It’s as plain as the smile Pepperdine Coach Lorenzo Romar has been wearing for the past few weeks.
For the Waves to win the West Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994, they almost certainly have to play a blend of patient offense and aggressive defense that usually produces low scores.
Pepperdine used that formula to win its last four conference games and gain momentum for the all-important WCC tournament. The second-seeded Waves (17-9) play seventh-seeded San Diego (13-13), another hot team, in a first-round game tonight at 6 at Toso Pavilion.
“I’m very confident that if we come out and play our game, we can do a pretty good job,” Romar said. “In terms of doubts, I don’t have any once we’re out there and competing.”
But questions have been raised about Pepperdine’s lack of depth. With only eight players, the Waves could conceivably have trouble winning three games in three days in what is expected to be a knock-down, drag-out tournament.
Romar, perhaps encouraged by his team’s 4-0 record since center omm’A Givens was suspended for the season, says he isn’t worried.
“If we’re fortunate enough to be there for a third night,” he said, “I think some adrenaline will kick in.”
Of course, Romar isn’t taking anything for granted. In a conference where surprises have become commonplace, it’s almost laughable to label a team the favorite.
“I expect a wild weekend,” Romar said. “It always is in this tournament. It’s very unpredictable.”
Dan Monson, Gonzaga’s coach, isn’t alone when he says, “There are eight teams that can win the tournament.”
Gonzaga won the regular-season title by a game over Pepperdine and boasts WCC player of the year Bakari Hendrix, a physical 6-foot-8 forward who averages a WCC-leading 19.6 points and who possesses a solid perimeter game.
But the Bulldogs’ 65-64 home loss to Pepperdine last week was another indication that the tournament title is up for grabs.
“I’m sure a lot of people are concerned about Pepperdine because they’re playing at a really high level” said Dick Davey, Santa Clara’s coach.
The Waves have plenty of factors in their favor. In all-conference guards Gerald Brown and Jelani Gardner, they have the best backcourt in the WCC and two consistent scorers. In all-conference forward Bryan Hill, they have an inside threat. In forward Tommie Prince, they have a stopper.
Defense, which Romar has emphasized, holds the key. Pepperdine is 17-1 in games in which it allows fewer than 70 points, the exception being a 53-52 loss at Brigham Young that Romar grumbled about for weeks. The Waves are 0-8 in games when they allow 70 or more points.
“They’re playing very good defense,” said San Diego Coach Brad Holland, whose team split its two games with the Waves. “We beat them, so we feel we can compete with Pepperdine, but we know we have to play very well.”
After starting 1-7 in conference play, San Diego beat Pepperdine, 78-70, at home and won four of its past six games. The Toreros are without senior point guard Alex Parker, who last week was suspended for the season for unspecified reasons. Brock Jacobsen, a former Crescenta Valley High standout, moves from shooting guard to the point and freshman Dana White moves into the starting lineup.
Even with San Diego at less than full strength, Romar expects nothing less than a down-to-the-wire struggle.
“They’re a tough team for us to play,” Romar said. “We better come out ready because they’re pretty good. Especially against us.”
WCC tournament notes
In other first-round games today, fourth-seeded St. Mary’s (12-14) plays fifth-seeded San Francisco (16-10) at noon in a rematch of the final last season won by St. Mary’s, top-seeded Gonzaga (21-8) meets eighth-seeded Loyola Marymount (7-19) at about 2:30 p.m., and third-seeded Santa Clara (17-9) plays sixth-seeded Portland (14-12) at 8:30 p.m. The semifinals begin at 6 p.m. Sunday and the final, which will be televised by ESPN, is at 9 p.m. Monday. . . . Santa Clara seemingly has an advantage playing on its home court, but the host has never won the tournament since its inception in 1987. Santa Clara was seeded No. 1 in each of the previous three seasons but lost in the first round each time. . . . Pepperdine is 3-0 against San Diego in the tournament, including a victory in the 1994 final at Santa Clara. . . . The Waves lost in the first round last season to St. Mary’s despite a career-high 39 points by Bryan Hill. Hill leads the WCC in field-goal percentage (63%) and ranks third in rebounding (6.7 per game) and 15th in scoring (12.2).