An evening with Coach Westphal

Members of BreakingWaves sat down with men's basketball head coach Paul Westphal on February 9. The conversation ranged from offensive strategy to recruiting to his future at the program. We talked about, in Coach's words, "The State of the Program, for everyone who cares." Following are the highlights from that conversation.

Paul Westphal: I'll start … one thing that's out there that seems kind of strange to me, and that's the thing about USC. I never talked to SC, and they never talked to me. I never said a word about it. … I read in the paper they were saying my name there, obviously I went to school there, but it's strange that I'm being criticized for romancing with USC, and nothing was ever said. I honestly don't know if I would have taken that job if they offered it to me. The fact is, they didn't offer it, and they're not compelled to offer it, just because somebody wrote it in the paper. Out of respect to my Alma Mater, I didn't say one thing or the other. If they would have called me, I would have listened. You read about all these coaches that deny rumors, and the next thing you know, they take a job … I don't want to be in a position of lying about it.

There have been a bunch of NBA jobs coming open that I didn't even call on. The Celtics job was pretty close to happening and I didn't want to lie and say I wouldn't take it if they offer it. I'd take it. If one of our players was going to be a first-round pick, and wanted to leave early, I'd say "go ahead." There are certain things that everybody would do if the opportunity presented itself.

Question: Some people believe it would weigh on the player's minds that there might not be continuity in the program that you would be open to another position.

PW: You know, when I took this job, I didn't even negotiate. We sent both of our kids to Pepperdine and paid their way. I like the school. When they offered me the job, I said "whatever it pays, pay me." It wasn't like I was making a career move, looking for a stepping stone to other jobs. I also told the powers that be the same things I tell the recruits and their families: no one knows the future. Sometimes stuff changes. I wouldn't look around trying to take whatever job comes up just to move up the ladder. I've been pretty high up the ladder already – and it's not that different, it just pays better. At the same time, there might be some job out there that would be too good to turn down, and that's what I tell the recruits ... I think this is a great job. It might not be THE best job in the world, there might be two or three jobs better out there, why lie about it? I don't think it's a distraction unless someone really wants to make it one. I just try to tell the truth.

Q: Tell us a little about the decisions you make in terms of player choices and the type of offense you play.

PW: There's a lot to that question. One thing I don't want to do is analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each player. I don't think that's appropriate … but everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. And my basic philosophy is that you always try to improve your weaknesses with instruction, off-season work, and things like that. But when it comes to the game, as a player you play to your strengths and hide your weaknesses and as a coach, you play to your team's strengths and hide their weaknesses. Those change from year to year, depending on the makeup of your team. So I look at each team at the start of the year and figure what our strengths are and try to play those up, and at the same time, there are inevitable weaknesses and we try to hide those. As the season progresses – and things never go exactly how you think they're going to go – if they go radically in a different direction, sometimes you have to change.

I tend to really like versatile players, because when you have that and things change, you don't have to change as dramatically. Sometimes you end up with specialists who aren't quite as versatile, so when you change your style of play, a specialist might not be able to be utilized as much as somebody who can play 2-3 different positions offensively and defensively.

That's a long preamble, and we haven't even gotten anywhere yet! (laughs) You're asking about this year's team.

Q: What might be some of the things you might do to bridge the gap between specialists and the more versatile players?

PW: Let's talk about some guys we've had in the past. Cedric Suitt was a great shotblocker. He wasn't much of a scoring threat, but he was very valuable to the team as the anchor of the defense. The offense we ran kept Cedric away from having to handle the ball too much, we tried to keep him diagonally away from the ball trying to get rebound position. He's still close to the basket where if they didn't guard him, you could get him the ball and he could dunk it, but his role on the team was offensively honestly to kind of stay out of the way so we could have him on defense. We still worked with him on his game to where he wouldn't be a liability offensively, and he got to the point where he improved every year during his career.

