Perfect timing. In 2011, Azusa Pacific's basketball program began a transition from NAIA to the NCAA Division II level of competition, a process that would reach fruition this season when the Cougars became eligible for postseason play.
Coach Justin Leslie had a blueprint ready. "We took a big [recruiting] class four years ago," he said. "We redshirted a lot of guys, played a lot of guys. The last two years was preparing for this."
The preparation is paying off. Azusa Pacific (27-5) has reached the quarterfinals of the national championship tournament and will face Indiana (Pa.) on Wednesday at Evansville, Ind. The Cougars are only the second team to reach the final eight in its first year of eligibility on the Division II level. The other, Lynn (Fla.) University, reached a 1997 semifinal.
Azusa Pacific has four seniors and two redshirt juniors among its top eight scorers, including guard Troy Leaf, a key transfer.
Leaf, who spent one season as a reserve at Division I UC Santa Barbara, finished the regular season seventh in Division II scoring. He is averaging 23.4 points per game.
"This style of play fit my game really well," Leaf said. "It's up-tempo. Players are allowed to make reads. It has allowed me to thrive."
Leaf averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and 17.6 last season. Then he spent the off-season working on his stamina, and lost 20 pounds.
"Last year, he faded a little in games at the end," Leslie said. "I challenged him last spring to become physically stronger."
Leaf had 36 points against Western Oregon in Azusa Pacific's playoff opener. He followed that with 30 against Cal Poly Pomona and 23 against Cal Baptist.
Last season, "at the end of games I didn't feel like I had enough in the tank," Leaf said. "I needed to work on my body to be able to close out games."
His renewed commitment worked right in with Leslie's master plan.
The team's move to NCAA competition was a significant one, the coach said.
"There is more travel involved," Leslie said. "We have had true road trips. The biggest thing is, we had to have a much more difficult schedule. The way to the NCAA tournament is to play good teams so you have a strong RPI. You can't schedule too many cupcakes."
Azusa Pacific started the season with an 80-53 loss to UCLA in an exhibition game, but the seeds for the Cougars' success were planted last summer during a 10-day trip to Costa Rica for a series of games.
"We developed the leadership it takes to be successful on the big stage," Leaf said. "We were learning the work ethic. That work ethic put us in the spot where we are now."