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Pepperdine Can Turn Tables on Gonzaga

Men's basketball: Waves hope to pull reversal on the Bulldogs by winning conference tournament and NCAA berth.

March 03, 2001|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All hail Gonzaga, undisputed king of the West Coast Conference.

In Malibu, eyes roll.

Conference awards were announced this week, apparently to the tune of "Who Let the Bulldogs Out?"

Player of the year: Casey Calvary of Gonzaga.

Coach of the Year: Mark Few of Gonzaga.

Defensive Player of the Year: Mark Spinks of Gonzaga.

Newcomer of the year: Blake Stepp of Gonzaga.

If there was an award for locker room custodian of the year, the winner undoubtedly would be from Gonzaga.

Folks in Spokane are breaking out the brooms, that's for certain, anticipating a sweep.

The Bulldogs won the regular-season title and collected every conceivable award. All that's left is winning the conference tournament this weekend in San Diego and gaining an NCAA berth.

In Malibu, the unrecognized quietly prepare for the tournament without the distractions of congratulatory phone calls and interview requests.

"It seems like it's always been that way," Pepperdine forward Kelvin Gibbs said. "We have to earn our respect. We're sort of in the shadows all the time."

Spokane isn't known for sunshine, but Gonzaga has basked in plenty since advancing to the Elite Eight in 1999 and the Sweet 16 last season. During a media conference call this week, Few was deluged by attention from print and radio reporters up and down the coast.

The questions were mostly variations of the following: What makes your tiny school with the funny name so darn dominant?

Few's answers were mostly variations of the following: We accept the accolades in humble appreciation, and we are better because we do things the Gonzaga way.

In Malibu, the Wave way has been effective too. But it's clear that until Pepperdine beats Gonzaga, few care.

Although Few notices.

"They are talented," he said. "Their pressing and trapping on defense is tough to handle. Brandon Armstrong can score on anybody and he gives them a huge advantage. I think Pepperdine is every bit as good as they were last year."

The Waves won the WCC regular-season title last season and gained national notice by trouncing Indiana in the NCAA tournament. They gained an at-large bid after losing to Gonzaga in the conference tournament.

The consensus is this time they must win the tournament because Gonzaga (21-6) won the regular-season title and beat the Waves twice. Pepperdine (20-7) lost five nonconference games to teams on the NCAA tournament bubble: USC, Utah, Nevada Las Vegas, Georgia and Indiana.

Winning the WCC tournament not only would vault the Waves into March Madness, but would puncture the Gonzaga Rules the West Coast Conference mind-set.

First, of course, the top-seeded Bulldogs and second-seeded Waves must reach Monday's final. First-round games should be a breeze, but the expected semifinal foes, San Diego and Santa Clara, pose difficulties.

"I wouldn't say there are eight teams that can win the tournament, but there are four," Pepperdine Coach Jan van Breda Kolff said.

The Waves open against Portland (11-16) at noon today at Jenny Craig Pavilion and Gonzaga faces St. Mary's (2-25) in the next game.

Third-seeded Santa Clara (18-11) will play Loyola Marymount (9-18) at 6 p.m. and San Diego (15-12) will face San Francisco (12-16) at 8:30.

If the favorites win, Pepperdine will play Santa Clara and Gonzaga will face San Diego in semifinals Sunday.

The Waves are 5-0 against Santa Clara in two seasons under van Breda Kolff, but the Broncos have won four in a row and handed Gonzaga its only WCC loss.

"Everybody talks about Gonzaga and Pepperdine and puts the focus on those two teams, but if you look down the stretch, Santa Clara is playing the best," van Breda Kolff said.

The Broncos entered conference play 8-7 but have jelled since transfer forward Steve Ross gained eligibility in December.

Ross led the team in scoring in four of the last six games and had 22 points in the victory over Gonzaga. Senior Brian Jones, who needs four assists to break the career school record set by Steve Nash, provides a cool presence at point guard.

Pepperdine counters with two prolific scorers and a strong supporting cast. Armstrong led the WCC in scoring at 22.0 and Gibbs averages 14.7 points and a conference-high 8.2 rebounds.

Reserve David Lalazarian averaged 11.5 points in WCC games, but the key might be production from guard Craig Lewis, who has not reached his potential because of injuries and illness.

Lewis, a junior guard, is an outstanding outside shooter and the team's best passer. But sprains to both ankles had him hobbling much of the season and two weeks ago bronchitis slowed him and reduced his minutes. He is averaging 8.9 points but is shooting only 38.8%.

His best game came against Santa Clara when he scored 20.

"Craig gives the team stability," van Breda Kolff said. "He knows who is hot and who to get the ball to. And he does help balance our scoring."

Pepperdine has won 14 of 16. Only you-know-who is hotter.

Gonzaga, led by Calvary and All-WCC point guard Dan Dickau, had a national-best 14-game winning streak until losing to Santa Clara last week. The Bulldogs rebounded to defeat San Diego in the regular-season finale on Dickau's three-point basket.

"Dickau is exactly the type of player we want in our system," Few said. "He can pass, penetrate, shoot and create. And he draws kids to Gonzaga who want to play and work. It's our tradition. We are so big in player development."

In Malibu, tradition and player development could take a big step forward with a victory over Gonzaga.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WEST COAST CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE

Today's Games

at Jenny Craig Pavilion at University of San Diego

No. 2 seeded Pepperdine (20-7) vs. Portland (11-16) at noon

No. 1 seeded Gonzaga (21-6) vs. St. Mary's (2-25) following first game

No. 3 seeded Santa Clara (18-11) vs. Loyola Marymount (9-18) at 6 p.m.

No. 4 seeded San Diego (15-12) vs. San Francisco (12-16) at 8:30 p.m.

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