AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Reggie Theus took over as Cal State Northridge basketball coach on Friday, thrilled to be back in the college ranks where he had his greatest success as a player and a coach.
The former UNLV star who later guided New Mexico State to the NCAA tournament was introduced to an enthusiastic crowd in the 1,600-seat Matadome, where he promised the Matadors will play an up-tempo style with full-court pressure defense as "the hardest-playing team in the conference."
Theus succeeds Bobby Braswell, who was fired March 17 after 17 years that included three 20-win seasons, two NCAA tournament appearances and a 251-258 record at the Big West school.
Theus had been coaching the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the NBA's D-League since October 2011. He landed there not long after two losing seasons as coach of the NBA's Sacramento Kings. But he never stopped trying to get another college head coaching job.
"It's what I wanted," he said. "Being in California is even better for me. My heart is in college basketball."
The 55-year-old coach is from nearby Inglewood, the same hometown as Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce and retired WNBA star Lisa Leslie.
Theus and new athletic director Brandon Martin held up a red Northridge jersey with the coach's name on the back.
"It looks like 1980 I could probably wear this," said Theus, who led UNLV to its first Final Four in 1977.
Theus' rough ride in Sacramento that ended with his firing early in the 2008-09 season proved costly in quickly landing another head coaching job. The Kings won 38 games in his first season and just 17 in his second. The beleaguered franchise hasn't come close to winning 38 games since he was there.
Theus said there's no bad feelings between himself and the Maloof family that owns the Kings, adding that they talked a couple of weeks ago when he was pursuing the Northridge job.
"You can do a good job in the NBA and still get fired," he said. "It did set me back. It's taken me four years to get back. I've come in second to some pretty high-level jobs."
Theus takes over at the same time as Steve Alford and Andy Enfield, who got the coaching jobs at UCLA and Southern California, respectively, shortly before he was hired. With Los Angeles roots stretching back to his days at Inglewood High, Theus figures he's in a good position to recruit in a region loaded with basketball talent.
"It's going to be a war when it comes to recruiting," he said. "There's probably not one (local) basketball coach I don't know."
Unlike Alford, whose 18-year-old son will be playing for him in Westwood, Theus won't have his only son on the Northridge roster. Reggie Jr., an 18-year-old who played at Fairfax High in Los Angeles, has already committed to another school.
During Braswell's tenure, Northridge upset UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, giving the school its first-ever win over a nationally ranked team.
"I'm sure we'll play a couple of high-caliber teams," Theus said about future schedules.
Theus takes over a program that went 14-17 this season. The Matadors won their first seven games and then lost six of their final seven. They finished ninth among 10 teams in the Big West with a 5-13 record, and failed to make the conference tournament.
"It's all about changing the culture here," he said. "There's a little bit of a third-wheel attitude here and that's got to stop yesterday."
His goal for the program is to compete for Big West titles and "eventually run deep in the NCAAs."
Theus' hiring is the first big one for Martin, who began his new job as athletic director earlier this month.
"In all my conversations with Reggie, I knew he was special," Martin said. "I wanted someone who wanted our job. We want to compete with some of the high-level major schools people talk about all the time."
Martin talked to coach Rick Pitino of newly crowned national champion Louisville in vetting Theus, who was an assistant under Pitino from 2003-05.
"He talked about Reggie's ability to recruit and his connection to student-athletes and his hunger to be the best coach in the country," said Martin, citing Theus' integrity, understanding of NCAA rules and compliance and his work ethic among his other strengths.
"There was a big buzz in Atlanta at the Final Four about our hire," university President Dianne Harrison said.
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