So when you have a guy like that, you utilize his strengths and hide his weaknesses. The same is true for most of the big guys that Pepperdine would get. They're not offensive-oriented. For the most part they go to UCLA and Arizona if they are. The guys we get are usually inexperienced kids who need to learn offense. So a lot of time we design our offense where that player is a screener and rebounder, and as they develop over time, they become and offense factor too. I'm not sure if I'm answering your questions.

Q: What does your offense do to utilize those players who aren't as versatile? Are those who aren't going to be able to play, or is there someone working with them behind the scenes, or … ?

PW: We definitely work with the guys as much as the rules will allow. Coach Neilson works with the big guys, he's really good at it. Wyking Jones works with the big guys a lot too. That doesn't mean they don't talk to the guards or anything. Patrick Whitlock and I concentrate more on the guard play, and I supervise all of it, I try to work with all of them on their fundamentals and what they are capable of working on and improve their strengths.

I believe, like John Wooden believed, that even if you're a big guy, you should do all the ballhandling, footwork, and shooting drills to expand your game. When you get in the game, you might still stay close to the basket, but some guys expand their game. Derick Grubb is a perfect example. In high school, you wouldn't have known he could shoot. He's actually a pretty darn good shooter. It's a shame we couldn't play him this year, but he's a guy who functions very well in a high-low situation.

A big part of our offense is, the PF and Center, one of them is low and the other is high, and then as the ball swings, they switch. If you can hit the shot and post up, that's a real good thing, and Derick got to the point where he's very strong at both those things. Russell Hicks is going to be that kind of player too. He's got a very nice shot.

Q: Derick has another year, right?

PW: He's got two more, he's got a medical redshirt this year. You know, and Jarrad Henry's more of a low post player. Fans haven't seen that much of him yet. He's still … yeah, I guess ‘raw' is the right word … he has some days in practice where he's pretty hard to stop, but he's not polished yet. He'll get there. You won't see him as much in the high post as Russell or Derick, but as he gets more playing time, we'll be seeing him in the low post a lot. He's not going to go out and handle the ball or set a bunch of high screens and pop out and hit a three like McGowan does.

Q: How is recruiting going? You've mentioned before that certain types of players gravitate toward bigger schools. Are we making an effort to actively seek the All-American even though we're smaller?

PW: When we have the chance, sure. We don't have the budget to just go … you know, everybody wants a trip to Malibu, so we could take the top player out of Chicago and pay for his trip, then watch him to go Arizona if we want, but we have to focus on the guys we can get, and I think we've done a pretty good job of it. Russell Hicks ... I'd be surprised if there's a Pac-10 school that wouldn't take him in a second. Sometimes we have to take chances, go far away.

Q: I've heard some of the bigger-name players who wanted to come to Pepperdine and said Pepperdine didn't show enough interest.

PW: We put our net out there and I think we do a pretty good job of knowing who's out there and who we have a chance to get. It's a big country and we're gonna miss some inevitably.

Q: Is Ronny Turiaf one of those guys? He said he considered Pepperdine but didn't feel Pepperdine really wanted him.

PW: Oh, he knew we wanted him. He was offered. That's not my memory of it.

Q: Is the talk about our conference rising in the estimation of people across the country helping us show up on the radar?

PW: I think Pepperdine is a very attractive place for kids that want what Pepperdine has to offer. If someone wants to go to a big-conference football school, he shouldn't come here. If that's the college experience a kid wants, to play in a major conference ... if that's their dream, we're not gonna get them. What we tall them is that they will play a schedule that's as tough as anybody's. WE play all the big schools we can, and we play in a really good conference. They have a chance to fulfill their dream just as well here as at any of the big schools, plus they get a great education and they're in Malibu. A lot of kids like that, some don't.

Some can get a better financial deal somewhere else. We'll give them a scholarship, but we don't want to have some of the side deals going, but anybody's foolish if they don't think they don't take place (some places).

Q: Given the priorities of the school, in terms of academics and spiritual life, does Pepperdine attract a certain type of person?

