Pepperdine Men's Basketball Season Outlook
The Waves begin the 2015-16 season on Friday at Fresno State.
MALIBU, Calif. -- In each of the previous four seasons under head coach Marty Wilson, the Pepperdine men's basketball team made a habit of surpassing expectations when the squad was under the radar. But in 2015-16, with a veteran group coming off the program's best season in a decade, expectations are as high as they've been in a long time for the Waves.
After bringing back 12 letterwinners and all five starters from last season's 18-win team, the Waves are a near-unanimous preseason pick to finish third in the West Coast Conference. Some media have mentioned Pepperdine and the NCAA Tournament in the same sentence, while also discussing the Waves' possibility of challenging Gonzaga and BYU for a spot in the league's top two.
The increased attention and respect bodes well for the program, but Wilson is quick to remind his players that they haven't accomplished anything yet.
"I want people to think we're pretty good," said the fifth-year head coach, who has seen his team's win total go from 10 to 12 to 15 to 18 in his four seasons. "We think we're pretty good. But when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks, we have to go out and prove it. The last few years we tried to prove them wrong. This year we want to prove them right."
Two years ago the Waves were picked 10th in the WCC and finished fifth. Last season, Pepperdine was picked seventh and finished fourth. The Waves went 18-14 overall and 10-8 in the WCC in 2014-15. Numerous milestones were achieved, including the most overall wins (18) and the first postseason appearance (CBI) since 2002; the first league winning season, the best WCC regular-season finish and first WCC Tournament semifinal appearance since 2004; and the first winning season since 2005.
That team had zero seniors, and so the Waves' returning players account for 97.3% of last season's points. They'll also return the same defensive mentality that limited opponents to just 61.6 points per game (the program's best scoring defense since 1961-62) and that allowed foes to make just 27.0% of their three-pointers, a school record and a figure that ranked second in the nation.
Having so many veteran players back has made fall practice run much more smoothly in advance of the new season.
"The best thing is that we have a group that already knows what we're doing, so we can progress faster," said Wilson, who is again assisted by Mark Amaral, Bryant Moore and John Impelman. "We can throw more things at them on offense, and they're picking it up far quicker than they have the last couple of years. Defensively, they already know what we're doing, so it's just about the timing and the repetition."
"It's going to be a tough senior night for me," Wilson said. "This was the first class we brought in after taking over the program. They've done it on the floor, off the court and in the classroom. They've set us up for long-term success by what they're teaching the younger guys."
No one will receive as much attention as Davis (Laveen, Ariz./Fairfax HS) this year, as the 6-foot-6 senior forward is well on his way to wrapping up one of the best careers in Pepperdine history. His list of accolades and approaching milestones could go on for days, but here are some highlights:
- Davis is a two-time All-WCC first team selection who could become only the sixth three-time first team honoree in program history, and the first since 1998.
- He's been unanimously picked as one of the WCC's top five players in various preseason publications and been called a dark horse for WCC Player of the Year honors. Lindy's ranked him as the nation's seventh-best power forward.
- Davis is well on pace to set the school record for points. He enters 2015-16 with 1,307 points and in 20th place on the Waves' all-time list, and he needs just 395 more to pass Dane Suttle for the top spot (a record that has lasted 32 seasons).
- He's also on a pace to finish as one of the top four rebounders in Pepperdine history, and is already one of the most prolific free throw shooters (he's fifth in free throws made with 373).
- Davis could become the first Wave ever to lead the team in rebounding all four seasons, as well as the first to lead Pepperdine in both scoring and rebounding for three straight seasons.
"Stacy is capable of dominating a game in a number of ways," Wilson said. "He's so difficult to guard in the low post, and he's only 6-foot-6. Teams have to double-team him. Then he can step out on the perimeter and shoot the ball or handle the ball. He's also a very unselfish player who likes getting assists. Defensively, when he's locked in, he's so strong that he can prevent people from doing what they want. He could get 10 rebounds a game because when the ball's in his hands, it's his. I constantly challenge Stacy because he's capable of doing even more."
Davis' partner in the frontcourt is the 6-foot-7 Raines (Coppell, Texas/Coppell HS), who blossomed as a junior and was one of the WCC's most improved players. After scoring a total of 288 points his first two seasons, he accumulated 340 points (a 10.6 average) last season en route to All-WCC honorable mention honors. Raines was the only Wave to start all 32 games and he also averaged 5.1 rebounds.
"No one has improved as much as Jett, from day one as a freshman to where he is now," Wilson said. "He's no longer just an athletic kid. He plays hard, smart, disciplined and tough. I appreciate what he does for us. He takes a beating going up against big guys while giving up 25 to 40 pounds, but he gets the job done. He wanted to have a breakout year last season, and he did, and he's going to be even better this season."
Russell (Katy, Texas/Seven Lakes HS), a 6-foot-5 wing, moved into the starting lineup as a junior. He's a strong defender who contributed 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.
"I've challenged Atif to be a defensive stopper, first and foremost, and when he thinks that way he's got a chance to be really good," Wilson said. "When he defends and rebounds and he's locked in, that helps us. We won games last year because he did that. As long as he stays focused on those things again, he will help us win more games and will be on the floor a lot."
