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Men's Basketball Season Outlook

Caleb Willis
Caleb Willis
 
 

Oct. 31, 2012

MALIBU, Calif. - As Marty Wilson begins his second year as the head coach of the Pepperdine men's basketball program, he thinks about the things he'd like to enjoy in 2012-13 - a few more wins, a few less injuries and a lot more sleep.

"As a first-year coach I had so many things going on in my head last season: staff, players, plays, wins, losses, everything," explains Wilson, who begins his 16th season in Malibu as either a coach or a student-athlete. "You wake up at three in the morning and you're thinking about all of those things. I think one of the main benefits about being in my second year is I'll be able to manage those things better, and with the help of my staff, I'll be able to delegate more. The first year taught me how to adjust better to different situations."

Improved depth and skill from the top to the bottom of the Waves' roster should help Wilson avoid some of those sleepless nights, as long as Pepperdine can avoid being plagued by injuries. The squad lost four players for the year due to various ailments last season, including senior guard Lorne Jackson (Simi Valley, Calif./Simi Valley HS), who would have been the team's top returning scorer. All that contributed to the Waves' 10-19 record and seventh-place finish in the West Coast Conference.

Though Pepperdine had a little more turnover than usual in the offseason, with nine players departing from last season's team (five via graduation), Wilson and his staff brought in six new student-athletes and he believes the amount of quality on this year's roster will help the Waves continue their steps back toward prominence.

"We are bringing in young guys who are the kind of players, athletes and young men that we want to represent Pepperdine," Wilson said. "They're going to help us build something special. We are heading in the right direction."

From the moment he moved into the top job, Wilson preached toughness and defense to the Waves, and it paid off as Pepperdine allowed just 65.9 points per game last season, a huge improvement over the previous year and the program's best mark in more than a decade. The Waves finished in the top half of the WCC in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and three-point field goal percentage defense. The Waves also had a rebound margin of +3.1, their best figure in nearly 20 seasons.

 

 

But after two of the top scorers in the program's history departed after the 2010-11 season, followed by the loss of Jackson to injury, the Waves struggled to make baskets at times and ended up averaging 59.3 points per contest. With Jackson back in the fold, plus other emerging veterans and the addition of newcomers that know how to score, Wilson believes this season will be different on the offensive end.

"Our offense has to be, and will be, better," said Wilson, who is assisted by Mark Amaral, Bryant Moore and Jason Hart. "Part of it is that we have more skill, and more guys who can do things offensively. But we have to become more aggressive. We want to score more in transition. I think we have more players who will allow us to do these things.

"But we still have to hang our hat on our defense. We still have to be tough and physical."

The Waves will be perimeter-driven, with Jackson joining sophomore guard Jordan Baker (Tempe, Ariz./Tempe HS) and senior guard Caleb Willis (Stockbridge, Ga./Stockbridge HS) to provide a nice veteran nucleus on the outside.

"I feel really good about going into battle with these three guys," Wilson said. "With Lorne and Caleb being seniors, I've been challenging them quite a bit to be our leaders. I feel really good about our guard play this year, whereas it was a big question mark last year."

When Jackson was last seen excelling for the Waves, he was earning All-WCC honorable mention notice after averaging 13.2 points and 2.9 assists during his 2010-11 junior season. He suffered a knee injury during summer 2011, however, and it was decided that he would redshirt last season. He heads into his fifth year at Pepperdine needing just 111 points to become the school's 37th player to reach the 1,000-point milestone.

"Lorne is the most experienced guy that we have," Wilson said. "He's worked hard this summer to get in shape. He understands what we're doing on the floor and we need him to articulate that to everyone else because he's one of our point guards, he's a fifth-year senior, he's a captain and he's a leader."

Baker improved immensely over the course of his freshman season. He averaged 9.0 points overall, best among returning players, but was particularly impressive during WCC play when he averaged 11.3 points (19th overall and fourth among freshmen). Baker scored 26 points in a game against San Francisco, the most by any Wave last season.

"Jordan has definitely matured," Wilson said. "I've seen it in our workouts, I've seen it in our lifting and conditioning, and I've seen it in his communication with his teammates. Physically, he's gotten bigger and stronger. People are going to know who he is now. They're going to come after him a little bit more. He has to be mentally tough to overcome that, and I think he will. The sky is the limit for Jordan. He's talented, he's athletic, he can shoot, score, pass and defend. I think he's in for a very good season."

After being used sparingly his first two seasons, Willis was one of the biggest beneficiaries of Jackson's absence from the court. Willis did a little bit of everything last year, averaging 6.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and a team-best 3.7 assists. He became the first Wave to record 100 assists in a season since 2007 and his 107 were the most by any player since 2005. In the WCC, he ranked fourth in assist-turnover ratio (1.9) and sixth in assists.

"Caleb's going to play a lot again," Wilson said. "He's a big, strong guy. He benefitted a lot last year, going from eight minutes to 30 minutes a game. That's a big leap and something we didn't expect, but it happened. Ultimately, he is the glue to our team. He is the one who will hold our team together because of his toughness and willingness to do the dirty work. He is willing to be the one to set a hard screen, take a charge or block out a big guy. I know exactly what I'm getting from Caleb every night."

