Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick is not about to use one of the late Amos Alonzo Stagg's strategic ploys as he prepares his team for the NCAA basketball tournament.
Stagg, the legendary football coach at the University of Chicago and later at the College of Pacific, used to praise opponents to the skies, in an effort to keep his usually powerful teams from getting overconfident.
In fact, a headline on a newspaper story, "Stagg Fears Purdue," became a classic and is recalled whenever a coach tends to overpraise an opponent.
Harrick's Waves, though 23-8 and champions of the West Coast Athletic Conference, aren't considered a power in the Midwest Regional. They're seeded 14th.
They aren't playing Purdue either. Pepperdine will open Friday night at 7:30, PST, against third-seeded Duke (22-7) in the regional at the Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston.
Harrick doesn't need to overpraise Duke to his players. The Blue Devils play in what may be the nation's strongest conference, the Atlantic Coast.
What Harrick is saying, however, is that Pepperdine isn't afraid of Duke, nor of any other team in the tournament.
"We're going there to win two," he said. "We respect everybody, but fear no one."
That the Waves are in the tournament ranks as an accomplishment in itself. Before the season began, Pepperdine, which has no seniors and was coming off a 15-13 season, was considered an also-ran in the WCAC race. Most observers believed that the WCAC title would be won easily by Santa Clara, with a veteran team led by 7-2 center Nick Vanos, who went to last year's Olympic trials, and all-conference guard Harold Keeling.
But the Waves, whose most experienced players are junior guards Dwayne Polee and Jon Korfas, matured quickly, as do many youngsters, by leaving home. They played 11 of their first 13 games on the road and won seven, including an 83-81 victory over tough Wichita State before 10,000 raucous fans. The Wheatshockers (18-12) are in the East Regional.
Pepperdine went on to win 17 of its last 19 games and the WCAC title with an 11-1 league mark. The late losses were to league foe St. Mary's, 76-71, and to DePaul, 90-65, before 14,355 fans at the Rosemont Horizon, DePaul's home court. The Waves also demonstrated they were a tough second-half team, winning 10 games after having trailed at halftime.
Harrick is used to being put down, even though his teams have won four of the last five WCAC titles and have been in postseason tournaments in three of the last four seasons--once in the NIT, where they were 0-1, and twice in the NCAA, where they have a 1-2 record. He still doesn't like it much, though.
"I was hoping we would stay in the West (regional), and I am disappointed we were not seeded higher than No. 14. But we will accept that. I guarantee that we will be ready to play. Our objective is to win a few games and let people know who we are."
Who are they besides Polee, 6-5, the WCAC player of the year, and Korfas, 5-11, a three-time All-Southern Section selection at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara? They are 6-8, 200-pound sophomore forward Eric White and 6-7, 190-pound junior forward Anthony Frederick, both first-team all-conference selections this year, and 6-7, 225-pound center Levy Middlebrooks, the conference's freshman of the year.
Each of the starting five scored in double figures, and Polee, a transfer from Nevada Las Vegas and a former star at Manual Arts High School, led the way with a 16.1-point average.
White, who went to Sacred Heart High in San Francisco, averaged 15.5 points and a team-high nine rebounds. Frederick, a transfer from Santa Monica College, averaged 12 points and 7.1 rebounds and set a school single-season record by blocking 79 shots.
Korfas, a transfer from USC who received honorable mention for this year's All-WCAC team, averaged 12.3 points and led the team in assists with 169 to Polee's 150. Middlebrooks, listed at center although he seldom plays the low post, was on last year's state final team at San Francisco's St. Ignatius High. This year he averaged 10.2 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Harrick said his lineup matches up well with Duke, "although they do carry a bit more weight along the front line."
The front line for the Blue Devils includes 6-9, 225-pound junior power forward Mark Alarie, a second-team All-Atlantic Coast selection from Scottsdale, Ariz., who averages 16 points and 4.9 rebounds and is shooting 59% from the floor. The other forward is 6-7, 215-pound Dan Meagher (8.3 points, 4.1 rebounds) of Canada and at center is 6-8, 235-pound Jay Bilas, who was All-Southern Section at Rolling Hills High and is averaging 10 points and a team-high 5.9 rebounds.
Polee, Pepperdine's best defensive player, probably will be asked to contain Johnny Dawkins, Duke's 6-2 junior guard, who is leading his team in scoring with an average of 18.7 points and is shooting 50%. Dawkins, of Washington, D.C., was one of two alternates on last year's gold-medal U.S. Olympic team and was an All-ACC selection this season.
The other guard is 6-0 sophomore Tommy Amakerof Falls Church, Va., who tops the Blue Devils in assists with six a game, and also averages eight points.
Harrick thinks that his team's embarrassing loss to DePaul may have been good preparation for the NCAA tournament. At least his club now has had experience against high-powered, big-time opposition.
"I'm glad we played DePaul, but I'm certainly not glad we got beat like we did. That was tough," he said.
"We didn't prepare well for DePaul because for us it was the middle of the conference season. They're experienced, and it was a big-time game for the inexperienced team that we have.
"You can go back through the schedules of a lot of teams and find games like that. North Carolina State beat Duke by 18 at North Carolina State. You run into those games when a team is really hot and you don't play a good game.
"But we're gonna play better against Duke than we did against DePaul, I'll tell you that."