play. It was a prayer shot and it went in. In hindsight we probably should have fouled him, but he made a miracle shot and we lost to a really good team on their home court,” said Odell.
After four more wins Azusa Pacific was slated for another highly anticipated game with its conference opener against Westmont. The Cougars and Warriors were the two winningest GSAC teams, combining for eight of the 11 all-time conference championships at that point. In the game Westmont overcame a two-point halftime deficit to beat the Cougars 93-90 in what may have been the most pivotal games all season.
From that point on Azusa Pacific was unstoppable in its quest for a sixth straight GSAC championship. The Cougars ran the table, twice getting wins over a Biola team that was ranked in the NAIA’s top-10. The Cougars edged out Westmont (12-2) for the title with a 13-1 record, and then ran through the GSAC postseason tournament with a 36-point win over Point Loma, an eight-point defeat of Southern California College, and a narrow three-point win over Biola to complete the season sweep over the Eagles and claim the GSAC regular season and tournament championships.
“Playing Azusa Pacific was always tough and always crazy. I just remember that their big guys were hard-nosed and never backed down. T.J. Walker was amazing on both sides of the court, and he disrupted a lot of our stuff because he was so quick. They were always classic Azusa Pacific-Biola battles, but unfortunately that year they had our number,” said Dan Ploog, who played for Biola from 1997-2000 and now serves as the assistant coach for the Cougar women’s basketball team.
With a program record 14-game winning streak, Azusa Pacific was hoping for a high seed in the NAIA tournament. But even the Cougars didn’t anticipate what would come next. With the team, and roughly 100 students gathered around, to watch the selection show, the Cougars were the first team announced, grabbing the program’s first-ever top-seed for the NAIA tournament.
“We were seeded No. 1 and it was a huge deal for us,” said Pine. “We didn’t know at that point in time how great the GSAC was, and in hindsight it was the beginning of something special for the conference. It was a whole new ride and it makes the ‘98 team special. It was the first to get to the Final Four.”
The Cougars were only the second California team to earn the No. 1 seed, and first since Biola grabbed it in 1982.
“As a coach when you get the top seed you say you’re going to have a target on your back. But we had a target on our back every game prior because of our success in the GSAC. I think people felt like we were probably overrated when we got there. Even though we were a top-seed, people thought we’d get beat early because we hadn’t really done anything in the tournament before that year. But I knew we were prepared because of the schedule we played. The No. 1 seed was great, but our guys didn’t walk around acting like they were the best. They wanted to go out there and show it,” said Odell.
Nobody doubted Azusa Pacific more than the team it’d face in the first round: Huston-Tillotson. The night before the Cougars had multiple run-ins with the Rams, and each time, whether in the hotel lobby, elevator, or at the NAIA parade of champions, the Rams never missed a chance to taunt their first round foes.
“Huston-Tillotson was so cocky. They talked trash in the hotel, before the game, and wherever else we saw them. They were very athletic, so we went into that game and wanted to play well, not just to shut them up, but to continue our journey. They were a very athletic team. In the film I watched I saw 12 dunks, so I knew we’d have to be ready to play,” said Odell.
And in the first game the Cougars put on one of the most impressive performances in NAIA history, blasting Huston-Tillotson 104-44 for what was the second largest blowout in the 61 year history of the tournament. The Cougars shot 79 percent in the first half to grab a 58-19 lead, and didn’t let up. They hit 13 3-pointers and had five players finish in double figures, while every Cougar scored in the game.
“I always tell people that butt-whooping started the night before. We were at the parade, and they were right next to us and they were talking smack during the parade. Everywhere we went they were taking. They were so cocky, so I couldn’t wait to play,” said Walker. “And when we played it was the most amazing game I’ve ever been a part of. Every time I went to the lane I kicked it out and everyone was hitting shots. It was an awesome way to kick off the tournament.”
With Azusa Pacific in rarified air, in only its third appearance beyond the first round, the blowout caught the attention of everyone, including its second round opponent Transylvania. The next day the Cougars, who lost sharp-shooting Boswell to an ankle injury in the blowout, saw their hot spell fade with only 38 percent of their first half shots falling.
