College basketball is alive and well in Lacey.
During the past week, Saint Martin’s University men’s basketball coach Alex Pribble said his program has received a flood of support from the community in response to their rapidly rising success.
He saw the videos of fans who packed O’Blarney’s Irish Pub to watch a live game stream when the Saints (24-7) played for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference title last week in Anchorage, Alaska.
Now the Saints are about to play in their first-ever NCAA Division II tournament, and Pribble, the coach who has orchestrated an incredible turnaround at SMU, said he has received plenty of emails and text messages.
“The support that has been flowing in for the young men in our program is incredible,” Pribble said. “I think that’s the biggest indicator of the success we’ve had, is that this great community is excited about Saint Martin’s basketball.”
In just three years, Pribble has taken an SMU program that spent many seasons as a GNAC floor mat to one that has forced its way into national relevancy.
“We knew what was expected to be known in this league,” said junior Rhett Baerlocher, who joined the roster during Pribble’s first season.
“We didn’t want to be known as what Saint Martin’s was in the past. We wanted to be a trail-blazing force.”
The year before Pribble arrived, the Saints finished 6-22, tied for last place in the GNAC.
Pribble took over during the 2015-16 season, and coached the Saints to their first winning season since 2010. The Saints barely missed out on making the conference postseason tournament on a tiebreaker.
In his second season, Pribble coached Saint Martin’s to its first-ever win at a GNAC tournament against Concordia University. More than 3,000 fans attended the Saints’ semifinal game at Marcus Pavilion, though they lost to perennial powerhouse Western Washington, the eventual champion.
That run seemed to ignite an excitement for college basketball in Lacey that wasn’t there before.
“My first thought when I came here to interview was this program had the framework to be successful,” Pribble said. “The minute you pull up to Marcus Pavilion, you look at this big, beautiful facility, you get that feeling in your chest.”
That feeling has just continued to grow. This season, the Saints reached even greater heights.
SMU appeared in the GNAC title game for the first time in history Saturday, and though the Saints lost to favorite Western Oregon, their regular-season run was enough to notch them an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
The school’s athletic department posted on Twitter the moment the Saints found out, showing players leaping up from their chairs when SMU’s name was announced.
The Saints left for Monmouth, Oregon on Wednesday with another history-making game on the schedule. The No. 5 seed in the West Regional, they’ll meet fourth-seeded Cal Poly Pomona (23-6) at 5 p.m. Friday at Western Oregon University.
“It’s huge,” Baerlocher said. “When I was a freshman, I remember (Seattle Pacific) getting a bid. I wondered if Saint Martin’s would ever get a bid.
“It puts us up there with big names like SPU and Western Washington (and Central Washington) that get bids regularly.”
Pribble says much of the improvement the program has made during his tenure is owed to the hard work of the players and assistant coaching staff he’s been able to put together.
“We've been fortunate enough to bring in high-character, selfless young men, and they’ve completely bought into the process of daily improvement,” he said.
But all of this began when Pribble first arrived from Eastern Washington early in 2015. Just how did Pribble, in his first-ever head coaching job at the college level, inspire such a quick turnaround at SMU?
He says he started learning how to build a program all the way back when he played in the Pac-10.
“I think it started with my experience at Cal as a player and a graduate assistant,” Pribble said. “I got my first look behind the curtain of a basketball program.”
Pribble was a graduate assistant under University of California coach Ben Braun, and started learning the intricacies of recruiting and preparing scouting reports.
From there, he cut his teeth as a high school coach in California, before he became a top assistant under Paul Trevor at San Francisco State. He spent two seasons with the Gators before joining Jim Hayford at Eastern Washington.
Hayford, now coaching at Seattle University, said Pribble’s intellect and ability to connect with people has helped him find success at the college level.
“Alex is a great coach, and he’s an even better person,” Hayford said. “You have an unbelievable combination of coaching skill and leadership ability, and that’s what it takes to bring the kind of change he’s brought at Saint Martin’s so quickly.”
Hayford said Pribble — who spent two seasons as an assistant with the Eastern Eagles, including helping them reach their second NCAA tournament appearance in school history in 2015 — exhibited his potential regularly as a Division I assistant.
“Every task I gave him, every assignment I gave him, he would excel at it and wouldn’t quit until it was done correctly,” Hayford said.
Pribble says he has taken pieces of what he learned from both Trevor and Hayford, and installed them into his own burgeoning program at SMU.
From Trevor, who he describes as emotional and passionate, he learned to connect and build relationships with players.
“It’s all about passion and energy,” Pribble said. “Players are going to follow you if you’re passionate about what you’re doing.”
From Hayford, he learned to find ways to give his players an advantage in games.
“Whether it’s scouting reports, film sessions … it’s always looking at the details of a program, and finding ways to put your players in position to succeed,” Pribble said. “He’s one of the smartest men I’ve been around when it comes to seeing things through that sort of lens.”
Pribble said the ability to recruit players who are not only talented on the basketball court, but excel in the classroom, has been beneficial.
He said the focus on team success as opposed to individual success also has reflected in the standings this season.
“When it comes to wins and losses, the record is great, but I think the fact that our guys continue to strive for improvement and continue to find ways to get better, that’s what excites me as a coach,” he said.
Luke Chavez, a former player at Olympia’s South Puget Sound Community College, leads the Saints with 16 points per game while EJ Boyce adds 11.6. But SMU has eight players on its roster averaging 6.6 points per game or more.
“When you have a group of young men who put the team first and aren’t concerned with individual accolades, but are completely concerned with team success, I think that’s how you get these kinds of results,” Pribble said.
Hayford said Pribble’s ability to allow these players to work together on the court, and trust in their ability, also is a factor that has contributed to SMU’s sudden rise.
“He lets his players play really free within structure, which is something a lot of coaches are afraid to do,” Hayford said. “If you coach your guys well, then you can have more confidence in them in games.
“Then the players play at a much higher level, because they feel the confidence of their coach. I think that is something Alex really excels at.”
While GNAC programs like Seattle Pacific (13 tournament appearances), Western (7) and Central (5) have gained the most national relevancy since the conference was created in 2001, SMU is beginning to carve out a place as a contender.
“We don’t feel like we’re at our potential yet,” Pribble said. “We’ve been using the phrase ‘climb the mountain’ this whole year, and we don’t feel like we’re at our peak.
“We want to keep finding ways to get better one step at a time.”
NCAA Division II West Regional
Saint Martin’s University vs. Cal Poly Pomona
When: 5 p.m., Friday (March 9)
Where: Western Oregon University; Monmouth, Oregon