Tonight's Pepperdine basketball game at Santa Clara is the two teams' first meeting of the year, but it still may be a showdown for the rights to the favorite's role in the West Coast Athletic Conference.
In the preseason, Santa Clara (13-5, 2-0 in the WCAC) was the consensus choice to take the league title, and the Waves (13-6, 2-0) were considered also-rans.
Coach Carroll Williams' Broncos, paced by 6-3 senior guard Harold Keeling and 7-2 senior center Nick Vanos, are formidable. Last week they opened conference play with narrow road wins over Gonzaga, 68-60 in overtime, and Portland, 62-59.
Keeling, who scored 29 points against Gonzaga and 13 against Portland, is averaging 20 points and 5.6 rebounds, leads the WCAC in steals with 52 and has 53 assists. Vanos, invited to last year's Olympic trials, averages 16 points and is the WCAC rebounding leader with 10.7 a game.
Both are being hyped as All-American candidates, and both may deserve the fanfare. Pepperdine, which has no seniors and no one in its first seven over 6-8, will have a tough time stopping Keeling and Vanos, who get help from senior 6-6 forward Scott Lamson, averaging 12.1 points and 5.9 rebounds. The other starters are junior guard Steve Kenilvort, a good outside shooter and the top Bronco assist man with 76, and 6-9 freshman forward Dan Weiss, who scored 14 against Portland.
Those who thought Pepperdine was an also-ran may have forgotten that Coach Jim Harrick usually gets his teams, no matter how inexperienced, running and shooting well by the time league play opens.
This year's young Waves seem to have improved with every game, are a fast-breaking team and have a balanced attack, the five starters scoring in double figures.
Harrick said that a win over the Broncos "would really put our club in the driver's seat. We must play our best ball of the season to beat them at home, but our team speed and overall scoring balance will hurt them."
Beat Defending Champ
They hurt Loyola and San Diego last week as the Waves won conference-opening road games, beating the Lions, 77-62, and defending WCAC champion San Diego, 60-50.
Freshman Levy Middlebrooks, a 6-7 center, starred against Loyola, scoring 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting and grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds. The star of the San Diego game was 6-8 sophomore forward Eric White, who scored a game-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting and snared eight rebounds. White was also chiefly responsible for holding Scott Thompson, the Toreros' 6-11 sophomore center, to just four rebounds and 8 points.
But Pepperdine's real star is balance--in shooting, rebounding and assists. Junior guard Dwayne Polee leads in scoring with a 15.9-point average, White is averaging 15.1 points and 9.3 rebounds, junior 6-7 forward Anthony Frederick 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds, Middlebrooks 12 points and 7.3 boards and junior guard Jon Korfas 12.1 points. Korfas is the top assist man with 95, but Polee is right behind with 91.
The Waves are also the WCAC's best shooting team at 51.9% and are led by White at 54.1% and Korfas and Frederick, both at 53%.
The Waves will try to stop Vanos but merely discourage Keeling, who, Harrick says, is possibly "the best player in our conference and maybe the best guard we've faced this season."
White stopped San Diego's Thompson, but the Toreros big guy is just a sophomore. Vanos is not only a veteran but also at least six inches taller than any of Harrick's best front-liners.
Harrick said, "We'll put Frederick on Vanos. He's our best defender, will work hard on him and will do exactly what we want to get done. He's just our stopper."
As for Keeling, said the Pepperdine coach, "You don't stop him; you contain him." The container will probably be Polee, who usually draws (and often quarters) the other team's top scorer. It's possible that Polee will be the one in a diamond or box-and-one defense and that he will be as successful in holding down Keeling as he was last year against Cal State Fullerton's Leon Wood and Gonzaga's John Stockton, both in the NBA this season.
Last year at Santa Clara the Waves pretty well stopped Vanos, holding him to 12 points and eight rebounds, but Keeling scored 24 and the Broncos won, 77-63. When Santa Clara came to Pepperdine, Vanos had 25 points and 12 rebounds, but Keeling was held to 15 and the Waves won, 62-56.
Of tonight's game, Harrick said, "We're not gonna overreact. We're just gonna go up there and play."
On Saturday night the Waves will go to Moraga and play St. Mary's (9-8, 1-1). Coach Bill Oates' Gaels are 7-1 on their home floor in McKeon Pavilion.
On the road last week, St. Mary's beat Portland, 64-58, but was edged by Gonzaga, 57-55.
David Cooke, a 6-7 senior forward, leads the Gaels with 15.5 points a game and in rebounds with an average of nine; sophomore guard Paul Robertson is averaging 12.2 points, and sophomore guard Bryan Shaw is the WCAC's top assist man (a 5.9 average before last week's games).