UCLA senior transfer Brendan Lane (right) has been a pleasant surprise for the up-start 3-0 Waves
It has been a while since the Pepperdine Waves have achieved success in basketball, as the program has had quite a history in terms of producing some successful coaches who earned their stripes in Malibu. Jim Harrick led his team to multiple NCAA Tournament berths before he took over at UCLA and won a national title (and committed multiple violations there as well as other stops at Rhode Island and Georgia). Lorenzo Romar built a key foundation for the Waves before he took the St. Louis position (and then eventually Washington's, his current spot). Jan Van Breda Kolff led the Waves to a surprise Sweet 16 appearance before leaving for St. Bonaventure in 2001, and Paul Westphal led his team to a 21-win season and NCAA Tournament berth in his first year. The bottom line? The Waves have had talent and success in the past with their teams.
Recently though, time have been pretty rough for the Waves. After a successful first season with Van Breda Kolff's players (including Brandon Armstrong), Westphal failed to reach success, as he hovered at or around .500 for three seasons before going 7-20 in his last year. Dribble-Drive Motion Offense guru Vance Walberg took over for Westphal in 2006, promising that his high octane offense (which John Calipari adopted at Memphis and was successful for Walberg at Fresno City College) would help the Waves make an impact in the WCC. Defensively though, the Waves struggled in his first year (they rated 308th in the nation in defensive efficiency in 2007-2008) and after a 6-12 start in his second year, Walberg stepped down. Former Waves coach Tom Asbury stepped up to take over the program that season and stayed on as head coach for three more seasons, but Asbury was unable to rekindle the success of his first tenure (1988-1994), and he too stepped down early on in the 2011 season.
Now, the man in charge is Marty Wilson. Wilson has achieved mixed success so far as the Waves' head man. Wilson went 3-10 as interim filling in for Asbury, and in his first two seasons, he went 22-31. Though he brought in some talent like Stacy Davis, who earned WCC Newcomer of the Year last season, many figured the Waves to hover near the bottom of the WCC.
So far, the Waves have been the biggest surprise in the WCC this year. They are 10-5 to start the season and 3-0 in conference play with big wins over BYU at home and Santa Clara on the road. On the offensive end, the Waves have excelled in conference play so far, as their 114.8 offensive rating and 46.6 3 point percentage are the best marks in WCC play, and their 52.9 eFG percentage is rated 2nd. For the season, Pepperdine hasn't been a WCC fluke either, as their offensive rating for the year is 108.5, 77th best in the nation, a vast improvement on their 96.4 mark a season ago.
How has Wilson and his Waves experienced so much success? We all know about Davis, sure, but the production of center Brendan Lane and guards Jeremy Major and Malcolm Brooks has been a key reason why the Waves are sitting at the top of the WCC standings along with Gonzaga. Lane, a senior transfer who languished on the bench at UCLA, has been a revelation in the post this year, as evidenced by his numbers: 124.1 offensive rating, 63 percent effective field goal percentage, 10.4 offensive rebounding percentage, 8.2 block percentage. So far, Lane's production has been up there with higher profile players in the conference like St. Mary's Brad Waldow and Gonzaga's Sam Dower. That being said, unlike Waldow or Dower, Lane hasn't been affected by injuries or ineffective nights, which has happened to both players as of late.
Major and Brooks' production has also been a God send for Wilson's team. Brooks, though he is not a "primary" ball handler (16.5 usage rate), has been effective when he does have the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his 125.3 offensive rating and 58 effective field goal percentage. The best aspect of Brooks' game though has been his ability to take care of the ball, as he only has a turnover percentage of 8.4 for the year (in comparison to an assist rate of 13.6, a +5.2 percent difference). As for Major, the Freshman guard has been an extraordinary playmaker for the Waves as he is sporting a 29.9 assist rate along with a usage rate of 22.3. Major still has the same freshman problems in terms of taking care of the ball (19.9 turnover rate), but he has showed the ability and aggressiveness to keep the Waves productive on the offensive end of things. Add these three with Davis, who is posting a better season than his lauded freshman year (which I noted in this post), and the Waves have a starting lineup that can compete with any squad in the WCC.
A lot of props though has to be given to Wilson, who has eased off the reigns a bit in his third year as head man in Malibu. He has let his newcomers play and experience the early mistakes and successes that come with being young players. Furthermore, he has let them play a more wide open game, as evidenced by their 66.7 Adjusted Tempo, which is 2.9 points higher than a year ago and 4.8 points higher than his first full year as head coach. The initial preference for a slower, more half-court oriented game is not surprising considering his tenure as an assistant under Asbury and at Utah under Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylean (both slower-tempo coaches). However, by trusting his players more and letting them play a more full-court style, the Waves have been much better offensively, as their 108.5 offensive rating is 12.1 points higher than a year ago and 15.2 points higher than his first full year. Give Wilson credit when credit is due: he adjusted to the talent he had on his roster, and it has paid dividends in his third year.
Now, can Wilson lead the Waves to a WCC crown (either regular season or tournament)? It is tough to say after three games, but to be frank, they have as good a shot as anyone. While Gonzaga's defense probably will carry them to another WCC championship of some sort (ether regular season, tournament or both), the Waves are not much different than other competing squads in the WCC (which at this point, looks like everyone). They are good offensively, and inconsistent defensively (they rank 241st in the nation in AdjD). That kind of profile will probably keep them in every game in the WCC this year, but it could also lead to letdowns as well (as evidenced by LMU and Santa Clara last night). I think the post presence of Lane and Davis, and the development of Brooks and Major on the perimeter will be key factors to watch this year. If Brooks and Major especially can continue the progress they have made this season, then it's definitely in the realm of possibility to think that Pepperdine could sneakily be the second best team in the WCC. They may not be better than Gonzaga, but they certainly could give anyone else fits (not to mention a loss or two).