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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 24 Pepperdine Waves

Can Pepperdine build off momentum from its WCC Championship semifinal appearance?

Pepperdine v Gonzaga Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

2018-19 Record: 16-18 (6-10 WCC), No postseason
Key Returning Players: Colbey Ross (G, Jr.), Kameron Edwards (F, Sr.), Kessler Edwards (G/F, So.), Jade’ Smith (G, Jr.), Victor Ohia Obioha (F, So.)
Key Losses: Eric Cooper Jr., Darnell Dunn, Michael Cage Jr. (left team)
Key Newcomers: Keith Smith (RS Jr., G/F via Oregon)

It’s amazing what a new coach can do for a program.

From purely an aesthetic standpoint, former Washington head coach (and Arizona assistant) Lorenzo Romar turned Pepperdine from a mundane, plodding team, to a fast and fun offense last season. Sophomore point guard Colbey Ross (19.4 PPG, 7.0 APG) spent the season throwing lobs to the bevy of young, wiry forwards — hello, Kessler Edwards, Victor Ohia Obioha and Andre Ball — in the conference’s third-fastest offense. The Waves’ three-point dependence jumped from 29.6% to 42%, and they led a conference with Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s in three-point percentage (38.5%).

Six wins was a low bar to clear, yet the Waves matched their win total from the 2017-18 season only 31 days into the season. But Pepperdine’s inexperience caught up with them in conference play. The Waves took a quixotic path to an eighth-place finish: Despite only posting a 6-10 record, they swept NIT-bound San Diego, split the season series with rival Loyola Marymount and upset Saint Mary’s in overtime.

All told, the 2019 season had all the makings of a rebuilding year. Pepperdine won some the games they were supposed to win, lost the games they were expected to lose and pulled off just enough upsets to keep things interesting — all while underclassmen like Kessler Edwards (9.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 37% from three) and Jade’ Smith (9.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.5 SPG) flashed intriguing potential. Going into the WCC Championships, expectations were predictably low.

What happened in the next four games threw the Romar rebuild into overdrive.

The Waves won three games in three nights — all as heavy underdogs and all in different fashions. First, they ground out an ugly, 61-53 win against a Pacific team that beat them five days prior. In the next game against Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine clawed back from an 11-point deficit and upset their rivals on this Ross three:

The Waves saved their best win of the season for last. Five players scored in double-figures, the team shot 14-28 from three and Pepperdine quashed San Francisco’s postseason hopes with a 15-point win.

Their prize? A 26-point loss against Gonzaga in the semifinals. That’s just how things work in the WCC Championship.

All of this begs the question: What sets this high-upside, sub-.500 team apart from other high-upside, sub-.500 teams?

Pepperdine returns almost everyone — 75.2% of last year’s minutes, to be exact. Led by the aforementioned Ross and a plethora of athletic wings, the Waves have the talent and the potential to be the third-best team in the WCC. Should things break right, the Waves can parlay its serendipitous WCC Championship run into something greater.

Key Non-Conference Games

Naturally, Pepperdine built off of last year’s momentum by [squints] scheduling a home-heavy slate against a bunch of Big Sky cellar-dwellers.

While this isn’t anything out-of-the-ordinary for Romar’s teams — his Washington teams routinely played below-average non-conference schedules, per KenPom’s metrics — Pepperdine’s non-conference schedule will give them a gaudy record going into WCC play. But barring a Pac-12 sweep and a Wooden Legacy title, they’ll be nowhere near the NCAA Tournament conversation.

Nevertheless, the season-opening game against Cal will not only pit the Waves’ upperclassmen against the guy who recruited them (former head coach Marty Wilson is an assistant on Mark Fox’s staff), but also could be Pepperdine’s first win over a Power-5 since 2011. The Waves then play three-straight postseason teams (the home opener against UC Irvine, then at Cal State Northridge and Abilene Christian) before squaring off against USC and its top-10 recruiting class.

