Paul Westphal got a taste of success last season in his debut as men's basketball coach at Pepperdine, but he didn't walk away satisfied.
If anything, the surprising run that resulted in Pepperdine tying nationally ranked Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference regular-season title and earning a berth in the NCAA tournament only whetted Westphal's appetite for more fulfilling accomplishments.
"We want to take a step forward from what we did [last season]," the former NBA player and coach said. "That means getting to the NCAA tournament and winning some games."
Yes, the expectations are high in Malibu. And for good reason.
The Waves have one of their most talented and balanced teams, an athletic group that runs and presses, dunks and hits three-point baskets.
"They have unbelievably great talent," said Coach Steve Aggers of WCC rival Loyola Marymount. "With their style of play, they're capable of going out and [scoring] 120 on you any given night." True to form, the Waves averaged 111 points in winning two exhibition games.
Westphal says he has seven players capable of starting, including four from last season's 22-9 team that lost to Wake Forest, 83-74, in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Waves, who lost only to Gonzaga on their way to a 13-1 conference record, have their top five scorers back.
Yet, with all that, Pepperdine might not be the best team in the conference. Gonzaga won two of three games against the Waves last season, including a 96-90 victory in the conference tournament final, and again poses a big challenge for any team hoping to end its streak of four consecutive WCC tournament titles.
The No. 22-ranked Bulldogs will be tough to knock off despite the loss of WCC player of the year Dan Dickau, a sharp-shooting guard who is with the Atlanta Hawks.
"I don't look for them to miss a beat," Aggers said.
Gonzaga will test Pepperdine's mettle in the middle with a physical front line that features Zach Gourde and Cory Violette, a pair of 6-foot-8, 250-pound all-conference forwards, rangy Ronny Turiaf (6-9, 230) and transfer Richard Fox (6-11, 270).
"It's a classic clash of styles," Westphal said. "Gonzaga has added more big guys to possibly the best group of big guys in the country, and we've added more athletic guys to an athletic team. It will be our slashers against their beef."
Pepperdine hopes to cut the Bulldogs down to size with a running, pressing style. Senior all-conference forwards Jimmy Miggins and Boomer Brazzle, sophomore guard Terrance Johnson and senior point guard Devin Montgomery return.
The 6-7 Miggins is the Waves' most consistent and competitive player, traits that rub off on the rest of the team, Westphal said.
"The key to our team is Miggins," Westphal said. "He's a real versatile guy with very few weaknesses."
Will Kimble, a 6-10 junior, takes over at center for 6-11 Cedric Suitt. The Waves will miss Suitt's low-post defense and shot-blocking ability, but Kimble is a better scorer and rebounder as well as a capable defender.
It is a testament to Pepperdine's depth that a player who declared for the NBA draft before withdrawing his name last spring probably will be a reserve. Glen McGowan, a 6-9 junior, is a valuable contributor who can play forward or center. His availability early in the season could be limited while he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery.
Another player who figures prominently in the Waves' plans is swingman Alex Acker, a 6-5 sophomore who sat out last season as an academic nonqualifier.
"The main thing is we have to stay together," Westphal said. "We have a lot of guys who can score. As long as the players remember to play as a team and not go their own way, I feel the wins and losses will take care of themselves."
Pepperdine's nonconference schedule includes home games against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 7, No. 11 Oregon on Dec. 14 and Utah on Dec. 20.
Those tests should help Pepperdine prepare for a conference schedule highlighted by two games with Gonzaga, and a possible third meeting in the WCC tournament. Under the new tournament format, the top two finishers in the regular season will have byes through the first two rounds and need only one victory to reach the final.
"Right now Gonzaga and Pepperdine are the lead dogs," Loyola's Aggers said. "Everyone else is kind of looking at them."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Coach: Mark Few.
2001-02 record: 29-4 overall, 13-1 in West Coast Conference.
Top players: The Bulldogs' imposing front line is considered among the best in the nation. All-conference forwards Zach Gourde and Cory Violette combined to average 26 points and 15 rebounds last season. Joining them is 6-foot-9 sophomore Ronny Turiaf, who's already drawing interest from NBA teams. If that isn't enough of a low-post presence, the Bulldogs have added 6-11 center Richard Fox, a transfer from Colorado. Junior guard Blake Stepp, whose five three-point baskets helped sink Pepperdine in the WCC tournament final, runs the show.