Playing for its first-ever trip to the Elite-Eight, Azusa Pacific grabbed a 38-33 halftime lead, but Transylvania’s style forced the up-tempo Cougars to slow it down. The Pioneers’ cut the Cougars’ 10-point lead to one with 2:23 to play, but Sullivan, who had a dreadful shooting night (3-for-12) up to that point stepped up in the clutch with a key jumper to make it a 65-62 game as Azusa Pacific closed the night on a 9-2 run to advance with a 72-64 win.
“I had the confidence to shoot the ball the entire game. Even though I struggled I knew I could hit that shot when we needed it,” said Sullivan in the postgame press conference.
Already beyond where any other Cougar team had been before Azusa Pacific took on another school making its first quarterfinal appearance in Incarnate Word. The matchup was a perfect contrast between a great offensive team in the Cougars, and a staunch defensive squad in the Crusaders.
In the first half Incarnate Word went ahead by as many as eight points before the Cougars crawled back to cut the Crusaders’ edge to two points at the half. Early in the second the Cougars found themselves trailing 42-35, but an 8-0 run put Azusa Pacific ahead, and from that point neither team led by more than four points until the final two minutes of action.
At the 7:53 mark the Crusaders grabbed a 52-50 lead, but a Clark tip-in on a missed DeVries shot knotted it at 52-all, and a triple from DeVries gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good. In the final minute Incarnate Word cut the advantage to two points, but Walker sealed the win on two free throws with seven seconds on the clock to give Azusa Pacific a 66-62 victory, sending the Cougars to their first final four.
“The one moment that stands out more than any other was just after we beat Incarnate Word in the quarters,” said Pine. “I remember standing in the tunnel of the Mabee Center in Tulsa, Okla, and DeVries comes running by screaming ‘We’re going to the final-four!’ That’s when it really hit me. We weren’t flying home on Sunday, and that was what we had gotten used to. Now we got to stick around and stay ... that’s always been an indelible mark.”
The Cougars ran into a buzz-saw in the semifinals, falling by 18 points to Georgetown, who went on to claim the NAIA championship. The season was over, the run had ended. But not before the Cougars went two rounds further than any team before them.
“I knew the history of what Azusa Pacific had and hadn’t accomplished. Coach Odell is a legend and our goal was to play for a championship that year, for us and for coach. We didn’t really celebrate any of our tournament wins because that group of guys wanted to bring back a banner. We had played so many good teams that I felt we could beat that year, but we had no answer for Georgetown. The better team won and we couldn’t do much against them,” said Walker, who took a return trip to the semifinals in 1999.
It was their coming out party, so to say. The 1997-98 the Azusa Pacific men’s basketball team did something no other had done before, making the school’s first appearance in the NAIA’s Final Four after capturing the Cougars’ first-ever top-seed for the national tournament. The breakthrough launched an unprecedented era of success for Azusa Pacific hoops and it spilled over to the GSAC as a whole.
“I just remember how exhausted I was after our win over Incarnate Word, but the feeling of exhilaration was overwhelming. Going to the final four was one of my goals and I remember that feeling. We were so excited because it was a huge accomplishment. We had gone to the tournament and bowed out early, and we finally felt like we got the monkey off of our back. It meant even more because our team was so close, we did it together as family,” said DeVries.
The following year the Cougars, along with four schools from the GSAC, reached the Elite Eight of the NAIA tournament, and over the next 13 years the Cougars made four more final four appearances and reached the NAIA title game twice before making a transition towards NCAA Division II membership, leaving both the NAIA and GSAC and joining the Pacific West Conference.
Odell, who also served as the Athletics Director for the Cougars during his time as the head men’s basketball coach, retired from both roles, giving way to current head coach, Justin Leslie, in the spring of 2007, and then leaving his post as the athletics director in the summer of 2011.
The Azusa Pacific men’s basketball program had enjoyed success under Dr. Cliff Hamlow in the 60’s and 70’s, winning four consecutive NCCAA championships from 1969 to 1972. But Odell captained one of the most impressive turnarounds in school history. In the seven years preceding him the Cougars were 89-133, and in his first seven seasons his teams registered a 182-53 record, with six conference titles in that span. He finished his career with 13 GSAC championships, and an all-time record of 454-112. He also served as the athletics director for seven of Azusa Pacific’s eight NAIA Learfield Directors’ Cups, overseeing an athletics department that became the preeminent model of success among its peers.