In the last three weeks of the West Coast Athletic Conference basketball race, Pepperdine is jockeying for better position. But the Waves may be riding the wrong horse this week.
The Waves, 3-6 in conference play and 8-14 overall, are on the road, where they are 0-9 this season. They are at Portland (5-4, 13-9) tonight and go against Gonzaga (6-3, 15-7) on Saturday night.
Pepperdine, in seventh place in the WCAC, is trying to finish fourth or better in order to be a host team for the first round of the conference playoffs. If the Waves don't do that well, they will have to win a first-round game in enemy territory.
The Pacific Northwest has been a friendly spot for Pepperdine. The Waves have swept away games with Portland and Gonzaga for the last five years. But that is history.
In the historical present, Pepperdine is struggling to defend its conference championship.
When the Portland Pilots defeated the Waves, 69-57, in Malibu in January, they snapped a 10-game losing streak to Pepperdine, dating to 1981. Portland Coach Jack Avina didn't have the good outside shooting in past years that he has enjoyed this year with a pair of 6-3 guards named Greg.
Freshman Greg Anthony is averaging 15.5 points a game to lead the Pilots and scored 31 points against Pepperdine the last time the teams met. Junior Greg Attaway is right behind Anthony, averaging 14.4 points, and has been a steadying influence in the back court.
Though it doesn't look that way on paper, second-place Gonzaga might be easier to pick on.
The Bulldogs had won five straight before the string was snapped on the road last week in losses to Santa Clara and the University of San Francisco. And in Malibu in January, the Waves defeated Gonzaga, 87-78.
Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick said "everybody still has a chance to finish among the top four teams in the conference and host a first-round game."
Harrick said the University of San Diego, in first place with a 9-1 conference record and 18-4 overall, "has a lock on the top spot, but it's a real dogfight for the other positions. We can certainly help our cause by picking up a road win."
But he admitted it won't be easy. "Obviously, the road has not treated us well this season," he said, "and we need to play our best basketball of the year if we hope to win this week.
"The motivation to host a first-round game should help us because we are capable of beating Portland and Gonzaga if we play to our potential."
The teams that finish in the top four in the conference race will each play host to a team from the bottom four in the tournament's first round on Feb. 28. Winners go to the semifinals on March 6 at USF, and the championship game is on March 7, also at USF.
Pepperdine's best rebounder, junior Levy Middlebrooks, is expected to return to action tonight after he was sidelined last week because of a strained Achilles' tendon. Middlebrooks played only briefly in a 78-73 loss to San Diego and not at all in a 65-49 victory over St. Mary's. In 14 minutes against the Toreros, he was held scoreless and grabbed just three rebounds.