Provo • Two years after BYU joined the West Coast Conference, the University of the Pacific made its return. Initially one of the five founding programs of the conference, Pacific came back in 2013 after a 42-year absence.

But since rejoining the WCC, the Tigers haven't had much success.

Ever since BYU joined, the top of the conference has pretty much been the same: Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, BYU. However, there’s a chance that could get shaken up this year.

No. 1 Gonzaga remains on top, the lone team undefeated in WCC play, but there’s currently a five-way battle for second place in the standings between Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara, Pacific, BYU and San Francisco.

“The Zags have maybe separated themselves a little bit right now and then there's a mob of us behind them trying to fight out for who's going to get a shot at catching them,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “So, certainly, Pacific is in that mix, squarely. They're really good.”

How has Pacific made the leap to contender status in the WCC?

It starts with fourth-year coach Damon Stoudamire. Yes. That Damon Stoudamire.

The Arizona grad, who played under legendary coach Lute Olsen in Tucson before going on to a 17-year career in the NBA, took over the Pacific program in 2016.

The Tigers made their biggest jump in Stoudamire’s second season (2017-18), when UOP finished 9-9 in the conference, tying for fourth in the WCC.

The Tigers dipped to ninth in the league last season, winning just four conference games after being riddled with injuries. But now it seems they are back on track.

Their biggest win so far this year came in a quadruple overtime game against Saint Mary's. The Tigers eventually took down the Gaels 107-99.

“What he’s done this year is amazing,” Pope said of Stoudamire. “Last year, his team was actually pretty good — they were just so beset by injuries. It was really brutal. He’s got his team playing really hard, they’re winning every 50/50 ball.”

But is Pacific in this for the long haul?

Pope hopes not, as any long-term surge by the Tigers would seemingly come at BYU’s expense. However, the battle for second and third place will surely come into sharper focus after this week.

After losing 92-69 at Gonzaga, the Cougars continue their three-game road swing at Pacific on Thursday, followed by a game at San Francisco on Saturday.

The Cougars are gearing up for a tough night in Stockton.

“They’re just junkyard dogs,” sophomore forward Kolby Lee said. “They’re a really tough team every year, especially at home. They’re just super tough … they play 12 guys, so if you’re not playing hard the coaches can take you out. So, they attack the ball and try to get every 50/50 ball. We just have to rebound the ball extremely well.”

At Alex G. Spanos Center, Stockton, Calif.

Tipoff » Thursday, 8 p.m. MST
Live stream » Stadium
Radio » 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143
Records » BYU 14-6; Pacific 15-6
Series » BYU leads 12-6
Last meeting » BYU 69, Pacific 59 (Feb. 9, 2019)

About BYU » The Cougars have won three straight against Pacific. … BYU is among the most efficient offensive teams in the country, ranking among the nation’s best in field goal percentage (eighth), 3-point field goal percentage (fourth), assists per game (ninth), assist/turnover ration (seventh) and 3-point field goals per game (13th). … With Yoeli Childs still recovering from an open dislocation of his right index finger, Jake Toolson and TJ Haws are leading the offense, averaging 15.0 and 13.7 points, respectively.
About Pacific » The Tigers are coming off an 84-80 loss at Santa Clara. … Senior guard Jahill Tripp leads the Tigers with 15.4 ppg and 8.3 rpg, while shooting 52% from the field. … As a team, the Tigers are shooting 45.9% from the field while holding their opponents to 39.7% and are outrebounding opponents 781-585.