The Waves had long been trying to establish a quality post game, and they finally made it happen last season with Taylor Darby (12.3 points and 6.0 rebounds) and Corbin Moore (10.4 points and 8.6 rebounds) emerging as the team's top two scorers. But both Darby and Moore graduated, leaving the Waves a bit of a mystery in the middle once again.

The top candidates to plug that hole are redshirt sophomore Jan Maehlen (Tucson, Ariz./Ironwood Ridge HS), redshirt junior Moriba De Freitas (Bon Air Gardens, Trinidad/Williston State JC) and sophomore Manny Ochenje (Abuja, Nigeria/Brehm Prep). The first two redshirted last season due to injury and Ochenje showed promise in limited playing time as a freshman.

Maehlen, a 7-foot, 300-pound center, broke a hand in the preseason last year, then returned to play in three games only to suffer a season-ending groin injury. De Freitas, who is 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, never got on the floor last season, his first at Pepperdine, due to a knee injury. The 6-foot-9, 215-pound Ochenje averaged 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds in 20 games.

"The `five' is our question mark," Wilson said. "Jan didn't play a lot as a freshman and had to sit out last year. Moriba hasn't played one minute of Division I basketball. Manny didn't play a whole lot this past year as a freshman.

"The good thing is that we have three guys who are all different. Physically, athletically and skill-wise, they're different players. Depending on what we are running and who we are playing, as well as their production, will dictate who gets the minutes.

"Jan made the commitment to stay here this summer and work out and change his body. He looks good now and he feels good about himself. If he keeps doing what he's doing, he's going to have a good year for us. Moriba is a very good shot blocker who's good at defending ball screens. Manny has gotten bigger and stronger, and now his biggest challenge is just understanding the pace of the game and the plays we're running. He has the ability, quickness, athleticism and work ethic that makes you want to play him."

Another option might have been 6-foot-9 Brendan Lane (Rocklin, Calif./Rocklin HS/UCLA), who graduated from UCLA in three years and is eligible immediately after transferring. But the coaches will honor his request to redshirt this season while he begins work in Pepperdine's master's program for applied finance, and so it's likely that Lane will take to the floor for his final season of college basketball in 2013-14. He shot 50% or better from the field each of his three seasons with the Bruins and had career averages of 2.5 points and 2.2 rebounds in 11.4 minutes.

"I've always been a believer that we are going to do what's best for a kid as well as the program," Wilson said. "It's more important to build a program than just a team. Brendan will help us the following year. He wants to learn our system, see what we do every day and adjust to Pepperdine. He's a veteran guy, one who has been through the battles at UCLA. He's been coached well and challenged physically and mentally. That's a big bonus for us to have every day at practice this year and the following year in real games."

A trio of newcomers are looking to earn playing time at forward and it's possible that at a starter will emerge from this group. Six-foot-six junior Malte Kramer (Frieburg, Germany/Cuesta College) was one of the top junior college players in the state last season and scored 1,092 points at Cuesta, fourth all-time in the program's history. Freshmen Stacy Davis (Laveen, Ariz./Fairfax HS) and Jett Raines (Coppell, Texas/Coppell HS) each had impressive prep careers, with the 6-foot-6 Davis earning all-state honors three times and the 6-foot-7 Raines being named the North's MVP at the Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star Game.

"Malte is the most disciplined guy I have been around, both on and off the floor," Wilson said. "His ability to shoot the ball from outside, his knowledge of the game, his experience is huge for this team. He will allow us to play differently from last year because he can space the floor and stretch things out.

"Stacy is probably more ready than any of our other freshmen, and will have the opportunity to play a lot because of his high skill level and physicality. I think he's going to have a really good career here. Jett's name fits him. When he's on the court, he runs as hard as anyone. He's a relentless runner and a great offensive rebounder. He's like a magnet for tip-dunks. I think he could be one of Pepperdine's best-ever defenders."

Two wing players include junior guard Nikolas Skouen (Bergen, Norway/Pratt CC) and freshman guard Atif Russell (Katy, Texas/Seven Lakes HS). Skouen made a team-high 33 three-pointers last season, his first at Pepperdine, and that's a figure that Wilson believes will increase now that Skouen has a full year under his belt. Russell set a school record with 143 three-pointers at Seven Lakes High School and scored more than 1,000 career points.

"Niko works as hard as any kid that I've ever been around," Wilson said. "He's always in the gym shooting. He's had a year to learn our system and what's expected of him. He's got to learn to play through a mistake, because we get the most out of him when he's playing free and in rhythm. If he makes that leap, he's going to have a good year, and we need him to because we need guys out there who can shoot the ball, and that's what he does.

"As he gets bigger and stronger and continues to learn, anything's possible for Atif. He can step out and hit shots. He can be a great defender. He's very competitive."

The Waves also have a new walk-on hoping to help at the point guard position, freshman Austin Mills (Beverly Hills, Calif./Beverly Hills HS). He was co-MVP of the Ocean League last year.

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