Former Syracuse forward Josh Pace will take his Orange roots into his first head coaching position.
Pace, who was named head coach of the Western New Mexico women’s basketball team on Thursday, plans on taking a page out of his former head coach’s playbook: Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone.
“We will play it for sure,” Pace said with a laugh. “Not just zone, though, but it’s definitely getting played.”
Pace, who won a 2003 National Championship as a sophomore at Syracuse and was named a Big East Honorable Mention after his senior year in 2005, had a long professional playing career that took him all over the world.
After starting out in the NBA Development League and the American Basketball Association, Pace played the majority of his pro career in New Zealand. While playing in the New Zealand Basketball League, he was a four-time All Star, a two time scoring champion and the MVP of the 2007 season.
Pace played for NZBL’s Manawatu Jets in 2012 and was coached by Ryan Weisenberg, who would prove to be a pivotal figure in Pace’s post-playing career.
“[Weisenberg] told me he would have an opportunity for me whenever I stopped playing,” Pace said. “Fast forward two years later, he got the head coaching position at Pepperdine University and asked me if I wanted a position. I didn’t necessarily want to retire then and go into coaching, but I knew at some point it was going to be my route, so I took him on his offer.”
It was a rough start, as Pepperdine went 9-24 in the 2015-16 season. A year after that, Weisenberg was relieved of his head coaching duties and replaced by DeLisha Milton-Jones after the Waves stumbled to a 7-23 record.
But in the 2018-19 season, the Waves went 22-12 and won their first ever post-season games, as Pepperdine reached the round of 16 in the WNIT.
“It took four years to change that program,” Pace said.
Milton-Jones left to become an assistant women’s basketball coach at Syracuse following the 2018-19 season, and Pace left to take the associate head coaching position at Western New Mexico.
As head coach, Pace is once again in rebuilding mode. The Mustangs went 8-18 before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the athletics department is confident that Pace is the right person to lead the turnaround.
“Josh’s strengths and experience are not just in his extensive playing career, or his knowledge of the game of basketball, but in his personal character. He is truly a players’ coach,” said Western New Mexico Director of Athletics Scott Noble in a release. “His former players at Pepperdine University, as well as our current players, could not say enough great things about Josh. He is highly motivated, which makes him a relentless recruiter, and brings with him a natural energy and urgency.”
For Pace’s part, it’s a position he’s been preparing for his whole life.
“My experience goes well when it comes to teaching,” Pace said. “Just being able to teach everything I’ve learned throughout my basketball playing career.”
It’s been a difficult start with the shelter-in-place rules sweeping across the country and the cancellation of winter and spring sports in all of college athletics.
While Pace isn’t allowed to see his players because of an NCAA moratorium on player contact, he’s still able to keep up with his student-athletes by phone, email or video chat.
“I’m making sure our players are home and doing what they’re supposed to do,” Pace said. “We’ve converted to online classes now. We’re just trying to keep everything moving but keep the right precautions to keep everyone safe.”
Pace has still maintained a strong connection to the Syracuse basketball program. He spoke with Boeheim prior to accepting the head coaching position, and continues to follow the team closely.
Pace was quick to praise current Syracuse forward Marek Dolezaj, who in many ways embodies Pace’s own style of play. Both Dolezaj and Pace are considered by coaches to be “glue guys” — a player who is an impressive teammate in every sense of the word and he takes pride in doing the little things to help the team win.
“[Dolezaj] rebounds and he play makes for the team,” Pace said. “He makes plays and little shots in the lane. He’s a glue guy for this team and he’s only going to continue to get better.”
He’s also confident that after a lull in the past few years, Syracuse will once again rise to prominence.
“We’ve got some good ball players,” Pace said. “We have good guard play and everyone else has been getting better. [Coach Boeheim] is going to do his job and make sure everyone’s ready to play. I’m very confident in next year’s team.”
Spoken like a true head basketball coach.