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SPORTS EXTRA / SELECTION-DAY REPORT / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Two for the Show

East: There's no waving goodbye yet to Pepperdine, which squeaks into tournament for first-round game with Indiana.

March 13, 2000|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it delayed gratification.

The jumps for joy and monster hugs that eluded Pepperdine in the West Coast Conference tournament a week ago came not in a crowded gym but at the campus home of a faculty member.

Dropping the tournament final to Gonzaga in overtime last Monday caused consternation all week for the Waves, who listened to talk shows and surfed the Internet to handicap their chances of gaining an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.

The players and coaches gathered around a television set Sunday with fingers crossed. They didn't wait long, erupting at the sight of No. 11-seeded Pepperdine facing No. 6-seeded Indiana in the East Regional at Marine Midland Coliseum in Buffalo, N.Y.

The selection committee apparently recognized everything Coach Jan van Breda Kolff had gladly rattled off to anyone who asked.

The Waves are 24-8 and won the WCC regular-season title at 12-2. They won 16 of their last 19 games and posted 13 victories away from home, fourth-best in the nation.

They beat tournament qualifiers Fresno State, Louisiana Lafayette and Gonzaga. They came close against UCLA and Auburn.

It added up to a respectable seeding against a formidable, yet somewhat vulnerable, opponent.

"Our strength of schedule and the fact we played 20 games on the road helped us, along with all the other factors," Van Breda Kolff said. "Everything in the equation pointed to us making the tournament, but until I saw our name flash on the television screen I was nervous."

Van Breda Kolff commented to Gonzaga Coach Mark Few after the WCC tournament that he wasn't convinced Pepperdine would get the nod. Van Breda Kolff couldn't be blamed for feeling uneasy--Vanderbilt made the tournament only once in his six seasons as coach.

He was forced to resign last year and took the job at Pepperdine hoping to restore his reputation.

Consider it done.

Vanderbilt didn't make it this year despite a 19-10 record, although Van Breda Kolff wasn't gloating.

"It came down to math with them," he said. "The Big Ten is the top conference in the country and got six teams into the tournament, so the [Southeastern Conference] wasn't going to get more than that. Vanderbilt was number seven because Arkansas won the conference tournament."

Pepperdine's veteran players were more interested in the seeding of Saint Louis, coached by Lorenzo Romar, who left Pepperdine last year after leading the Waves to an NIT berth.

Saint Louis (19-13), upset winner of the Conference USA tournament, is seeded No. 9 and will play Utah in Midwest Regional at Cleveland.

"They finished strong and Romar is a good coach," Pepperdine junior forward Kelvin Gibbs said. "I wish them luck.

"But our seniors are the guys I feel best about. They've worked so hard and been through so much, so many coaches and different systems."

Three fifth-year seniors start along with Gibbs and sophomore guard Brandon Armstrong. All feel redeemed. All feel fulfilled.

* Tommie Prince, one of the nation's most highly touted high school players in 1995, was a partial qualifier at Arizona State who transferred to Pepperdine after a redshirt season.

He had two undistinguished seasons with the Waves before getting recognized last season as WCC Defensive Player of the Year. Van Breda Kolff considers Prince his best defensive player and he will guard Indiana's A.J. Guyton when Pepperdine employs triangle or box-and-one defenses.

Prince's more remarkable accomplishments have come off the court. He gained his senior year of eligibility because he earned his bachelor's degree last spring, four years after graduating from high school as stipulated by the NCAA. He is on track for a second BA degree this spring.

Playing in the NCAA tournament is something of a cap-and-gown achievement as well.

"This is the best feeling you can have," Prince said. "It's everything the team worked for since our first day of practice. We can hold our heads high."

* Point guard Tezale Archie endured losing seasons and limited playing time until finally breaking into the starting lineup late last season. Many believe Archie is the most improved player in the WCC and he averaged 9.8 points and 5.7 assists.

Archie, the most talkative of the Waves, spent Sunday bouncing from one television interview to the next. He enjoyed every minute.

"As long as we come with our hard hats on, I like our chances," he told one TV broadcaster.

"Pepperdine fell off the map for a minute, but now we're back," he told another.

* Nick Sheppard, a 6-11 center, started at Louisiana State as a sophomore in 1996-97 but transferred when Coach Dale Brown retired. After sitting out a season, he was considered a disappointment, averaging 5.7 points and 4.3 rebounds last season.

However, Sheppard bought into Van Breda Kolff's up-tempo style and provides the Waves a big man who can rebound and score inside. Sheppard made the biggest play in Pepperdine's WCC tournament semifinal victory over Santa Clara, taking a charge with 30 seconds to play.

"It's been an up-and-down season for me, but Coach has stayed with me," he said. "I've been through a lot. It's been hard adjusting to new people and new coaches so often. Playing in this tournament makes it all worthwhile."

Pepperdine toiled in obscurity most of the season while the attention of local basketball fans was fixed on UCLA's tournament prospects. That ended Sunday. Fielding interviews on a sun-drenched lawn overlooking the ocean, the Waves realized they finally found the spotlight.

"It's a great feeling for our guys to be rewarded," Van Breda Kolff said.

East Regional

Friday at Buffalo, N.Y.

Pepperdine vs. Indiana

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