Last season, four players who practiced with the Pepperdine basketball team but were not eligible may have been more talented than the Waves’ bench players.
This season, third-year Coach Lorenzo Romar expects that talent to transform into improved depth and some needed scoring, as the Waves, who finished one game behind first-place Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference last season, have to replace two All-WCC players.
With Gerald Brown and Bryan Hill graduated, Pepperdine lost its leading scorer for the last four seasons and leading rebounder for the last three.
Four players who sat out last season but are now eligible, including 6-foot-11 Nick Sheppard (a transfer from Louisiana State) and 6-7 David Lalazarian (a transfer from Notre Dame), not only give the Waves depth, but also a bigger presence inside.
“Any time you get a big body in the middle that can put the ball in the basket, be a presence in the middle and can rebound, it’s a tremendous plus,” said Romar, whose team made the second-best turnaround in NCAA Division I last season, going 17-10 after a 6-21 record in 1996-97.
“In my first year, we finished with six guys,” he said. “Last year, we probably went eight or nine deep. This year it’ll probably go 10 or 11.”
Cedric Suitt, a 6-11 redshirt freshman, and Tezale Archie, a junior who was a medical redshirt, join Sheppard, Lalazarian and three freshmen to give the Waves seven players they didn’t have last season.
“I think the addition of guys like Sheppard and Lalazarian will help,” Romar said. “And our guys from last year have shown improvement.”
One of those is 6-6 point guard Jelani Gardner, the Waves’ third All-WCC player last season.
A transfer from Cal, the senior will be relied on to provide leadership and run the offense.
“He is our most vocal leader,” Romar said of Gardner. “He’s a hard worker too.”
And a scorer.
Gardner, second on the team last season with 14.1 points a game, led the Waves with 19 points in their season-opening 71-51 victory over UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.
But he is not the Waves’ only weapon.
Senior Tommie Prince, who went to UCLA before moving to Arizona State, is in his third season at Pepperdine. He is coming off a broken foot and has been at full speed for only the last few weeks.
After starting every game at small forward last season, Prince will move to the backcourt with Gardner. Lalazarian takes over at forward.
The other forward is sophomore Kelvin Gibbs, who started 18 games and averaged 4.7 points last season, while Sheppard is the center.
Senior Marc McDowell, an All-WCC honorable mention as a sophomore, will be the first man off the bench. He played in all 27 games last season as the sixth man. He scored 19 points to lead the Waves Tuesday in a 71-58 victory over UC Irvine.
The talent is there for the Waves to win the WCC title. In the coaches’ poll, Pepperdine was picked second to Gonzaga.
“No disrespect to last year’s team, we had a lot of talent last year, but this is more of a team this year,” Gardner said. “Teams that play as a team and execute succeed in this conference.”
If that’s the case, then Romar should like his chances.
“I thought last year, the team was coming together,” he said. “But this is the closest group yet.
“Our goal is to make it to the NCAA tournament. But we don’t want to be a team that’s just happy to be there. If we’re fortunate enough to make it, we won’t be satisfied with only that.”
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PEPPERDINE AT A GLANCE
Date: Opponent, Time Nov. 14: Pepperdine 71, UC Santa Barbara 51 Nov. 17: Pepperdine 71, UC Irvine 58 Tonight: Fresno State, 5 Saturday: at Long Beach State, 7 Tuesday: Wichita State, 7 Nov. 28: at Cal State Fullerton, 7 Dec. 5: Kansas at Arrowhead Pond, 2 Dec. 12: at Wisconsin, 1:30 Dec. 17: Southern California College, 5 Dec. 21: Michigan State, 3* Dec. 22: Texas Tech or Tulsa, 5 or 10* Dec. 23: Pearl Harbor Classic, 3, 5, 8 or 10* Dec. 29: Rhode Island, 5# Dec. 30: Sparkletts Invitational, 2:30 or 5# Jan. 2: at San Jose State, 7:30 Jan. 7: at Portland, 7 Jan. 9: at Gonzaga, 7 Jan. 15: Santa Clara, 7 Jan. 16: San Francisco, 5 Jan. 21: at St. Mary’s, 7:30 Jan. 23: at San Diego, 7 Jan. 29: San Diego, 7 Jan. 30: St. Mary’s, 5 Feb. 3: at Loyola Marymount, 7:30 Feb. 6: Loyola Marymount, 5 Feb. 12: at San Francisco, 7 Feb. 14: at Santa Clara, 3 Feb. 19: Gonzaga, 7 Feb. 20: Portland, 5 Feb. 27-Mar. 1: WCC tournament, TBA * Pearl Harbor Basketball Classic at Lale, Hawaii # Sparkletts Invitational at Pepperdine
No. Player: Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr. 00 Jeremy Vague 6-10 220 Fr. 5 David Lalazarian F 6-7 205 So. 11 Craig Lewis G 6-3 190 Fr. 13 Jelani Gardner G 6-6 205 Sr. 20 Robert Fomby G 6-1 175 Jr. 21 Nick Sheppard C 6-11 240 Jr. 22 Tezale Archie G 6-1 175 Jr. 23 Tommie Prince G 6-5 210 Sr. 25 Al Minahan G 6-3 185 So. 32 Kelvin Gibbs F 6-6 245 So. 33 Ross Varner F 6-7 220 Fr. 35 Marc McDowell F 6-7 200 Sr. 55 Cedric Suitt C 6-11 215 Fr.
Scoring: Gardner, 14.1 ppg
Rebounds: Gibbs, 4.3
Assists: Gardner, 5.4
Steals: Gardner, 1.8
FG%: Gardner, .435
FT%: Gardner, .776