Pepperdine’s play in the last two basketball games of the season--against New Mexico State and then the University of New Mexico in National Invitation Tournament road games--mirrored the way the team often performed in big games.
But the reflected images were sharply different.
In probably their best game of the year, the Waves easily defeated New Mexico State, 84-69, in the first round of the NIT.
Against the Aggies, they jumped out to a 7-0 lead, shared the ball and received balanced scoring from the regulars. They shot well (57%), controlled the tempo against a tough defense, extended their lead to 72-43 with 3:41 remaining and coasted home.
In a second-round 86-69 loss to New Mexico, Pepperdine’s performance was similar to that of the first-round game--but in reverse.
The Waves fell behind, 15-5, played as individuals rather than as a team, and a couple of players wound up doing much of the scoring. Pepperdine shot poorly (37.7%), was controlled by a strong defense, fell behind by as many as 17 points late in the game and never got untracked.
There were games, of course, that fit neither of those patterns--games in which neither Pepperdine nor its opponent dominated from the outset. But there were at least five other contests against top opposition in which the Waves took charge early and five more against quality teams in which Pepperdine was led around by the nose.
Pepperdine dictated what went on in road wins over UC Irvine and Marshall and in home victories over Santa Clara, the University of San Francisco and Loyola Marymount.
The Waves also were easy pickings in losses at Nevada Las Vegas, Loyola Marymount, St. Mary’s and Santa Clara and in a defeat at home by North Carolina.
But it still turned out to be Pepperdine’s best season since Coach Jim Harrick’s 1985-86 Waves finished with a 25-5 record.
The 1988-89 Waves were 20-13, tied Loyola Marymount for second place in the West Coast Athletic Conference and were 1-1 in the conference tournament.
In the NIT they won their first postseason game since Harrick’s 1982 team defeated Pittsburgh, 99-88, in the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.
Pepperdine was one of four WCAC teams to finish with 20 victories or more, the first time that happened in conference history. The other three were St. Mary’s (25-5), Loyola Marymount (20-11) and Santa Clara (20-11), and all four won berths in postseason play, another conference first.
The Waves accomplished all that under a head coach in his first year, Tom Asbury, who succeeded Harrick after he was named UCLA’s coach. Asbury, Harrick’s top assistant at Pepperdine for nine years, also installed a new offense, going from a high-post to a low-post attack.
The change from a familiar offensive set may have caused difficulties for a few players, at least during the early part of the season, but Asbury said the change was necessary.
“There was no way we could have run the same offense we had in the past and still have been productive,” he said. “If we hadn’t, we couldn’t have played (senior center Casey) Crawford and (freshman forward-center Geoff) Lear at all.”
In explaining the switch before the season, Asbury said:
“When guys like Crawford play the high post, they have difficulty being a force offensively because all they are are catchers and passers.
“We need to get our big guys closer to the basket to do the things they are physically more capable of doing. Most big men have difficulty scoring from 15 or 16 feet and (in a low-post offense) they should also increase their rebounding because they’ll be closer.”
The new offense seemed to work for Crawford and Lear.
After averaging five points and 5.5 rebounds as an occasional starter last year, Crawford led the team in rebounding as a regular this season with a 7.5 average and averaged eight points a game. He also led the team with 43 blocked shots and was dominating inside in several games.
Lear, who played more than 19 minutes a game, averaged five points and nearly five rebounds--not bad production for a freshman who saw limited playing time.
Asbury said that if someone had told him before the season that the Waves would do as well as they did “I would have taken it. By the same token, there were a number of games I would like to have had back too.”
He said that “no coach is ever fully satisfied unless his team goes 31-0,” but added that his team’s losses were not to patsies. Of the teams that defeated the Waves, only Montana State and USF did not win 20 games or more, he noted. Montana State won by three points in Pepperdine’s second game of the season, and USF edged the Waves by one point at San Francisco.
“We probably didn’t shoot the ball (as well) as we had hoped,” Asbury added. The Waves shot 45.7%, compared to 51.5% last season.
The shooting percentages of Asbury’s three junior starters also dropped. Forward Tom Lewis went from 49.5% to 42.2%, guard Craig Davis from 49.3% to 42.3%, and forward Dexter Howard, after a hot streak in the early going, from 53.4% to 49.6%.
“People figure out ways to stop your high scorers in league--and not only in league,” Asbury said. “My goal was to balance the scoring out anyway; I wasn’t interested in Lewis leading the nation in scoring.”
Asbury got the balance he wanted.
Lewis, after leading the conference in scoring with 23 points a game last year, averaged a team-high 16.2 points this season. Howard averaged 15.9, Davis 12.5 and Shann Ferch 10.2. Junior Ferch is the heir apparent to senior point guard Marty Wilson, the only other starter besides Crawford that Asbury will lose.
Asbury said that he is “not a big preseason prognosticator” and would say only that “we are going to be decent” next year.
Lewis, Howard, Davis and Ferch will probably start, and eventually so will 6-10, 250-pound center Mark Georgeson, the transfer from Arizona who has 2 1/2 seasons of eligibility remaining. But Georgeson probably won’t play his first game for Pepperdine until sometime next January because he transferred in the middle of the season.
Asbury also said that Georgeson suffered a stress fracture of a small bone in his right foot in practice, for which he may need surgery. Even if the center has surgery, he said, he should be ready by January.
Until Georgeson is ready, 6-9 sophomore Damon Braly and 6-8 David Hairston will probably take up some of the slack for him.
Asbury said that Georgeson is a “better offensive player” than Crawford. “He is a good shooter and passer, and handles the ball well for a big guy.
“Mark doesn’t have Casey’s speed, quickness or shot-blocking and jumping ability. But I think he’s going to be a real solid player.”
He also expects solid play from redshirt forwards Steve Guild, a freshman, and Rex Manu, a junior, and from freshman guard Doug Christie, who was academically ineligible this season under Proposition 48. He said another good addition should be 6-9 forward Derek Noether, a senior at Clovis West High School in Fresno who signed an early letter of intent. Freshman Rick Welch, who played well, if briefly, this season, should push Ferch at point guard, and there is a high school point guard in Glendale, Ariz., that Asbury would like to see in a Pepperdine uniform next season.
Asbury said he is in what looks like a race with Arizona State and Texas El Paso to sign 5-9 Damon Lopez, who played for his father at Apollo High School.
He said Lopez is “a true point guard who can run the offense” and “really shoot the ball.”