PW: Pepperdine's a great school, and we never try to sell it as something it isn't. You get a great education, a wonderful place to live, and play great basketball. But it's not a fit for everyone. They have to decide if it's a fit, and we're getting a high caliber of player.

You know, one of the things that comes up is having a new building here. I spent a lot of time with Red Auerbach when I was playing in Boston. Players would complain about Boston Garden a lot – and it was terrible. There were leaky walls, rats, the floors were uneven, it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Red would point at the banners in the rafters and say, "If this place was good enough for Russell, it's good enough for you."

It's easy to get caught up in the necessity of bells and whistles, but really the only thing you have to have for a good basketball team is a ball, uniforms, referees, and a place to play the games. Everything else is gravy. I like our building. It's fun to play games here. Do I think the school needs more athletic facilities? Absolutely, and they know they do, and they're going to get them. They know you can't have intramurals, four major sports, and use it as an auditorium for big gatherings, all in one gym. It's a miracle that we've had this much success with one gym. The students need more places to recreate, more places for camps. There needs to be, and will be, some sort of expansion. Whatever it is will be in keeping with the needs of the school, and the needs of as many people as possible. It'll be nice when it happens, but it doesn't mean we can't have success until it happens.

We've got everything we need for a player to be as excellent as his skill will take him.

Q: Do you see it as needing to sell out this gym for every game before building a new one, or is it more "if you build it, they will come?"

PW: I'm real bad on the whole "vision" thing. I leave that to the people whose job it is to decide those things.

Q: Talk a bit about the offense you run. Some of our members probably don't know the definition of a "flex" offense. Talk about that a little, so that when people watch the games, they can recognize what they see.

PW: The reason we run the flex is because it works against man or zone (defenses). You never know what defense the opponent is going to throw at you, so you like to have a basic set where you don't have to stop and reorganize when they change it up. It's generally two interchangeable big guys going high and low, and three perimeter players going to spots they gravitate to, to spread the defense to the maximum. Depending on how the defense plays, we'll set screens on the ball or away from the ball. We like to emphasize penetration and playing inside-out, either throwing it into a post man, or coming off screens and getting to the paint and making decisions. We like to swing the ball from side to side and I think that's the best way to attack.

Do we always to that? Of course we don't. It can get aggravating when we don't run the offense to its maximum effectiveness. But it's important to have movement, freeing them to improvise if necessary. All of that is built into our basic offense that runs against man or zone, and I think it's real sound.

I read where it's a "pro" offense, and I guess that's because I coached in the pros. To me, it's the same offense I ran at Grand Canyon when we won a national championship before I went to the pros. It's an offense that gives some structure to versatile, creative players. When they run it right, it's a beautiful thing, it's usually low in turnovers, it yields postups, it yields penetrations, it yields threes. If you don't run it right, it yields turnovers and standing around, which this year – we've had too much of that.

There are no secrets in basketball. There's actually a lot of the "triangle" in our offense. It used to be called the triple-post when Tex Winter invented it, then Phil Jackson started calling it triangle. I guess if you get a name for your offense, it's special. You just put a guy in the corner, a guy in the post, a guy 15 feet away.

The thing that concerns me a little bit reading the board is … this year's not over. I've been on teams that were up and finished weak, and on teams that were down and finished strong. When I look back at where we are, we've won a few games where we weren't favored and lost a few games where we were. Had a couple heart-breaking losses at UCLA and Cal. In conference, we had those two home losses that hurt us real bad. To good teams – other teams have home losses this year too. But we're not lying in a ditch by the side of the road figuring the season's over. We've got a chance to win every time we play, and we're looking forward to the challenge.

Q: The players we have are very talented. What do you think they need to get them there mentally?

PW: You're watching our team very closely. It's hard to be objective about your own team. I'm pretty sure that at every Pac-10 and WCC school, if they're not winning as much as people thing they should be, it's "you've got the players, what's the matter?" But the other teams are pretty good. That's why they play the games.

