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What To Watch: Cal Vs. Pepperdine

November 5, 2019

After rolling through Division II Saint Martin’s last week 98-75, Cal’s men’s hoops team officially begins the season tonight (November 5) against the Pepperdine Waves. It’s Mark Fox’s first official game in Berkeley and a matchup between two veteran coaches as the Waves are led by former Washington coach, Lorenzo Romar.

Depending on which preseason projection you believe is most valid, the Waves are picked to finish anywhere between fourth and sixth in the West Coast Conference. Regardless, it will be a challenging season-opener for Fox and the Bears.

Pepperdine Waves

Last season: 16-18 (6-10), No. 151 in KenPom

2020 KenPom Season Projection: 17-11 (9-7), No. 104

2020 Torvik Projection: 16-12 (8-8), No. 124

Here are some things to watch for and keys to tonight’s season-opening showdown against the Waves from Malibu.

1) Which Defense Shows Up & Who Stops Colbey Ross

At the end of the exhibition game’s first half, Bears fans were having some not-so-pleasant flashbacks to last season’s defensive efforts. Cal gave up 41 first-half points and clung to a three-point lead as the Saints bombed the hoop from long-range going 7-for-14 from three-point range. The Bears tightened up the defense and brought some more energy and intensity in the second half, holding the Saints to 34 points, but after the game, Coach Fox described the defense as not even in the “same galaxy” of where it needed to be.

One of the issues was Alex Schumacher, who made the Bears look like they were playing in peanut butter as he drove around them with ease, finishing the night with 21 points in 26 minutes on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. With all due respect to Schumacher, Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross is on a different level. The junior lead guard averaged 19.4 points and about seven assists a game last year for the Waves. The Bears have got to stay in front of him. The question is, who does it? And for that matter, who is going to be the Bears’ lock-down defender on the perimeter? At this point, it looks like senior graduate transfer Kareem South could be the best bet. Freshman lead guard Joel Brown showed some flashes of strong defense in the second half, but asking him to defend one of the more efficient guards in the country might be too much to ask.

2) Fouls and Guarding the Three-Point Line

Last year, the Waves were a top-25 team at three-point shooting percentage and getting to the free-throw line. That’s not surprising when you have a guard like Ross. The Waves lose Eric Cooper, who was the most accurate long-range shooter last season but return Ross and 6-8 stretch forward, who shot about 37% from three as a freshman last season. Besides Cooper and Ross, Kessler hoisted up for threes than anyone else for the Waves last year.

3) Turnovers and Tempo

The Waves like to play fast. Last season, they averaged 70.3 possessions per game which was 58th in the nation. Last season, the Bears played at a plodding 66.6 possessions per game pace. But against the Saints last week, the Bears had 70 possessions and looked best on offense when they pushed the pace, running the floor, and finishing in transition. Do the Bears try to slow the pace down to something they might be more comfortable with? Or do they get into a footrace with the Waves.

Last season, the Waves were one of the best teams in the nation at forcing turnovers — especially non-steal turnovers. And the Waves were one of the best teams at forcing turnovers. Last week, the Bears picked up right where they left off, turning the ball over just six times while recording an incredible 26 assists. Are the Bears able to move the ball efficiently without turning it over against a team that likes to turn teams over?

KenPom Game Projection: 75-73 Pepperdine, 56% win chance

Torvik Game Projection: 81-78 Cal, 63% win chance

This is the definition of a tossup game. If Cal can come out on top, it will be an early sign of the team progressing in the right direction, because this is a game Cal probably loses eight or nine out of 10 times last season. 

Game Preview From September:

After seven average to miserable seasons with Marty Wilson at the helm, the Waves are entering their second year with former Washington coach Lorenzo Romar, who was let go by the Huskies in 2017 after 15 years in Seattle. Pepperdine hasn’t seen an NCAA Tourney or conference title since 2002, but the last two years under Wilson were particularly bad even for a team that hasn’t made it past the Sweet 16. After finishing 18-14 and 10-8 in the West Coast Conference in both 2015 and 2016, the bottom fell out a bit for Wilson. In 2017, the Waves finished the year at 9-22 (5-13) and No. 303 in KenPom standings. 2018 wasn’t much better as they rose to 271 in KenPom’s standings but finished the season at 6-26 (2-16).

