A Night in Heaven (Malibu): Gonzaga at Pepperdine

January 15th, 2008

One of the perks of covering college basketball is being able to sit up close to the action, watching great teams play for free. The downside is that in the case of a blowout, you’re obligated not to leave.

Thus I was forced to endure all 40 minutes of Gonzaga’s 92-57 beat down of Pepperdine. This game was featured on the debut of ESPN’s Big Monday, but I’m sure the powers at be at ESPN would rather have aired Sports Center reruns instead.

The evening started promising enough and I was more than excited for the game. I’d never been to Pepperdine, but always heard wonderful things about this campus overlooking the ocean. What I heard was spot on, as this 8,000 student school is magically located on green hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Arriving early, students clad in orange “Beat the Zags” shirts were already cheering and getting rowdy for the ESPN camera crews around Firestone Fieldhouse.

Having last covered UCLA-Washington State in Pauley Pavilion, Firestone seems more like a high school gym compared to the Bruins 12,000 seat arena. What was a bit disappointing though was that the Waves 3,104 seater wasn’t sold out. Granted, Pepperdine is struggling at 6-12 and 13-4 Gonzaga isn’t ranked like in years past, but still the game was on national television and the opponent is as exciting as you’ll ever find.

Despite some empty seats, the student sections were pretty pumped, and finishing the national anthem with a rousing “Home of the Wave” sounded good. Unfortunately, Gonzaga’s superior skill had to get in the way of the fun.

To be honest, the game was done after just a few minutes. The Zags got out to quick 6-0 and 12-4 leads thanks to solid play by David Pendergraft, and by the 8:00 minute mark the blowout was officially on. 28-8 was the score after that point, and from there on in it was simply a matter of whether the Zags would put 100 on the board for the first time all season.

Pepperdine features talented young freshmen in Tyrone Shelley, Malcolm Thomas, Dan Johnson, and Mychel Thompson. But the problem is that all of them are forwards, and college basketball has been and still is a guard’s game. Pepperdine’s backcourt, featuring the likes of Minnesota transfer Rico Tucker and Jason Walberg, the coach’s son, had little chance against Jeremy Pargo, Matt Boulding, and co.

To be honest, the result of this game was obvious before the tip. On the season, Pepperdine has a horrible ratio of just 222 assists to 318 turnovers, and only shoots 30% from three, while opponents shoot 42%. Those trends continued as the Wave had 25 whopping turnovers to just 11 assists. That ratio won’t beat middling WCC teams like Portland, let alone a fringe Top 25 team like Gonzaga.

Luckily though, there’s more than just basketball going on when you attend a college basketball game, so here are some interesting highlights & lowlights:

The Legend -
Reggie Miller, who was also at the UCLA game on Saturday, was in attendance. Perhaps if he played for the Wave, he could have knocked down some shots and opened things up for their young guys. Being the smart guy that he is, Reggie left early and I unfortunately couldn’t hitch a ride.

The Hated Son –
As the game devolved into a blowout, about the only negativity spewed from the crowd was against Jason Walberg, the son of coach Vance Walberg. You get the sense the crowd thinks he only plays as much as he does due to nepotism. Considering Walberg shoots just 37% from the floor and is 6th on the team in scoring despite playing the second most minutes, maybe they are on to something. Then again, Walber is one of only two players with a positive assist/turnover ratio so he does provide some consistency and leadership.

The Mushroom Man –
Towards the end of the game, the fans waited eagerly for Gonzaga’s Josh Heytvelt to be fouled so they could mock him for last year’s drug arrest. Chants of “shrooms”, “mushrooms”, and “psychedelics” were constant along with fans holding up bags of mushrooms.

The Choir –
Have to give some love to the Thousand Oaks High School choir, who sung the national anthem. I attend a lot of basketball games, collegiate and professional, and this group of black-adorned students did as good a job as you’ll see. Thumbs up.

The Idiot –
Just a word of advice for those of you who are asked to take part in contests during half-time or timeouts. If you’re not good at shooting a basketball and lose miserably, don’t take out your embarrassment by throwing the ball full strength into a group of innocent bystanders around the court.

The Scouts –
With guys like Heytvelt, Pargo, and even Pepperdine’s young talent involved in this affair, the game attracted at least a half dozen NBA scouts, including representatives of the Celtics, Bucks, Spurs, and others.