Bill Parcells had a good saying in football. People would say "they're 6-8 but they're better than their record." He'd say "no they're not, that's their record, they're 6-8." You can say there were games that could have gone the other way or whatever, but that's what it is. Right now, that's what it is for us too. Do we strive to get better? Do we think we can get better and have a better result? Yeah. But right now, I'm not going to disrespect the other teams by saying that we underachieved. We lost, we got beat. When we beat somebody, we like to say we're better, and the same thing goes the other way. We are what our record is. There may be reasons we expect to improve, and as long as we have games left and have breath, we're trying to improve. But I'm not as disrespectful of our losses as some of the people on the board. We lost to some pretty good teams.

For example, UCLA. I honestly believe if we played them in a seven-game series, we'd win the series. We'd lose some games along the way, and one of the games along the way was the game we played this year. We felt we had it, let it get away. We didn't like some calls, they made some plays … whatever it is, they got us. I'd like to play them again, but we don't get to. That goes as a loss on our record.

Are we more talented than our record? Our record is what it is.

Q: It's hard to see where play a team like UCLA and fight to the finish, then play a team like Loyola, and come up so dry.

PW: I understand what you're saying. First of all, they (LMU) are not bad. Things went their way very much that game, and they got us. Our record the last few years against them is 13-1 now. Would you take that? Yeah. Do you hate that we lost that one? Yeah. We hate it. We've got them one more time at our place, and maybe we'll get them again in the tournament. Any time we lose, we don't like it. One of the things I really like about our players is they're competitive. They do work on the things we don't execute, they try to go back and make corrections. We're still a work in progress, and a lot of that comes form the changes you make along the way.

When you look at our roster, there's a lot of talent. But a lot of those guys are out right now. We structured our team around having a big team with a lot of depth. As the season went on, we started losing a big guy here and a big guy there and realizing that the core of our team is changing and that we had to change the way we played because of it.

That's not an excuse, because I don't think we need to make an excuse, but that is a reality of how a season goes sometimes, and that's what we're dealing with right now.

Q: Are you going to continue to press on defense?

PW: Well, we're starting to press more now. When we were playing with Khouba and Glen at the forwards, with a center and Alex at the two-guard, we couldn't press as much because we didn't have the quickness advantage at as many positions as you need to in order to press. Now that we're moving Khouba to the 4 and 5 and playing Alex at SF and two point guards we'll have more quickness advantage and we'll be able to do it more.

Q: So there was a conscious decision last week to go to the more pressing/trapping approach last week, and you intend to stick with that?

PW: I think that's the way we need to play, and we don't anticipate changing it.

Q: Are you concerned about the physical ability to run up-tempo for the rest of the year?

PW: Alex is such a versatile player; to play him at SF with two PGs is what changes our lineup altogether. PGs never get tired. Alex never gets tired. When you play an up-tempo game, you sacrifice some inside strengths. Everything is give-and-take in life and in basketball.

Q: Can you elaborate a little more on Glen and Khouba playing together? As you've said, Khouba has been better at the PF, and that's where Glen is. Has it been difficult to use them together such that it would hurt the team?

PW: It's all a bigger picture to me, rather than an individual thing. Khouba and Glen both need to be able to post up. If you play them with a center who can shoot like Jesse, there's room. But when Jesse went down, the other centers we have need to be around the basket. It's not just sliding outside once in a while, one of them literally has to be out there. I think it's damaged our chemistry a bit. You have to have at least three guys out there who are a threat. Jesse going down hurt the effectiveness of Khouba and Glen together. We needed to change.

Offensively, having Khouba and Glen with three guards in there is no problem. But defensively, neither of them are center-sized.

Really, PF and SF is the same position. I call Khouba the SF a little more because he usually guards the smaller player while Glen covers the bigger player. Offensively, whoever has the SF guarding him plays the PF spot because he has the better mismatch inside.