The schedule peaks in the Wooden Legacy, in which the Waves play Arizona in the first round, then either UCF and Penn, before taking a nosedive. Pepperdine plays four of its final five non-conference games at home, and its lone road game of the month at San Jose State.

Nov. 5 at California
Nov. 9 vs. UC Irvine
Nov. 16 at Abilene Christian
Nov. 19 at USC
Nov. 28 vs. Arizona (Wooden Legacy)

Three Things to Watch

Will the Waves improve their post defense?

For as entertaining as they were, Pepperdine was exposed in the paint. Opponents made 54.9% of their two-pointers against Pepperdine last season — one of the worst marks in the nation. Rebounding was also a struggle. The magic number for the Waves was 32: When opponents grabbed 32 or fewer rebounds, the Waves were 12-5; conversely, Pepperdine was 4-13 whenever opponents had more than 33 rebounds.

Going into this season, the hope was to surround 6’10 Oregon transfer (and former four-star recruit) MJ Cage Jr. with a bevy of guards and run wild. But Cage left the team and moved back home to Oklahoma City this summer, sending Pepperdine back to the drawing board.

Now more than ever, the health and development and health of Ohia Obioha and the Edwards brothers is crucial. Someone on this roster has to go toe-to-toe with BYU’s Yoeli Childs, Saint Mary’s grad transfer Aaron Menzies and Gonzaga’s entire front line. Right now, no one really fits the bill.

Can Kameron Edwards stay healthy?

Keeping redshirt senior forward Kameron Edwards healthy (for once) will be paramount. When he suits up, the elder Edwards is a bruising small-forward who is Pepperdine’s most reliable interior scorer, one of the team’s best defenders and can stretch the floor. In last year’s injury-addled season, he was Pepperdine’s second-highest scorer with 15.1 PPG before a nagging foot injury returned in the WCC Championships.

Which wing will make the leap?

For whatever reason, Romar and co. have decided to build the entire plane out of athletic, lanky wings who can step out and shoot threes. In the short-term, this group looked like boys amongst men last season, as injuries and a young roster thrust them into the rotation a tad bit too early. But in the long-term, this group of multi-tooled wings will give opponents fits once they have some more in-game and weight room experience. Sure, there will be growing pains. But they’ll be fun as hell.

However, with sharpshooter Eric Cooper Jr. and stretch-four Darnell Dunn graduated, one of these young Waves needs to take the leap this season.

Kameron’s younger brother Kessler Edwards has the brightest future; the rising sophomore earned a USA Basketball U19 invite this summer, and while he didn’t make the cut, the 6’8 wing is smooth for his size and is a serviceable three-point shooter. Ditto for Andre Ball, who saw limited action as a freshman but seemingly always delivered with key threes.

Arguably the most intriguing prospect is Victor Ohia Obioha, who showed flashes of being a good rim-protector with four blocks against LMU in the conference tournament. The 6’10 sophomore from Nigeria started playing organized basketball when he moved to Riverside, CA for high school, yet already has a soft touch around the rim and great instincts in help defense situations. While there’s probably no room on the team for yet another player with gaudy statistics, Ohia Obioha can be the guy Pepperdine needs down low.

X Factor

Colbey Ross

Even though he only stands at 6’0, Pepperdine’s fiery leader boasts a crafty step-back, isn’t afraid to make passes in tight windows and has a knack for drawing contact and getting to the charity stripe. As a sophomore, he was sixth nationally in assists per game (7.0) third in made free-throws (238) and 40th in total points (659). With 1,107 career points and 418 assists, Ross has a good shot at leaving Malibu as Pepperdine’s all-time leading scorer and assister.

What sets Ross apart, however, is his decision-making. Put his brain into, say, the average four-star combo guard’s body, and he’d be on mock drafts.

If there’s one statistical knock on his game, then it’s turnovers. His turnovers spiked from 2.8 to 4.3 per game last season. His 147 turnovers were third-most nationally. Perhaps another year running Romar’s offense (with more experienced and generally steadier teammates) could decrease this number in year three.

Simply put, the rising junior is one of the best point guards in the country. If you didn’t know before, now you know.