Run-and-fun Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMISophomore guard Michael Gerrity should thrive in Walberg's system.
Vance Walberg isn't worried about the little guys. The guards. The ones whose stature at times won't allow the ladies at the club to believe those pick-up lines about being college basketball players. The ones who can run for days, who have a motor built by Honda.
The big guys, though, are another story.
"It's going to take a period of adjustment for them, no doubt about it," Walberg said. "We're not asking them to jog or run. They have to sprint up and down the floor. They have to adopt a mindset that we never stop, that a major key to the whole concept is a big man filling lanes over and over. We'll see which are the toughest ones."
He is one of those coaches who prefers you describe what he teaches as more a style of play than a detailed system. Whichever the definition, the guy who has spent a career building winners at the high school and junior college levels now hopes his ultra-fast approach is the answer to turning around Pepperdine's program.
Walberg was hired to replace the fired Paul Westphal, who went 76-62 in five years but was never able to duplicate the success (22-9, NCAA Tournament berth) the Waves realized in his first season. Their win total under him dropped to just seven last year, prompting those in charge out in Malibu to look away from their picturesque ocean views long enough to make a change.
It's an interesting one. In his 28th year of coaching, Walberg finally gets to see if what was so successful at lower levels can now translate to the college game's highest one.
You can't make up these numbers: Since he first adopted this idea nine years ago at Clovis (Calif.) West High of pressing and running with abandon, of demanding his team dictate tempo no matter the score or importance of the game, Walberg is 292-29.
At Fresno City College, he went 133-11 in four seasons, including 34-0 while winning a state title last year.
The most obvious question: Will his style adapt to the Division I level? The most popular answers: Maybe. Probably. No idea.
You can't succeed at this style without first conceding failure is as much a part of it as anything. That's where the toughness part comes in, a trait Walberg will search for in recruiting.
He calls the plan AASAA -- attack, attack, skip (pass), attack, attack.
Walberg remembers one juco game when the opposition broke Fresno City's press the first five possessions for dunks and led 16-4.
By halftime, Fresno City was up 12.
"I'm the rookie and realize it's going to be completely different than in high school and junior college," said Walberg, 49. "We have to find kids ready and willing to get after it and fight through whatever struggles come along. When you press this much, you're going to give up some easy baskets. I don't think we'll have great speed right away, but we have some length and smartness. You know that old saying, 'Strong beats weak but smart beats strong.' Even though I want us to be smart and strong.
"Our guards will absolutely love the way we play. We're going to launch quite a [number] of 3-pointers. I think if you really break us down, you'd see we play pretty fast and pretty hard and pretty smart. We give extra effort. We make the extra pass. When you do those things, no matter what level you're at, good things happen. The key will be getting them to play as hard as we want and need them to play. We have always been blessed in the fact our best player has been our hardest worker."
One of those was Chris Hernandez, the former star point guard at Stanford who played for Clovis West and was a major reason Walberg created his frantic scheme. Clovis would travel to national-level prep tournaments and struggle against more athletic teams, playing half-court defense for 25-30 seconds at a time before surrendering baskets. Walberg knew something had to change.
"So," he said, "we thought we might as well start blitzing -- like in football -- the whole game. Speed everything up. Push the ball. Try and create turnovers. It has been pretty phenomenal since."
But how will it play against Gonzaga and Loyola Marymount and others teams in the WCC? No conference program returns more letter-winners (12) than Pepperdine, which can be good or bad depending on how many are strong enough mentally and willing enough physically to play Walberg's way.
How will they react when the other guys begin the game with three or four run-out dunks and the crowd grows louder and nothing seems to be working and Walberg instructs them to just keep pressing?
"I know this first year will be tough to run all we want to until we can recruit the kind of players we need," Walberg said. "I realize there will be tough times. I've only known winning the last nine years. I don't know what the other side is like. But I'm sure we'll find out. I grew up in the Bay Area and I know this league well. I've been watching it for some time. I know what's going on at San Francisco and San Diego and Loyola Marymount and Gonzaga and all the other programs.
"I can guarantee you this: Every time we play someone in conference, their scoring average is going up. A lot of coaches want to press like us, but tend to crawl back into what they know to be safe and play games in the 50s and 60s. Not us. I don't know how we'll do, but I sure as hell know I would bet my life on this way of playing. I have that much faith in it Shoot, shoot and shoot some more. It's really very simple."
