Latest in a series of occasional articles looking at the Southland’s Division I basketball programs.
In 2011, when Stacy Davis was entering his senior year of high school in Arizona, he attended a basketball camp at Pepperdine. He was young for his grade, 16, and not much of a prospect.
The Pepperdine coaches had their eyes on someone else — until they were told, time and again, where their focus should actually be.
After each session, a different Pepperdine player approached the coaching staff gushing about Davis, recalled John Impelman, now the Waves’ recruiting coordinator and assistant coach.
That Davis was so young helped Pepperdine land a relatively unknown gem. “I think we were probably lucky to get him the year we did,” Impelman said. “If he’d been a year younger in high school, we probably wouldn’t have been able to get him.”
Four years later, it remains one of the best decisions of Pepperdine Coach Marty Wilson’s tenure. In the season before Davis arrived, Pepperdine won 10 games. But the Waves have improved every season he’s been on the roster. From 12 wins, to 15, to 18.
Last season, the Waves’ fourth-place finish in the West Coast Conference was their best in more than a decade. This season, they are picked to finish third, behind Gonzaga and Brigham Young.
Davis, a 6-foot-6 forward, has matured along with Pepperdine’s program.
As a junior in high school, Davis didn’t have any scholarship offers. He describes it as the most difficult period of his life.
One week, Davis said, he noticed his mother, Felicia, acting strangely. During a car ride, she had grown emotional and told him she needed to give him important advice.
“Don’t ever do something you don’t love,” she said.
Davis thought her solemn mood seemed out of character.
About a week later, Davis returned from school and found his grandparents waiting for him. “Your mom’s in the hospital, and it’s really bad,” his grandfather said.
His mother had suffered a stroke.
The next day, Davis visited her in the intensive-care unit. She was unable to talk.
Looking back, Davis says the next few months would define his life. He saw his father, Stacy III, strain to care for his wife and his children. He said it taught him about love and selflessness.
Davis changed high schools to be closer to home and to lend assistance. Felicia said he was instrumental in her recovery.
Although his family’s situation was stressful, Davis said it also crystallized what should be his priorities. As his mother got better, so, too, did his basketball. After his breakout performance at Pepperdine’s camp, scholarship offers started to trickle in.
He said he chose Pepperdine because he felt at home, although the head coach sometimes doesn’t make it comfortable.
From the time Davis arrived, Wilson was particularly demanding of him.
“I’m on Stacy harder than anybody else on the team,” Wilson said. “Consistently. And I think he gets frustrated at times. But I’ve explained to him, ‘I’m on you because you’re capable of more.’”
Davis arrived at Pepperdine a bit bulky, partly because of a trail mix habit.
“He would do anything for trail mix,” teammate Jeremy Major said. “I remember in the summer he told me he woke up, and at 5 a.m. he went to the gas station and got trail mix for breakfast.”
Soon, Davis learned to eat better, and he picked up yoga. During the summers, he stayed on campus to work on his strength and play against NBA players such as Tyson Chandler, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Now, teammates laugh each time he tries to squeeze his muscular frame into his small Ford Focus.
In his final college season, Davis is hoping the Waves can push past Gonzaga and challenge for a conference championship. Gonzaga was a unanimous choice among conference coaches to capture what would be its 15th WCC regular-season title in 16 years.
Part of what inspires Davis is what transpired near the end of a game against Gonzaga last season.
Gonzaga, a heavy favorite, had given Pepperdine a late-in-the-game gift: two missed free throws. But Davis didn’t get proper positioning, and the rebound tipped off his hand and out of bounds.
Months removed, he recalls every detail of the sequence. Pepperdine lost by two.
“That game was my fault,” Davis said.
There will be more ghosts to slay early on this season. UCLA had its way with Pepperdine in a game Thursday. Of particular concern: the Bruins scored 81 points.
One of their challenges with Davis, several team members said, is that he passes too much. They want him to be more selfish.
So they needle him, telling him he should average a double-double.
This is Wilson’s vision. The upperclassmen in his program becoming coaches’ proxies.
This season’s senior class represents the first players the coach recruited to progress through his system.
They have helped turn around a struggling program and, Wilson hopes, have changed the culture for good.