Team preview: Pepperdine

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

One morning in late summer, new Pepperdine coach Vance Walberg awoke to a frightening feeling.

For no apparent reason, his heart was pounding at literally twice its usual speed, leaving him sweating, drained and, well, petrified. Walberg was given medication for the episode, which finally subsided after four hours. He was back at work the next day, shaken but otherwise OK.

"Scared the heck out of me," he said.

Not that he would wish such a feeling on anyone, but if all goes well, Walberg's Waves might soon be responsible for elevating a few heartbeats -- figuratively, of course.

Walberg comes to Malibu for his first NCAA coaching position with a supercharged system that has gotten players' and fans' blood pumping for years at the high school and junior college levels.

"Definitely, we're going to be up-tempo," Walberg said. "There's no doubt about that. We're going to press and we're going to run. A lot of coaches say they're going to press, and then they'll press for maybe the first five minutes of the game, then they take it off. As of now, I plan on pressing from beginning to end.

"Are we going to gamble defensively? Yes. We're going to press on makes and misses, and that's a big gamble. If you do that, obviously, you're going to give up points. It's just like a blitz in football. You get burned, but you keep blitzing, and that's basically what we're going to do. We're going to give up some nasty dunks, some highlight dunks, there's no doubt. But I just love that up-tempo game."

And that up-tempo game has been very good to Walberg, who posted a 481-159 record in 22 seasons as a high school coach, mostly at Clovis West in Fresno, and led Fresno City College to an astounding 133-11 mark in the last four seasons. The Rams averaged 103.5 points in that span, with a high of 107.6 points per game in 2003-04.

Now, given a chance at last to take over a Division I program, Walberg isn't about to abandon his bread and butter, even though he readily acknowledges that the roster he has inherited -- including the majority of a team that staggered through a 7-20 season in 2005-06 -- doesn't have the horses to play his racehorse brand of basketball.

"No, we don't," he said. "But I want to set the framework. I know we're going to take some losses this year because of my stubbornness. But I came to this position because of the way we play, and I'm going to stick with it.

"I promise you this: We're going to play hard and we're going to be fun to watch. Other than that, I don't know."

Walberg does know a little more about his new team than most first-year coaches, having taken eight players on a 10-day European tour that included four games in France and Switzerland. The Waves went 2-2 on the trip and averaged 106.7 points per game.

That trip verified to Walberg that he has a rising star in 6-0 sophomore Michael Gerrity. Not that it was news to the rest of the West Coast Conference, which last season watched Gerrity average 14.1 points, 3.4 assists and 1.9 steals as a freshman.

This season, his role will be altered by Walberg's new system. Obviously, he'll be counted on to score -- everyone will -- but Gerrity will also be in charge on the break and will be looking for teammates breaking to the basket in transition.

"Sometimes when you change styles, some kids will be a tough fit and some are going to prosper," Walberg said. "Mike's going to be one who really prospers. He's a very strong, tough, competitive kid, so I think the way we spread the floor is going to give him an opportunity to lead the league in assists. He'll definitely have the opportunity to do that. Now if he can learn how to make those extra passes. That'll be the key."

As big a key will be who he'll be passing to, which is very much an open question. Of the eight other returning players on the roster, only sophomore Willie Galick (7.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg) averaged more than 6.5 points a game last season, and he's a 6-8 post player, almost an afterthought in what will essentially be a four-guard lineup most of the time.

So where will the points come from? Everywhere, if Walberg has his way. The new coach said he expects players who produced little in the past, such as 6-3 senior Marvin Lea (2.2 ppg, 1.5 apg) to blossom in the up-tempo game. Indeed, he has Lea penciled in as a starter in the backcourt, along with Gerrity and 6-2 senior Chase Griffin (6.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg), a scrappy sort who, Walberg said, "does a lot of little things I like and fights for loose balls."

"The scoring is going to be done by committee without a doubt," Walberg said, "but I think Marvin Lea is going to prosper. What did he average last year? Two points? But Marvin's more of an up-tempo guy, so in this style, he's going to really benefit. Marvin's going to be one of those kids who can hopefully be a double-figure scorer, because he's an athletic kid."