At point guard, the Waves have two experienced juniors ready to take another step forward in leading the Waves' offense. Jeremy Major (Pasadena, Calif./Maranatha HS) and Amadi Udenyi (Oakland, Calif./De La Salle HS/St. Thomas More) can either replace the other, or play together on the floor at the same time.
"Jeremy and Amadi were thrust in there as freshmen and have shouldered a lot of what we've been through as our point guards," Wilson said. "They're competitive. They want to win and they want to do well. These two are always together, they're good friends and great teammates."
The 5-foot-11 Major averaged 8.7 points and 3.6 assists last season. If he matches the production of his first two years over the next two years, he'll become the Waves' all-time leader in assists and #2 in steals. Major has started 60 career games and is the first Wave with back-to-back seasons of 100+ assists since 2005.
"Jeremy has been unbelievable in practice this fall," Wilson said. "He gets now what we want him to do, and he's taking his game to another level. He's so fast. We want to play quicker, and he's going to allow us to do that."
The 6-foot-1 Udenyi was leading the squad in assists last year at 4.4 per game, but suffered a significant injury for the second straight year. He missed the final seven games of the season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. The good news is that his recovery went quicker than expected and he is ready to go to start the season.
"It's amazing to see where Amadi is, because he's not just been cleared to play, he's already playing at a high level," Wilson said. "He brings the defensive passion and intensity that we need, and when he ramps it up, everyone else responds."
One of the top newcomers to the WCC last season was Shawn Olden (Tulsa, Okla./Union HS). The 6-foot-3 guard went from getting only one late Division I scholarship offer to making the WCC's All-Freshman team after averaging 9.2 points per game (third on the team and second among the league's freshmen). He led the Waves with 35 three-pointers made.
"Shawn is as competitive a player as we have," Wilson said. "His challenge was to get bigger and stronger and he's working on changing his body. He's going to be able to do even more this year. I'm challenging him to rebound, handle the ball and be more of a playmaker. He needs to slow down a little bit and take better care of the ball, and he's getting there. Defensively he can be a terror if he stays disciplined."
If you were to pick one Wave to have a breakout year, it might be Lamond Murray Jr. (Los Angeles, Calif./Bishop Montgomery HS). The 6-foot-5 junior wing has shown glimpses of becoming a big-time player (he averaged 8.0 points in league play last year and 6.9 overall) and Wilson feels that this could very well be his time to shine.
"Lamond has been playing great and he's doing everything we expect of him: defending, rebounding, getting steals, taking better shots," Wilson said. "When that's his mindset, he's a really good player. He has the ability to be one of the better defenders in the league, and minute-by-minute he's as good of a rebounder as we have. He can score a million different ways and he's going to have some huge nights this year."
Because of the veteran squad, the Waves only signed one scholarship freshman. But Wilson believes that 6-foot-6 Kameron Edwards (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Etiwanda HS) is going to be a very special player at Pepperdine. Edwards was an All-CIF Southern Section Open Division first team pick last year after averaging 16.6 points and eight rebounds.
"Kameron is probably as athletic as anybody we have," Wilson said. "He's tough, physical and not afraid to get in there. He could ultimately become a defensive player of the year in our league. He can guard positions one through four and maybe even five. In terms of picking up the offense and defense, he's probably as sharp a freshman as I've been around. Everyone's going to enjoy his high-flying act. I expect great things from him as a freshman and he's just going to get better and better in his time here."
The Waves have several returning big men looking to provide depth and production behind Davis and Raines. A.J. John (Santa Rosa, Calif./Maria Carrillo HS), a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, was the first post off the bench last season but an illness knocked him out for a portion of the WCC season. Jake Johnson (Reno, Nev./Reno HS/Casper CC), a 6-foot-10 senior forward/center, appeared in 10 games last season. Nate Gehring (Waukee, Iowa/Waukee HS), a 6-foot-10 sophomore center, played in 13 games and made four starts last season (though he will not return to the team until the conclusion of the fall semester due to a student disciplinary issue). Ryan Keenan (Woodbury, Minn./East Ridge HS), a 6-foot-10 center, redshirted his freshman season.
If he can remain healthy, the Waves hope that sophomore guard A.J. Lapray (Salem, Ore./Sprague HS/Oregon) will provide much needed long-range scoring. He played in 18 games last season.
Pepperdine added two freshmen walk-ons -- 6-foot-6 forward Hakeem Anchrum (Birmingham, Ala./Wheeler HS) and 6-foot guard Jamani Spencer (Porter Ranch, Calif./Sierra Canyon HS/Brewster Academy) -- and Wilson feels good about their chances to contribute. The Waves return two other walk-ons, 6-foot-4 junior guard Jonathan Allen (Nashville, Tenn./Ravenwood HS) and 5-foot-9 sophomore guard John Yi (Yorba Linda, Calif./El Dorado HS).
These 17 players have taken the program to the point where the Waves believe they are ready to regularly compete for championships and higher-echelon postseason berths.
"We're not as big as we'd like to be, but that will come," Wilson said. "But having a small, skilled lineup that's quick and athletic and tough is what's most important to me. We don't want to be slow or easy to guard. We're versatile, especially on defense, where we have guys who can guard multiple positions. We recruit multi-dimensional players who can do more than one thing on both ends of the floor. I'm excited about these guys and what might happen this season."