Despite a 5-12 record, men’s basketball coach Peter Bond shared insight into what’s really going on. 

If you’re like me, then you’ve probably checked the score or record of the men’s basketball team several times this season.

I would be lying and you would be too if you haven’t thought at some point “Wow, this team is struggling.”

Maybe this moment was during their seven-game losing streak, or after their 65-89 loss to open conference play, or maybe it was when the team lost to rival Biola on a buzzer-beater.

Sure, it sounds rough but that’s because it was and unfortunately, is still partially the case.

But it would be totally unfair, especially as a student-athlete myself, to cast off this team completely, to chalk them up as a “bad team.” Because that’s not the case here, at all. 

This team is good, they have a lot of talent and the hard work has been poured in. The overall record is just a fraction of the story that I’m here to share with you now.

Last Wednesday, I sat down with head coach Peter Bond to talk about what’s been going on. It was just a few days after that buzzer beater that left everyone in the stands and on the home benches paralyzed. I watched Bond walk to the locker room scratching his head and wondering the exact same thing we all were, “What just happened?”

Now, I’ve worked in the Sports Information Office for over two years, which has allowed me to build relationships with the players as well as the coaches. 

Over the past three seasons now, I’ve had the chance to watch Coach Bond closely. Bond has the unique ability to stay composed despite what the score might read. Think about that for a second because it sounds much easier to do than it is. 

Since returning to Azusa Pacific in 2019 to coach at his alma mater, Bond has led the program to a 73-29 record prior to this season. In his first season alone, he led the team to a 25-4 record and a 20-2 conference record, good for first place in the PacWest.

So you can imagine after a solid four-year run including a 22-8 season last year which featured a runner-up finish to Point Loma (who went undefeated up until the NCAA tournament), it must be hard to watch the current season unravel and still keep hope.

Bond even shared, “That’s kind of the curse of coaching… you feel everything the players do and more. Sleep has been terrible [lately].”

A 5-12 record, including a 4-6 conference mark halfway through the season, is not how Bond nor the players imagined this season would go.

While the losses were obviously not expected and rather just “the reality of the situation,” the schedule leading into conference play was, in fact, intentional, as Bond shared with me.

The team played eight of their first nine games on the road, including two out-of-state trips to Nampa, Idaho, and Seattle, Washington to kick off the season.

Why? To challenge themselves was the intentional goal. However, the team was struck with sickness and injuries during those preseason games which as Bond shared, made it difficult to establish a team identity…hence leading to a 1-6 record before facing any PacWest opponents.

“In some ways, it took us some time to find our identity [and] who we are, [to] figure out our strengths. By that point, we had identified our weaknesses, but were still trying to find the spots where we were excelling,” Bond said.

After falling in their first two conference matchups, the team was able to win the next four of five games played leading into the Biola matchup. 

All four of the wins came during Christmas break which allowed the team to find more of a rhythm while finally establishing that sense of identity that was much needed.

“The thing we focused a lot on was…this is a[n] old cliche, but controlling the things you could control, the way you prepared, the way you took care of your body, the way you got extra work [in] outside of practice, the way you plan for [and] studied for the opponent that we’re about to play,” Bond said. “Those are some of the things that maybe weren’t up to our normal standard early [and] the losses have made us realize that we need to work on those areas.” 

Sometimes you have a bad game, shots that you practice for hours every day just don’t fall. It happens to all athletes across all sports. But what matters as Bond emphasized with his team, is what you do around it. How you prepare mentally, physically, emotionally. The work you do off the court, outside of practice, around a game. The time you poured into one another as teammates, as family. 

This is where things started to shift. Not only did this lead to a short three-game winning streak but also allowed for small adjustments to take place within a game, win or loss. It allowed the team to step back and look at the small details, and break down the fundamentals of the game they all love so much.

Take assists and turnovers for example. During the first 11 games (all in 2023), the team had only four games with double digits for assists while nine of those games also featured more than 10 team turnovers and four of those with 20+ turnovers. At the time, the team was averaging 17 turnovers a game.

Since the start of 2024, the team has had 10 or more assists in each of their six games. One game in particular, the team dished out 21 assists which led to a tight 87-85 victory over Hawai’i Hilo. Hand in hand, the team only had seven turnovers that night and now averages 9.3 turnovers a game, a huge improvement from December.

“That’s [an] area that just takes a discipline and a willingness to drive and have the mentality that I’m getting a teammate open versus driving and I’m going to score. And that’s been a big area of growth since the beginning of the year…because in almost every game we would have more turnovers than assists,” Bond said.

While an assist isn’t as pretty as points on your stat line and is just a minute detail that doesn’t directly lead to more wins, it does reflect the sacrifice, maturity and growth of this team, which counts for something. 

