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Raging Buller

Point Guard Parlays His Aggressiveness Into Scholarship at Pepperdine

November 04, 2000|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MALIBU — Pepperdine point guard Elan Buller isn't exactly a rebel, but he won't take no for an answer.

He goes along with the program. He's as coachable as they come. He doesn't have a selfish cell in his body.

But tell him he can't do something and he'll bust through the barrier like a bull, which happens to be his nickname.

Division I basketball was beyond the barrier, a place supposedly occupied by bigger, quicker and better players.

Nobody gave him a scholarship out of El Camino Real High in 1997 because he weighed 145 pounds.

Nobody gave him a scholarship after his freshman year at tiny Bethel College in Newton, Kan.--his father's alma mater--because playing at the NAIA Division II level is like falling off the planet.

But after spending his sophomore season at Fresno Pacific, an NAIA Division I school, Buller peered across the barrier and saw his future.

"During the summer and in tournaments I'd played against the top players in the nation," he said. "I always thought I was one of those players. I decided I had to play at the highest level."

So Buller lived up to his nickname. He pawed the ground, snorted and charged toward Division I.

He sent out hundreds of letters and tapes. He received few replies. Then in July 1999 he drove from his parents' Woodland Hills home to Malibu and walked into the office of assistant Gib Arnold.

"I can help your program," he told Arnold, setting a tape on his desk.

Arnold told Buller the team was playing a pickup game that evening. Stick around.

He stuck, all right. While sitting out last season as a transfer, Buller impressed Coach Jan van Breda Kolff enough in practice that he earned a scholarship. And this season Buller will share point guard duties with junior Craig Lewis--the sixth man last season--and Micah McKinney, a freshman from Compton Dominguez High.

"Bull is a very competitive person," van Breda Kolff said. "He spends a lot of time studying basketball, talking about basketball and playing basketball. He is determined to show he belongs at this level.

"We've all seen people who will themselves to have success. Bull is one of those people."

Will translates into work for Buller.

"Every day I'm exhausted after practice," he said. "I fit into Coach's philosophy. Pushing the ball, pressuring on defense. I could [not] care less if I score zero points. I want to contribute assists, steals and defense."

Pepperdine opens at Indiana. No mistake about it, Buller is in the big time.

"I honestly have dreams about it," he said. "I can't wait. All the hard work, it's gonna pay off. Finally I get to show what I can do."

Last season, Buller proved his worth to van Breda Kolff and his teammates, but his game was hidden behind that blue curtain the Waves put up in the gym to keep practice closed.

When the curtain went up, Pepperdine put on a show, going 25-9, winning the West Coast Conference regular-season championship and defeating Indiana in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Buller was ecstatic and melancholy at the same time.

"I worked in practice every day, then I had to sit and watch home games," he said. "I'd feel the happiness of the victory, but on the drive home, it hurt. Road games were worse because I didn't travel with the team."

Buller spent the season pushing senior Tezale Archie during practice. Archie became the team's biggest surprise, developing into one of the premier point guards on the West Coast.

After Archie beat Fresno State with a last-second basket early in the season, van Breda Kolff told the team Buller deserved some of the credit. A year later, the coach is comfortable handing over the reins to the 6-foot, 170-pound kid from two NAIA schools.

"Bull is a very, very good outside shooter, he won't turn the ball over and he gets the ball to the right people," van Breda Kolff said. "He's also a great on-the-ball defender. He has big hands and long arms, he's a tenacious guy.

"When you're the smallest guy on the court, you have to be the most aggressive."

The learning isn't over. For all he has shown in practice, Buller has not played in a Division I game. During Pepperdine's first exhibition game Thursday night, he got in as a reserve for 10 minutes. Buller made some crisp passes but lost his man on defense several times.

How much he improves as the season progresses will determine his value. That much Buller learned from Archie, whose rapid improvement keyed the Waves' conference championship.

"Bull watches video and looks through the playbook and knows where people should be," van Breda Kolff said. "But as the game progresses, things don't always go by the book. It's going to take experience to know who to pass the ball to as things go on and opposing teams make adjustments."

Gaining that experience will be the fun part. It means playing time. Division I playing time.

"I just knew this was the spot for me," Buller said. "Coach Arnold told me last year that I was walking into a gold mine because there were two senior point guards. It's working out that way."

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