That's what Walberg prefers, pure athletes between 6-4 and 6-7 who can run all day, and that's the type of player he'll recruit. For now, though, he'll make do with what he has and try to put whatever skills the current players offer to good use.

For example, Tomas Pranciliauskas (3.2 ppg, 1.2 rpg), a 6-4 sophomore from Lithuania, is an accurate outside shooter, so Walberg will create situations to get him loose for open three-pointers. Kingsley Costain (4.2 ppg, 0.6 apg), a 5-7 junior with wing guard skills in a too-small body, might get a chance to cause chaos in the press.

"Whatever they can do well, we'll take advantage of," Walberg said. "If a kid can really run the floor well, we're going to take advantage of that. Tomas is an excellent shooter, so we've got to find ways to get him shots."

Depth is a monumental concern for the Waves because Walberg's high-energy style requires liberal substitutions. That's especially true at guard, where there should be plenty of playing time for 6-3 senior Gregg Barlow (5.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and Walberg's son Jason, a 6-4 senior -- actually, a graduate student -- who moved from St. Mary's to play his final collegiate season for his father. He sat out last year with a knee injury.

Walk-on Michael Nash, a 6-5 red-shirt freshman returning from off-season knee surgery, might be able to help as a shooter, but will likely struggle for court time.
The Waves' only newcomer this season, 6-7 freshman Blake Wallace, will get more of a shot. Wallace, who averaged 20 points as a senior at Servite High in Yorba Linda, Calif., is just the sort of long, lean, sharp-shooting athlete Walberg is looking for (though he was signed by previous coach Paul Westphal), but the coach said strength will be the issue for him.

"I hear he can shoot pretty well from the outside, maybe we'll put him on the perimeter," Walberg said. "Strength is definitely a big deal. For a freshman to come in and play, especially one that's not that strong, that's going to be tough for him. But we're going to need him."

The Waves will also need some production from their one inside presence, though not necessarily as a scorer. The big man in Walberg's system is the goalie at the back of the press and must rebound, run and score from close to the goal if the guards can't make a quick basket in transition.

Walberg said 6-9 sophomore Chris Oakes (5.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) is likely to start at that spot, backed by 6-11 junior Jarrad Henry (3.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Galick. Henry led the Waves with 34 blocked shots in 26 games last season.

"Jarrad's going to be a defensive presence inside," Walberg said. "He's going to challenge the shots when our press breaks down. What we want from Jarrad is to be able to do that and just make the simple play on offense -- get an offensive rebound and put it back, make a simple catch and finish. Same with the rest of them. We need them to rebound and make some easy buckets."


The system, Walberg said, is simple.

"Shoot, shoot and shoot some more," he said. "What we do is spread you out and attack. I call it AASAA -- Attack, Attack, Skip, Attack, Attack. … We kind of take what we think is the best shot that comes up right away. Our saying is, we love layups and we like threes."

The trouble is, Walberg heads into this season with only 11 scholarship players, none of whom has ever played in his system. So he expects to use every player he has, teaching as he goes, and hope for the best.

"That will limit us, but we're a big believer in no excuses," the coach said. "When we need to get someone else in there, we'll just go with the next best, and if it's a walk-on, it's a walk-on and we'll go from there."

The schedule will not make things easier. Eight of the first nine games are on the road, and the non-conference opponents include Connecticut, Washington, Oklahoma State, Colorado, New Mexico and Northern Iowa.

"That's probably not what you want," Walberg said. "But it's there, we're going to take it, and we're still going to press and run. We did that over in Europe. There were times there that we looked pretty good, and there were times that were like, 'Oh, my God.' It's going to be an experience."

Experience is really what Walberg is trying to get from this season. Wins and losses will not be the gauge for Pepperdine's success.

"In a year or two," he said, "once we start getting players that fit the style we play, I think people are going to really love what we do."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2006-07 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).