Similarly, rebounding has been a huge strength for the team resembling the grit and tenacity of the program that didn’t go away with each loss. The Cougars are ranked fourth in the conference with an average of 35.9 rebounds a game, consistently out-rebounding their opponents.

“While obviously, there’s a size and strength component that comes into it, it’s honestly just a willingness to go be physical [and] go do it time after time after time. We have a former player, Terrence Becvar, who was who was 5’10” [and] 170 pounds, and he was consistently our second-leading offensive rebounder on the team,” Bond said. “There’s nothing you could point to other than just his willingness and effort to go do it. And that’s a credit to our guys this year. We are consistently out-rebounding, guys. Nate Kleppe [and] Ethan Speaker really setting the tone there. They’re guys that…are consistent and do it again and again. It’s not that they’re just physically overpowering people, they’re just willing to do it on a regular basis. That leads to results.”

He added, “That leads to results in a lot of life, just the willingness to do the things that are not necessarily your favorite, not necessarily the things you want to do. But you still go and do it.”

The minor changes are just one of the few that took place as the team has been trying to turn a new leaf with the new year and leave December in the past.

But through this unexpected season came big lessons in resilience for not only coach Bond but also for his graduating seniors, George Reidy, Ken West, Bryce Sloan, and Allan McBride (three of whom are current starters).

The seniors as well as redshirt Junior Nate Kleppe have been a part of each of those winning teams Bond has coached since 2019, so having a struggling season like this one is new territory for them.

“The older guys on the team have done a good job taking ownership of things like, ‘No, this is an area we need to improve and fix.’ In the past, they have had a lot of success and this is the first time in their careers that they aren’t…that’s especially hard when it’s at the very tail end of your playing career,” Bond said. “There’s a natural instinct to want to do it all yourself. Like ‘I’ve been there, I’ve been successful, so I need to do it myself.’ But the counterintuitive aspect of that is they, and speaking to their leadership, they’ve done a good job, still relying on their strengths, but also leaning on the strengths of others, and not trying to just do it all themselves.”

So now that you get the bigger picture here, you’re probably still wondering, okay now what? Where does the team go from here?

While it’s easy to look at the season and fixate on the losses more than what’s working for the team, Bond shared how he will approach the future.

“We just kind of [going to] take it on a game-by-game basis. Like there’s kind of this next-up mentality of, we’re never going to look back, whether it’s great or whether it’s terrible. Yeah, we can learn from it. But we’re always just moving on to the next game, preparing for that,” Bond said.

Seems easier said than done, right? Well, Bond isn’t just a highly decorated coach who’s seen years of success and accolades. He also spent three years playing basketball for Azusa Pacific before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communication.

His playing experience paired with his communication degree explains why he’s able to be so composed, trust the process and never lose hope along the way. One of the most noteworthy things about him, which I’m sure his players can attest to, is that he’s able to always take a step back and assess what lessons can be gained, especially during a low season like this.

“I think there’s also just a life lesson in that mentality of like, ‘No, I’m just going to approach the next thing, not dwell on what happened good or bad.’ Because, in a lot of ways, success is harder to grow from than failure. Because when you succeed, you feel like you’ve got it all figured out. You feel like I can just show up,” Bond said. “To have that discipline of ‘No, we’re approaching the next thing whether we’re top 10 in the country or not doing as well as we hope, we have that mentality of, we’re just turning it to the next thing.’ And we’re doing that well now. And I believe that if you do that consistently, things will eventually work out.”

He added, “You’ve just got to keep moving forward. You’ve just got to keep putting your best foot forward whether you feel like it or not, you’ve just got to keep going. We, as a group and myself included, have enough to lean on in terms of past success, so it’s just leaning on the cores of what kind of got you here.”

This mentality is how Bond has been able to keep the faith and inspire his team to follow suit. 

Currently, the team is on their annual trip to Hawai’i to play Chaminade, Hawai’i Hilo, and Hawai’i Pacific. And while the team fell to Hawai’i Pacific yesterday 58-66, the Cougars have already collected two wins over the other Hawai’i schools earlier this year including a blowout 96-69 win over Chaminade.

The 2023-2024 season has been a challenge, but dwelling on the past won’t help the future. The team still has ten more regular season games on the horizon. Ten more chances to prove that they are more than their record says they are. 

Bond lastly shared that contrary to former years, there is no stand-out team this season that is simply unbeatable. With this, it opens up a lot of opportunities to move up the standings and still find their way into the end-of-season PacWest tournament and maybe the postseason.

“This [opportunity] provides some excitement, but also it’s going to challenge us, we have to show up every single year, every single day to work and to prepare and to put ourselves in the best position to be successful,” he said.