AASAA, with pressing in between. Let the craziness begin in Malibu.
The Hot Zone
As if Gonzaga needs any extra help, in the second semester the Zags will welcome 2005 McDonald's All-American Micah Downs from Kansas and center David Burgess from BYU.
Beware of driving the middle against Santa Clara. Sophomore center John Bryant is 6-foot-10, 320 pounds. Three Broncos are 6-10 or taller, including Western Kentucky transfer Josh Higgins (7-0, 275).
At least that is what all teams other than Gonzaga will think when the conference tournament moves off the floor of the league's best team (the Zags have won a national-best 40 straight at home) and lands in Portland in 2007 and then back in Southern California in '08 and '09.
More and more, head coach Rodney Tention is putting his stamp on the Loyola Marymount program. In his second season, Tention will welcome five true freshmen -- the most of any WCC team.
The league might have been down a bit last season but that should change with many familiar names back. Thirteen players who made significant impacts, including 10 who were freshmen, return.
Vance Walberg doesn't get an easy start at Pepperdine -- eight of the Waves' first nine are on the road. "Obviously, it's not the ideal schedule you'd want," said coach Vance Walberg. "But that's what we have, so we'll go play as hard as we can and see where we end up."
Carrie Green is looking for some purple shoes to go with her purple sweat suit. She wants to be ready for the big games this season, for when Gonzaga visits. She wants to make sure her son will always recognize her among Portland basketball fans.
He will, first with his heart and then his eyes.
If we can believe the adage that a measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune, then Darren Cooper is about as resilient as they come.
He is the senior shooting guard at Portland who was granted a sixth season of eligibility by the NCAA, after having experienced a roller coaster of emotional turmoil few his age or even much older will ever know.
Cooper starred at Benson High in Portland and began his college career in 2001 at Eastern Washington, leading the Big Sky Conference in free-throw shooting as a freshman.
But in little over a year's time, his father, uncle and grandmother died. Shortly thereafter, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He dropped out of Eastern Washington and returned home, cared for his younger sister and mother during the day, worked graveyard shifts for UPS and wondered which path life might present him next. He was there when his mother could barely walk, barely talk, barely open her eyes. He was there when she was ready to surrender.
"A very trying time," Cooper said. "But we're a family of very strong faith and I wasn't going to let others down. I had to be strong for them, to ease their pain. I wouldn't allow others to see how much I was hurting. I didn't want to play basketball anymore, not if my Mom wasn't going to be around to watch. It just wouldn't be the same without her."
But as his mother slowly recovered, the desire to compete returned. Cooper approached then-Portland coach Michael Holton about playing for the Pilots. It took one semester of Cooper paying his own tuition, borrowing and saving and working those UPS shifts, before he became eligible and landed on scholarship in 2004. Two years later, he has career averages of 13.0 points and 2.5 assists and is looking forward to that sixth season few athletes are awarded.
Few, of course, are as deserving.
"I really thought my chances were 50-50, so I prepared myself for either result," Cooper said. "I feel honored the NCAA respected my situation. It showed a lot of character on their part to give me the year."
Cooper and Holton became especially close during the player's heartbreaking voyage to the Portland roster, a bond that was tested when Holton was fired following last season's 11-18 finish. The new coach is Eric Reveno, a nine-year assistant at Stanford.
"He's very cool, really laid-back, but when it comes to basketball, it's all business," Cooper said. "You have to honor and respect that. He's all about getting it done."
Copper spent part of this summer pursuing his other passion, the theater. He got hooked on it after seeing a production of Tyler Perry's "Madea's Family Reunion," so he acts and writes and performs in Christian musicals. He's not sure which avenue he will pursue more vigorously upon graduation -- basketball or drama -- but knows he'll be a stronger man regardless.
"No question, I've probably been through more than most people my age," said Cooper, 23. "But it matured me a lot and really gave me an idea about how to survive in the real world and deal with adversity. I'm just glad I have had such strong family members around to support me."
And they him.
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Gonzaga: Who will replace the offense of Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista? Well, the leading returning scorer is senior point guard Derek Raivio (11.1 ppg), followed by senior forward Sean Mallon (6.8). The Zags actually return their top six scorers after Morrison and Batista, but those two accounted for nearly 60 percent of the team's scoring in a Sweet 16 season.
