The fortunes of the Pepperdine basketball team, attempting to bounce back from last year's uncharacteristic 12-18 overall record, may well rest this season with two very different 6-7 forwards: muscular, outgoing Levy Middlebrooks and slender, aloof Tom Lewis.
At his preseason press conference this week, Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick said he will have "a very small team and rebounding will be a key factor in every game."
Harrick admitted that he is "real concerned about the post position," where he said he doesn't have "the strong athlete we've had in the past."
If that concern turns into dismay, most of the rebounding burden will fall on the shoulders of Middlebrooks, a senior who, Harrick said, can lie "in bed and get 10 rebounds a game."
Lewis, the sophomore who led USC in scoring as a freshman but redshirted last year after transferring to Pepperdine, could relieve Middlebrooks of some of the load--if he gets a lot of playing time with the Waves and rebounds as well as he did last summer at the U.S. Olympic Festival.
Harrick said that at the festival Lewis averaged 17 points and more than seven rebounds a game, which was remarkable because players there were limited to 24 minutes of playing time a game. But he added that he doesn't know what to expect of Lewis with Pepperdine because "in practice, he will not rebound."
However, he added that Orlando Phillips, who came to Pepperdine in 1981 after two years of junior college basketball, "did not rebound well in practice, and I didn't start him for the first five games." Phillips went on to lead the Waves in rebounding in his junior and senior years, and Pepperdine won West Coast Athletic Conference championships with him as a front-court starter.
Harrick said he is not worried about Lewis, adding: "I think he's going to be all right."
He said that Lewis, who left USC after George Raveling replaced Stan Morrison as coach, has to concentrate on more things besides rebounding. He said Lewis must improve shot selection and learn "when to pass and when to drive, when to dribble and when to pull up and shoot."
He said that the slender sophomore must also improve on field goal percentage, about 44% at USC.
If Harrick thinks Lewis will be all right, he wants Middlebrooks "to be a star." The 240-pounder, who weighed about 225 last year, will be a little late setting out on the road to stardom this season. He twisted a knee on the first day of practice and expects to miss about a week of workouts.
Middlebrooks, the conference freshman of the year in 1984, has already made inroads on stardom. As a sophomore, he was not named to the all-conference team, but he was selected last year after he led the conference in rebounding with an average of 9.1 a game and also averaged 13.1 points.
Harrick said he is concerned that the big senior has sometimes not played up to his ability. He said Middlebrooks has been up and down, sometimes dominating a game and not being aggressive at other times.
He hopes his massive forward has overcome his inconsistency, but he added: "Don't get me wrong. He plays and he plays well, but I want him to be a star."
Middlebrooks has the same goal in mind. He said that this year he wants to lead the nation in rebounding and realizes that he could be nicknamed "Mr. Invisible" for the games in which he seems to disappear from the action.
He said that at times he has let his emotions get the better of him, particularly when he is called for fouls that he thinks he didn't make or when what he thinks are fouls against him are not called. He said he has been working hard to overcome the problem.
Asked how he is getting on with Lewis, he said they are good friends and that Lewis should fit in well at Pepperdine. He added that he "thanked God when I heard he was coming here."
Harrick said that the Waves should be better off at guard, a position "which I think was a tremendous detriment to our team last year."
He said that he welcomes the return of 6-3 junior guard Marty Wilson, who missed all of last year with a back injury apparently caused by improperly warming up before practices. Last year Wilson was expected to be the top guard on the team after Jon Korfas, Dwayne Polee and Grant Gondrezick completed their eligibility, but he was sidelined by two protruding discs in his back.
Wilson said that the discs "moved back into place" about the last month and a half of last season after a regimen of stretching, exercising, heat treatments and hanging upside down from a device used to correct back injuries.
He said that he hopes to provide the team with "leadership, ball handling and defense."
Harrick said Wilson "is a very fine leader" and a great defender but that the key to his season will be his "mental and physical toughness," qualities he acquired by playing against Polee, a top defensive player, in practices. He cautioned that Wilson, who didn't get much playing time in his first two years, "has yet to prove himself" in Division I basketball.