Cal State Bakersfield Starts All Over : Division II: Only three players return from national championship team.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It shouldn't surprise Pat Douglass that Cal State Bakersfield's men's basketball team is the two-time defending champion in Division II.

He was there for both titles.

And, as the coach, he was pretty much responsible for both.

He recruited the players, and he coached them. But what he really did was set the playing standard that all Division II teams try to match.

His team was featured in Sports Illustrated last year and has been on national television each of the last two years, unheard-of in Division II.

So it seems as if it would be hard to forget the national championships.

"I just don't think in those terms. It surprises me when people say 'You've won two national championships,' " Douglass said. "I don't look back, that's not my style."

Maybe not, but he might appreciate the last couple of years a little more this season.

Can Bakersfield win a third consecutive championship?

Anything is possible, but it doesn't seem likely.

All five starters from last season are gone, as are two reserves. Douglass also had to replace his two assistant coaches, who left to pursue other interests. It's hard for a team to mesh quickly when everyone became acquainted two months earlier.

But as Bakersfield boosters can tell you, it's been done before.

Two years ago, the Roadrunners set an NCAA record for most victories (33) in an undefeated season with four new starters.

Now that was a pretty good adjustment.

This season, there are only three returning players, and none of them had significant playing time last season. But as UC Riverside Coach John Masi said: "At Bakersfield, they just reload."

He should know.

Masi has had arguably the best team outside Bakersfield the last two seasons. He has the misfortune of playing in the same conference--the California Collegiate Athletic Assn.--and drawing Bakersfield in the NCAA West Regional every year.

It wouldn't be too far a stretch to say that Bakersfield has an athletic department devoted to men's basketball.

After all, how many Division II schools have 10 scholarships for basketball? Not many.

The Activities Center, where home games are played, is only five years old, seats nearly 4,000 and is as fine as you will find anywhere.

Nearly $200,000 of the athletic budget is for basketball, and that's a big help in recruiting. Five members of this season's team are from other states and none are from Bakersfield. Roheen Oats and Tyrone Davis, the key members of Bakersfield's national championship teams, were both from Brooklyn via Columbia Community College in Northern California.

When the recruits arrive, they find that their previous conceptions of Bakersfield were quite a bit off. For one thing, away games are televised locally and their coach has his own TV show to talk about--that's right--Bakersfield basketball. For another, Bakersfield is not a farming town, but rather a city surrounded by agriculture.

"At first, I thought Bakersfield was a dried-up city, but I thought it was great once I came here to visit. It's real nice," said Pauliasi Taulava, a sophomore from Inglewood.

It helps that Bakersfield boosters usually fill up the visitors' stands at every game within three hours' driving distance, and most home games are near-sellouts.

"We have a favorable situation here, no doubt," Douglass said. "Recruiting is easier now than before because of the television exposure. We got a lot of exposure in that when we played our (national championship) game on TV last year, it was at the end of the Division I tournament, and I think there were only eight teams left."

For Division II, that kind of exposure can't be overdone. For example, it is directly related to the arrival of guard Damon Smith, who already has the athletic department and local media buzzing over his abilities.

"I had seen Bakersfield on TV two years ago, and it was just a game I watched because they were 33-0 and it was basketball. So then when they recruited me, I kind of knew who they were. Believe me, I watched a lot closer the next year," Smith said.

What he saw was an offense that he could fit into--a lot of fast breaks, three-point shots and give-and-go plays with the post players--and an aggressive defense that could use his quickness.

Smith, who had been at Solano Community College, was recruited by San Diego State, St. Mary's, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington, but said that playing for a winner was one of the deciding factors.

Since arriving at Bakersfield in 1987, Douglass has never won fewer than 20 games. His teams have been to the Division II final three times, reached the round of eight five times, won the CCAA regular-season title four times and the CCAA tournament five times.

That has created an expectation of winning and has brought in a lot of fans and money.

Does it create pressure? Of course. That's why Douglass recruits heavily from the junior college ranks. Still, he puts his own spin on it.

"This town is used to success in every sport, and that's good," he said. "You know that when you take the job. It is more fun and satisfying to coach a kid for four years. But for us not to go get players who are a little closer to playing at the level we do in our conference would not be good.

"It just wouldn't go over too well if we didn't make the (NCAA playoffs) for two years in row."

Taulava is one of three holdovers from last season's team and one of only two players who didn't come from a junior college. Last year he learned about the pressure and the level of play.

"I was surprised at how athletic everyone is--I mean every single player on the team was good," Taulava said. "Last year it was kind of hard because the team before went 33-0 and everyone was back. There was a lot more pressure when we lost a few games. But this year there's just not much pressure. We have a whole new team so, in a way, we have nothing to lose."

After two games, they have lost nothing and gained a 2-0 record. But Douglass is wary of saying that anything has been gained yet.

"People like to kid me about (winning a third consecutive national title), but I don't think anyone thinks that I'm actually thinking that--it's unrealistic.

"We're starting from scratch. I have three returners and seven new players. Now I think they're a good group and are learning, but it's too early to say a lot because I'm still finding out myself.

"That's why I sit here and hem and haw. We can talk about national titles, but this is a whole new team. It's not like the Lakers, who won two titles and then returned most of their players for the next season. We have a new team."

But expect a trip to the playoffs anyway.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°