Loyola Marymount: Many teams are fortunate to return one 1,000-point career scorer. The Lions boast two. Senior guard Brandon Worthy (1,015) and senior forward Matthew Knight (1,005) have each passed the milestone for a Lions team that came within one shot of defeating Gonzaga in the conference tournament final on the Zags' home floor in March.
Pepperdine: One of the few bright spots from a 7-20 season returns in sophomore point guard Michael Gerrity, an All-WCC Freshman Team member who averaged 14.1 points, 3.4 assists and nearly two steals. He scored in double figures 17 times and led the Waves in scoring 13 times.
Saint Mary's: Is this the season Randy Bennett's team finally breaks through and wins a regular-season title? The Gaels have finished alone or tied for second to Gonzaga the past three seasons and have averaged 17 wins under Bennett, who is about to enter his sixth season as head coach.
San Diego: The initial reaction might be that USD is in some trouble after losing its top two players, Nick Lewis and the league's best defender in Corey Belser. But the Toreros might surprise with the WCC's top 3-point shooter last season (Ross DeRogatis), All-Freshman team members Gyno Pomare (conference-leading 63.6 percent shooting) and Brandon Johnson and top recruit DeJon Jackson of Clovis West High.
San Francisco: There is some serious Big East Conference flavor out in the Bay Area. The Dons are expected to challenge for a WCC title behind three former Big East players in returning guards Armondo Surratt (Miami) and Antonio Kellogg (Connecticut) and newcomer Manny Quezada, who played in 25 games as a freshman at Rutgers in 2004-05.
Santa Clara: The Broncos won't lack for experience, returning four starters from a team that struggled to a 13-16 finish last season. One positive is the guy handling the ball -- junior guard Brody Angley led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.95) and steals (1.90). Also, center Sean Denison missed eight games in the middle of the season but returned to average 11.3 points and 7.5 rebounds over the final eight.
Perennial WCC champ Gonzaga should once again be considered the favorite, but the gap between the Zags and the rest of the pack may be as small as it as been in years.
Don't feel bad for Gonzaga, though. Yes, the Zags lost do-everything star Adam Morrison and frontcourt standout J.P. Batista, but they still return guards Derek Raivio, Jeremy Pargo, Pierre-Marie Altidor Cespedes and forward Josh Heytvelt, and by semester's end, former high school All-American guard and Kansas transfer Micah Downs will join the squad.
The biggest issue in Spokane could be this team's lack of the frontcourt depth and NBA-caliber talent of its predecessors. It's a tribute to what Mark Few has built up there that the Zags may still have enough to win a quality league.
Behind the Zags, several teams are poised to make a run at closing the six-game gap between Gonzaga and the field last season. Loyola Marymount, which blew its chance to stun Gonzaga and go to the NCAA Tournament by missing a last-second layup, may return the best twosome in the league in Brandon Worthy and Matthew Knight.
Saint Mary's brings back a bunch of talent but must find a way to overcome the loss of star Aussie forward Daniel Kickert. The Gaels will lean on Brett Collins and Diamon Simpson. San Francisco will rely on a number of transfers including leading scorer Armondo Surratt (formerly of Miami), Antonio Kellogg (UConn) and newcomer Manny Quezada (Rutgers) to go along with Alan Wiggins Jr.
Also, keep an eye on Vance Walberg's uptempo system at Pepperdine. His teams eschew the mid-range game in favor of layups, free throws and 3s. His system has made a believer out of the likes of John Calipari and a ton of assistants on the West Coast.
Expect a bit of what you saw from Memphis last year -- the Waves likely will use at least 10 players regularly. Walberg also will sub on nearly every dead ball.
It's a completely different style to watch and this league hasn't seen anything like it since the late 1980s-early 90s heyday of Loyola Marymount. While Walberg's offense and defense are systematically different, the pattern and rate of substitutions and the tempo of the game are similar.
It's worth noting, after several seasons of uneven NCAA Tournament performances, that the Zags have the added bonus of having the first two rounds of the Tournament in Spokane this year -- assuming they are a high enough seed to be placed there. They have nonconference games against Duke, Texas, Memphis and Nevada, among others, as part of their traditionally tough slate.
Gonzaga may have lost Adam Morrison and some other important pieces, but until otherwise convinced, resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi thinks the Zags are still the kings of the conference.
What seed does Joe think Gonzaga will land in his early look at the NCAAs? Check out
* -- NCAA Tournament