Paris native Guillaume Yango has played on a variety of teams in his life, including the under-18 French national squad, a junior college in Twin Falls, Idaho, and, for the last two years, the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. In his mind there is only one thing that distinguishes the Tigers from the other teams. "We keep winning," he says.
By beating visiting UTEP 73--66 last Saturday night in front of an SRO crowd of 6,150 at Spanos Center, Pacific (22--2 overall, 15--0 in the Big West) extended its winning streak to 18 games, remained at No. 19 in the AP poll and solidified its claim as the best team in California. Powered by a veteran, multinational rotation that upset fifth-seeded Providence in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, the balanced Tigers have had six players finish as high scorer in games this season and have logged assists on 59% of their baskets.
"Our strength is our unselfishness," says senior point guard and East Bay native David Doubley, the only Pacific starter who isn't fluent in at least two languages. "Nobody cares who gets the recognition; we're just trying to win games. We have so many weapons that you never know who is going to beat you on any given night."
Three starters are European--senior center Yango and forwards Christian Maraker and Jasko Korajkic of Sweden--and a fourth, senior guard Marko Mihailovic, was born in Belgrade, Serbia, but his family moved to Southern California when he was an infant. Maraker and Korajkic's arrival at Pacific was nearly as serendipitous as that of Michael Olowokandi, an Englishman who chose Pacific because a college directory happened to fall open to the school's page. (Three years later he was the first pick in the 1998 NBA draft.)
Coach Bob Thomason first targeted the 6'9" Maraker after the Tigers played his club team on a tour of Scandinavia in the summer of 2000. "He liked what he saw in me, and then he asked if I had any friends who could play," says Maraker, who had just finished his junior year of high school. He suggested his best friend, Korajkic, whose parents had played professionally in Yugoslavia before the family immigrated to Sweden in 1992. Maraker, a versatile power forward with a baby hook and an outside shot, redshirted his first year after injuring his left wrist. Now the junior leads Pacific in scoring (13.9 points per game) and is second in rebounding (6.6). The 6'7" Korajkic, a senior, averages 8.3 points and 4.7 rebounds and runs the floor so hard, "he's a point guard's dream," says Doubley.
Two years after signing the duo from Sweden, Thomason scooped the 6'9", 250-pound Yango out of the College of Southern Idaho, where he started only one game. This season Yango is averaging 13.0 points and leads the Tigers in rebounding (7.3).
Thomason's proudest moment this winter came on the final possession of a thrilling victory at Utah State on Feb. 12. With Pacific trailing 63--56 and 22 seconds left, junior Mike Webb made two three-pointers to cut the deficit to one. After Utah State missed two free throws with 11 seconds to go, the Tigers patiently moved the ball around before Maraker knocked in a 16-footer with 2.5 seconds on the clock. "The only guy who didn't touch the ball was our point guard," says Thomason. "How often do you see that happen?"
These Tigers are rare indeed; Pacific is ranked for the first time in 38 years. But Thomason won't tag them as special just yet. "We're a good team now," he says. "Our job is to become a great team."