But Romar could be just what the Waves need to jump-start a near lifeless program.

Head Coach: Lorenzo Romar

Romar, who will be turning 61 this November, got his first head coaching start at Pepperdine in 1997 after a few years as an assistant at UCLA. He spent three seasons coaching the Waves, going 39-44 before leaving for Saint Louis University, where he spent another three years leading the Billikens to 51 wins and 44 losses. In 2003, he took over at Washington where he spent the last two years of his college playing career before being drafted by the Golden State Warriors.

You can’t look at Romar as a coach without looking in-depth at those 15 years in Seattle. When Romar teams were at their best, they played an up-tempo efficient offense with an average to minimal turnover rate and crashed the offensive boards. On defense, they clogged passing lanes and forced bad shots. While Romar had solid offensive and defensive teams, offense was a bit more of a strength during his time in Seattle.

The issue for Romar was taking the Huskies from a slightly-above-average team to the next level. During his 15 seasons at UW, the Huskies went to the tourney just six times and never made it past the Sweet 16 despite having a No. 1 seed in 2005. His last trip to the NCAAs was in 2012 when the Huskies went out in the second round as a seven seed to North Carolina.

In his first season at Pepperdine, Romar was about as successful as you could hope for. In one season with basically the same six-win team as the season before, the Waves improved from finishing 328 in KenPom’s defensive ratings to 194 and from 168 to 124 on offense. And while the Romar stamp hasn’t been fully placed on the Pepperdine program, the Waves played a bit of Romar-ball, increasing the tempo from 67.5 possessions (210 adjusted pace in KenPom) to 70.3 (58th in KenPom) and turning teams over at a 20.9% clip compared to 15.5% the previous season. For reference, that is a jump from No. 323 to No. 48 in turning teams over.

Key Returning Players

Colbey Ross, 6-1, JR., 19.4 pts, 7.03 asts, 2.9 rbds

Kameron Edwards, 6-6, SR., 14.7 pts, 6.2 rbds

Kessler Edwards, 6-8, SO., 10.0 pts, 5.6 rbds

Jade Smith, 6-4, JR., 9.6 pts, 5.9 rbds

The Waves have a solid core of returners in the four players listed above. It’s not totally common for a college hoops team to return four players averaging about double digits, but that’s exactly what the Waves have. Last season, the Waves averaged about 76 points per game with a 52% Effective FG rating, which was 113 in KenPom’s rankings last season (again, for reference, Cal’s 48.6% for 272nd. Pepperdine excelled at getting to the free-throw line and three-point shooting. Percentage-wise, however, the Waves’ two best long-range shooters — Eric Cooper and Darnell Dunn — graduated last year. 

Ross is the obvious main threat overall this year. Shooting 40% from behind the arc last season, he is the team’s most dangerous scoring threat. The younger (and taller) Kessler also showed range out to the three-point line, shooting 37% last season. Ross was also the facilitator for the offense, averaging seven dimes a game. It’s tough to place the success of the offense entirely on one player, but that’s almost how it is for Ross and the Waves.

Key Losses

Eric Cooper and Darnell Dunn

Besides the three-point shooting percentage and depth, the Waves didn’t lose much in the off-season when their two seniors — Cooper and Dunn — graduated. The offense runs fully through Ross and he’s the player to watch this season. The Waves also had four other freshmen — three of which are taller than 6-7 last season — and it will be interesting to see which ones step up this season.

Key Incoming Players

Majok Deng, 6-5, FR.

Jan Zidek, 6-9, FR.

Throw in Ontario, California-based Sedrick Altman, and the Waves have an incoming class of three. Deng was ranked 292 in 247 Sports’ composite ranking while Zidek is the son of former UCLA player George Zidek and will be coming over from the Czech Republic. It’s unclear how much Romar will lean on any newcomers as he already has a fairly solid core of returners.

This won’t be an easy opener for the Bears. The Waves have an experienced core group of players and a seasoned coach that knows Cal well after spending 15 years in the same conference. It will be a good early-season test and barometer for how the Bears might be heading into Mark Fox’s first season in Berkeley.

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What To Watch: Cal Vs. Pepperdine

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