In last year's season-opening trip to Hawaii, Pepperdine's young basketball team began to jell, winning two of three games, and several observers said the players had come of age in the islands.
In this year's opener, against highly ranked Kansas in the preseason Big Apple NIT, the Waves may have lost, 67-61--but they acted their age.
Opening on the road is tough for any team, but opening against Coach Larry Brown's Jayhawks--ranked as high as fourth in the nation--and winning would have been a big order to fill for the Waves. Pepperdine may be the defending West Coast Athletic Conference champion, but its best national rating was 29th (by Basketball Weekly).
Pepperdine had all its starters back for the opener in Denver, led by senior guard Dwayne Polee, WCAC player of the year. But the tallest starter for Waves' Coach Jim Harrick was 6-8 forward Eric White.
Kansas Had Height
Brown also began the season with five returning starters, but his front line included 6-11 sophomore Danny Manning, who was named freshman of the year last season by NBC Television, and 7-1, 250-pound senior center Greg Dreiling.
With those two towers up front, it may have been helpful if Pepperdine had practiced defending against or shooting over tall ladders equipped with wings like a DC-10.
Anthony Frederick, 6-7, 190-pound senior Wave forward and a force inside, fouled out late in the second half when Pepperdine was trying to come from behind. He picked up two fouls trying to guard Dreiling, six inches taller and at least 60 pounds heavier.
Polee, who likes to drive the lane and put up short shots, was forced to shoot farther out and arch his shots higher than he likes to. Senior guard Jon Korfas, who is only 5-11, likes to shoot outside--but not from as far out as he had to at times because of the big Kansas men in the middle.
Waves Led at Halftime
But despite these handicaps, Pepperdine's players were not intimidated and played Kansas tough in the first half. Dreiling was held scoreless and did not have a rebound in the opening period, and Manning had only four points and four rebounds. The Waves out-rebounded Kansas, 18-11, and led at halftime, 29-28.
As the second half began, however, Manning started to play like a strong candidate for sophomore of the year. Kansas outscored Pepperdine, 13-4, in the first four minutes, and Manning had four baskets in that span. On one occasion, he stole the ball, drove the length of the court and dunked.
When Dreiling got his first basket of the game it was a dunk on an assist from Manning, and it gave Kansas a 41-33 lead. With 3:39 remaining in the game, the Jayhawks were ahead, 60-51, and Pepperdine was forced into taking chances to catch up. With 1:11 left, Korfas hit a 24-footer to cut the lead to 61-59, but Frederick and Polee had fouled out and that was as close as the Waves could get.
Kansas did not play like a top-10 team in the first half, but the Jayhawks looked like No. 1 in the second half. Kansas outrebounded Pepperdine, 25-8. Manning finished with 12 points and a game-high 8 rebounds, Dreiling scored all of his nine points and grabbed all of his seven rebounds in the final period. Guard Calvin Thompson led Kansas in scoring with 14 points, and guard Cedric Hunter added 12.
Balanced Wave Scoring
Pepperdine received balanced scoring from Polee (14 points), White (13), Levy Middlebrooks (11) and Korfas (10). Guard Grant Gondrezick, showing no ill effects from a year off after knee surgery, added eight points on four-of-seven shooting from the floor, was diving for loose balls and had two steals in 23 minutes of play.
The next day a member of the Pepperdine traveling party told a reporter that he thought Polee had the same kind of game he did when the Waves were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament last season in the first round by Duke, 75-62. But his impressions were mistaken.
In the Duke game, Polee finished with just five points on 2-for-11 shooting from the floor and was also ineffective in other departments. Against Kansas, he hit four of eight field-goal attempts, was six-of-six from the foul line and had a game-high three steals.
In the press room afterward, one reporter was overheard saying that Polee had shown that he was a strong candidate for All-American.
Brown Praises Waves
After the game, Coach Harrick said his team has to improve its defense and rebounding and that "we were not handling the ball well." But he added that "we haven't practiced for five weeks against guys with arms and hands like Dreiling's and Manning's." Maybe next time.
There may be a next time, if you believe Coach Brown. He said he thinks that Pepperdine "is going to be playing in March. I feel we were very fortunate to win."
Fortune plays a large part in many games. It did the night before in Denver's McNichols Arena (the site the next day of the Big Apple regional) when the Lakers lost to the Denver Nuggets, 121-120, on a 22-footer by Wayne Cooper with four seconds left. You might call it a lucky shot since Cooper had missed six of his previous seven field goal tries.
You also might say that Cooper followed Denver Coach Doug Moe's instructions to the letter, even though he misunderstood the order.
A story that was going the rounds of the McNichols press room at halftime of the Pepperdine-Kansas game was that Moe, a former teammate of Brown, had shouted to Cooper, "Take a 20," meaning that he wanted Cooper to take a 20-second timeout. Cooper thought he meant a 20-foot shot, took it and hit it.
Fortune must have been grinning from ear to ear on that one.