Q: It seems like this would be a good way to use Rob. He's highly agile and long. If we could get him moving around on defense and playing the bigger positions defensively, but not under the basket on offense, kind of Kevin Garnett style, that would be easier for him to get involved.

PW: One of my biggest regrets is that for whatever reason, it's been hard for us to find a way for Rob to have a consistent role. He's a hard-working kid and he deserves success. Consistent position and playing time has been hard to provide for him for a lot of different reasons. It's not over yet, and I really hope he finishes strong. Rob has some athletic ability that's easy to see. You watch some of the things he does, it's extraordinary. As far as fitting his abilities into a particular niche, it's been tough. I'm not happy about it from a coaching perspective, I wish we could find a way for him to succeed. He's a unique player who doesn't fit into any one mold. And he's had the misfortune of playing behind Alex, Yakhouba, and Glen, so it's been tough.

Q: Do you ever see Keith Jarbo taking on a more prominent offensive role?

PW: Every team needs a guy like Jarbo. He adds so much to this team. He's played the role the way he should play it. If people came to practice, he works on his shot, but it doesn't go in as often as other guys. He's a really good passer, a versatile player. If he were 6'9, people would be lining up to give him millions. He'd be one of the best PF's ever. But he's 6'1, he's a 6'1 power forward. Outside shooting isn't his game. Not that he can't make one once in a while, and not that he hasn't worked on it. But if we want someone shooting from outside, we'll have Kingsley do it.

I wish that game in San Francisco was televised. He turned that game around, not by himself, but he was the catalyst – steals, offensive rebounds, great passes, drawing charges, it was really fun to see what he brought to that game. Then we went to San Diego and every time he touched somebody it was a foul. You just never know.

Q:Changes in the starting lineup keep coming up as a point of contention on the message board. Do players know their role ahead of time, and do changing roles bother them?

PW: I'd love not to change. I'm very reluctant to change. It may not seem that way, because things happen out of necessity over the course of the year. I tell players I don't have a doghouse. I have confidence in all of them, but they have different strengths and weaknesses. If we're playing against a team we know is going to zone, we want to have as many of our good players against a zone out on the floor. And that's not just outside shooting, there are a lot of ways to attack the zone. Jarbo's great against the zone even though he never shoots. He gets in the gaps and makes passes and gets offensive rebounds. Some of our players are much better man-to-man defensively than they are when we need to play a zone

So there are games when a guy might have had a good game last game, but the next game is a totally different set of circumstances, where maybe we need to attack a zone or we need to play man-to-man defense, and we need the matchup. Like Jarbo started one game because we needed to play man-to-man and we needed him to guard Marigney. So we changed the lineup for that game. And we've done that other times when we felt it was a necessity based on what we felt the other team was going to do.

Now, one school of thought says you get a lineup, stick with it, and make the other team adjust to you. If you're winning all the time, that's great. When I coached Phoenix, we never changed the lineup. ‘We're starting Barkley, he's a 6'4 power forward, deal with it!!' (laughs) But if the other team maybe has an advantage, you need to match up to that. So most of the changes have been along those lines, not because someone had a good game, therefore he should start. We decided at the start of the year that Alex, Khouba and Glen were going to start and then fill in a center. Could have been Grubb, who was the front-runner, could have been Jesse, could have been (one of the freshmen). Same thing at the PG, whoever makes the team go the best. And there's no way to know that until you go out there and see what happens against other teams.

For instance, there was a time Jarrad was starting. That doesn't mean he's the best center … and none of those guys is going to play 40 minutes. The best way to get Jarrad experience was at the start of games. Sometimes it's a good thing to give young players confidence and let them start rather than bring them off the bench when it might be a tougher situation.

It's not always important who starts. It's important who finishes.

Sorry more people couldn't make it tonight. I know there is interest, and I want to do my best to answer any questions anyone has, whether it's present company or anyone on the board. I really appreciate people caring about our team. It's a team worth caring about, it's a good group of kids.

Thanks to all!