Coach Peter Bond’s recipe to defy the odds: Lean on experience, have a “quiet confidence” and catch fire at the right time.

Starting a season with a 1-8 record isn’t ideal for any team in any sport, but being plagued with sickness, injuries and a turnover bug doesn’t make it any easier. This was the situation that the Azusa Pacific University men’s basketball team found themselves in at the start of the 2023-2024 season.

“Going on true road trips [to Washington and Idaho] during the first three weekends of the year and opening weekend of conference…that was much more difficult than any of us anticipated,” admitted head coach Peter Bond. 

Managing school work, preparing for games, traveling and being in unfamiliar territories caught up to players which led to burnout and getting extremely sick. Unfortunately, injuries quickly followed sickness.

With the odds starting to stack up against the team, Bond knew it was time to self-evaluate, buckle down and rally the troops.

The first issue to address was turnovers. In the first nine games, the team was averaging 20 turnovers a game. Taking pride in being a “High IQ Style” basketball team, Bond reemphasized the importance of caring about the game.

“You say you care about winning and losing. You say you want to win, but if you’re not doing the things you need to be doing to prepare, to give yourself the best chance, then do you really care?” Bond asked his team.. Everyone had to lock in, from the experienced players to the new players.

Next was to keep the “quiet confidence” stirring. Bond noticed this trait in the team early in the season and it only developed more with the help of the leaders of the team. Seniors George Reidy, Nate Kleppe and Ken West remained steadfast and even-keeled for this young team. 

To rally the troops, West would frequently tell the team “We’re going to be okay – It’s about to turn around.” Sure enough, the turnaround happened.

During the next 16 games, the Cougars clawed back to a .500 record by going 8-8, which included big wins over conference rivals Point Loma, Hawai’i Hilo, Westmont and Chaminade. The team was slowly cooking.

Coming down to the last two games of the regular season, the Cougars were starting to catch fire, an element that makes teams dangerous, especially in college hoops. The win streak started with a 64-56 victory over Concordia followed by a cruising 70-58 win over Fresno Pacific.

The team entered the PacWest Conference Tournament as the No. 6 team. This low ranking didn’t mean much to the team. After overcoming a rough start, being a low seed only added more fuel to the fire.

The boys escaped a close one against No. 3 Hawaii Pacific then fought off a tough No.2 Academy of Art squad to advance to the PacWest Championship. At this point in the tournament, there was no stopping the Cougs. The APU men’s basketball team went on to claim the PacWest title with a convincing 78-66 win over No. 1 Point Loma. 

“This was cool. We’ve been in the championship game a number of times, but to do it how we did it was especially unique…In PacWest tournament history, the No. 6 seed had only won a total of three games. So to win three games in three days – to be the first to do it [win it all]. It was really cool,” said Bond. 

Going into the NCAA West Regional Tournament, a reporter asked Bond if this run felt like a “Cinderella story.” Normally this phrase is used for lesser-known, underachieving teams that are having some unprecedented success. But that wasn’t the case for this team.

“Yeah in the short term we weren’t [as] successful as we had hoped, but we have a ton of experience with success. Again, this quiet confidence, knowing that everything is going to be okay – all that outside noise gets turned down.”

Once again, the Cougs found themselves as a low seed (No. 8) and had to face No. 1 Cal State Los Angeles. Before the game, Coach Bond reminded the team what got them here: they had more combined NCAA tournament appearances and experience than all other teams combined.

Fire, experience and an underdog mentality are a good recipe. 

Having this newfound “free feeling” led to a nail-biting 60-59 upset over Cal State Los Angeles and rolled over to a solid 82-74 win over No. 5 Central Washington.

Sadly a fire goes out eventually. In the NCAA West Regional Championship game, the Cougars left it all on the hardwood against a very good No.2 San Bernardino team in a 67-74 loss.

I asked Coach Bond if the loss hurt less given the team overcame a lot the whole season, but the competitive nature of the team and the “been there, done that” attitude of Bond and the players allowed them to take this loss gracefully. 

“The loss feels the same whether we had been undefeated or lost in [PacWest] title game, it’s still hard, especially when there were multiple times we almost came back…but there was more of a sense of accomplishment because of the mountain we had to climb,” explained Bond.

While Bond is getting ready and preparing for next season and is looking forward to the new group of players, this season has forever changed him and the graduating players. 

“Honestly for me as a coach, and I know multiple guys on the team have said this – I’ve made more growth this year than I did the years when we were 25-4 and whatever we were [previous seasons]… We all grew a lot. Not just as basketball players and coaches but in lots of areas of our lives.”