There's a certain irony for Pepperdine basketball coach Marty Wilson as he takes the reigns from Tom Asbury this season. His first head coaching gig (not including a 13-game interim stretch with the Waves 15 years ago) coincides with BYU joining the West Coast Conference. Suddenly, with Gonzaga already established as a national level program, St. Mary's on the rise, and now BYU, the WCC is arguably the best basketball conference outside of the BCS, and top heavy with perennial programs that figure to dominate the landscape for the foreseeable future. The irony for Wilson is that he remembers well when Pepperdine used to be the dominant force in the WCC.
When Wilson was a point guard for Jim Harrick and at the start of Asbury's first term with the team and then an assistant to Asbury, the Waves, not the Zags, were the 400 pound gorillas of the WCC. For 15 seasons under Harrick and Asbury, Pepperdine won 9 conference championships. Even when other WCC teams rose to prominence (Steve Nash and Santa Clara, Gathers and Kimble and LMU, the early days of Gonzaga's run), it was Pepperdine that provided a foil for those teams, that brought out their best efforts in the conference.
But the program has fallen on decidedly hard times of late. The Waves haven't finished with a winning record in conference play since 2003-2004 and haven't won the conference in a decade. If Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary's appear to be entrenched at the top of the standings, it's looking more and more like Pepperdine is locked in the cellar.
The most difficult thing for a mid-major program to do is start over. There are no impact freshman to come in and carry a team, no McDonald's All-Americans. But Pepperdine has found itself in the position of starting over twice in the last six seasons. When coach Paul Westphal left after a last place conference finish in 2006, the cupboard was bare - the few recruits he had brought to Malibu transferred and new coach Vance Walberg started from scratch. Walberg's tenure at the helm was an unmitigated disaster, and he left abruptly during his second season amid recruiting violations and plummeting academic scores. Another series of transfers followed Walberg's departure, and Asbury was once again starting over when he returned to Malibu in 2008 for his second stint as head coach. Asbury brought Wilson with him, as the designated head coach in waiting.
The program has made some progress in three seasons under Asbury, and were 5-5 in the conference last season before losing their last four regular season games. But despite that progress, once again the team finds itself back, if not at square one, then maybe at square two.
Asbury had three players average double figures in scoring last season, Keion Bell, Mychel Thompson and Lorne Jackson, but none of them will be around to help out Wilson this season, for three different reasons. Thompson graduated (he was recently drafted in the third round of the D-League draft); Bell transferred to Missouri after spending the second half of last season suspended from the team; and Jackson tore his ACL this summer and will red-shirt.
Which leaves Wilson with a significant challenge: to find enough scoring to be competitive in a very strong conference. They do have three starters returning, but none could be considered a significant scoring threat. Senior forward Taylor Darby (7.7 points, 5.5 rebounds per game last season), senior center Corbin Moore (4.5 points, 3.7 rebounds) and junior combo guard Joshua Lowery (5.6 points and 2.8 assists) will all be expected to pick up some of the scoring load this season.
In addition to Darby, Moore and Lowery, junior point guard Caleb Willis, senior guard Dane Suttle Jr. and sophomore center Jan Maehlen will need to make major contributions this season, though Suttle (ankle surgery) and Maehlen (broken hand) are currently hampered by injuries. Sophomore forward Hector Harold played very little last season, but will need to step up on the wing this year.
Whether the Waves can do better than the eighth place finish predicted in the pre-season coaches poll will depend on their new crop of recruits, which may be as talented as any group to come to Malibu in a decade. Point guard Jordan Baker was a second team Parade All-American and the high school Player of the Year in Arizona last season. Based on his 27 point per game average as a high school senior, he will likely be expected to help out on offense right away, even as a freshman. Forward Ramon Eaton from Sacramento was a third team selection on the Long Beach Press Telegram Best of the West team. An athletic 6'8" wing with decent range and skills, he has the toolset to be a very good player at this level. The Waves are also tapping the international recruiting pipeline, bringing in highly regard Manny Ochenje, a Nigerian born forward who played for a prep school in Illinois last season, and two junior college transfers, guard Nikolas Skouen from Norway and forward Moriba De Freitas from Trinidad.
Pepperdine was once the powerhouse of the WCC, but lately the conference has passed it by. The challenge for Marty Wilson will be to put Malibu back on the WCC map. It's not going to happen overnight, but Wilson understands the basketball tradition at Pepperdine and would like nothing more than to build a program that can compete with Gonzaga and BYU for a conference title year in and year out.