They're a lot like Arizona, USC or Washington – they have some considerable individual talent, but don't play very disciplined on both sides of the court. Their coach, Paul Westphal, is more of the roll-the-ball-out school of coaching.
While USC has gone south, and USC and Washington have under-achieved a bit, with all three not really putting it together, Pepperdine, perhaps, has put it together more. They did have the blip on their radar in their first game of the season, when they were blown out by East Carolina, 80-58, in a game that started at 9:00 a.m. west coast time. But they have since won seven in a row (if you count a win against D-2 Azusa Pacific). They posted a strong win against then-#17 Wisconsin, in Madison, 75-61. The Waves and the Bruins have one common opponent already, with Pepperdine beating Long Beach State, 82-78.
They are, though, a fairly erratic team, due to the undisciplined style. They could literally come to Pauley Pavilion Saturday and blow out UCLA by 18 points or UCLA could beat them soundly by a dozen.
The Waves have enough talent, though, to be considered a mid-level Pac-10 team, at least this year. As Ben Howland said in his press conference this week, they have three players who could easily play in the Pac-10: 6-9, 230-pound senior forward Glen McGowan; 6-5 junior wing Alex Acker, and 6-7, 225-pound forward Yahkouba Diawara.
McGowan is their go-to guy, averaging 19 points a game, and was all West-Coast Conference a year ago when he led the conference in scoring. He's a mature man out there, actually being 23 years old. McGowan is originally from Venice High, went to prep school back east for a fifth year, and then got another year under his belt when he redshirted a season at Pepperdine. He's a load, with very good strength to carve out space to go along with good skills from 15-feet and in. McGowan will be close to what UCLA saw in Craig Smith of Boston College last Sunday.
Really perhaps the most talented player on the team is Acker, who is a thin wing, but plays bigger and stronger than his size. He's averaging 15 points and a team-leading 8 rebounds a game. Acker is a great athlete, who came to Pepperdine as a recruiting afterthought (even though we at Prep West Hoops hyped him justifiably), with great quickness and body control. He has now developed skills to match, which makes him a very tough match up. He can do it outside (shooting 45% from three), take you off the dribble with a very quick first step, and then go inside with his athleticism. He could be one of the best wings UCLA faces all year.
Diawara, another All-WCC pick from a year ago, is another matchup problem for the Bruins, having the body and size of a power forward, but the quickness of a small forward. He and McGowan are kind of interchangeable, both being very physical, with McGowan more skilled. Diawara could be the team's best defender, even though Acker is pretty good, and is a tough guy to get around or muscle through.
Those three play a huge bulk of the minutes for Pepperdine, and rightly so. Acker, in fact, almost never comes out of the game, averaging 38 per contest. Opponents only gained an advantage on Pepperdine when one of the big three got in foul trouble, as McGowan did in their loss to East Carolina. In that game, the big three also went cold shooting the ball in the second half, shooting just 20% in the second half after leading at halftime. Since then, all three of them haven't gone cold at the same time, thus seven straight wins.
A big key for UCLA is being able to defend the Pepperdine Three away from the basket. They make a living from 5 to 18 feet, creating most of the time on individual moves. It will be a big test for UCLA's two starting freshmen wings, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp.
Pepperdine's starting center is solid 6-9 senior Jesse Pinegar, a transfer from BYU. He's not particularly athletic and isn't a great rebounder, which should give UCLA's rebound-challenged big men, Michael Fey, Ryan Hollins and Lorenzo Mata, a bit of relief. The problem is one of them will also be matched up on McGowan.
The point guard position has been filled by 6-3 sophomore guard Marvin Lea, after mostly coming off the bench a year ago. Lea isn't a true point guard, more of a combo, but he handles the ball decently and, because of his size, has good passing vision. He's also a pretty decent shooter, despite not shooting too well so far this season.
Those five players get about 75% of Pepperdine's minutes. The Wave has gone small through many stretches in games, taking out Pinegar and subbing in 5-7 freshman guard Kingsley Costain, who also gets minutes backing up Lea. Costain, for being such a little guy, loves to shoot, and has hit about 40% of his threes.
Only two other guys really see the floor longer than for just a blink of an eye, 6-4 wing Keith Jarbo and 6-9 senior Robert Turner. Jarbo is actually more of an inside player than Turner, who likes to float on the perimeter. Each are averaging about 10 minutes per game. A 7-0 Canadian freshman, Russell Hicks, gets limited minutes off the bench, too.
If UCLA had some depth, they could try to run down Pepperdine, since they play the Big Three far too many minutes. But, alas, UCLA doesn't have depth. In fact, they're thin on Saturday, with the loss of their leading scorer and rebounder, Dijon Thompson, and their best rebounder, Matt McKinney, limited to playing just about 3 minutes at a time because of a mysterious ailment where he gets winded quickly.
The key to UCLA winning the game is playing good perimeter defense, contesting Pepperdine's shots, forcing them to go one-on-one too much and taking bad ones. On offense, UCLA needs to try to exploit its height advantage, feed the post and get Fey on a scoring rhythm. Without it, Pepperdine's athletes will swarm UCLA's perimeter freshmen and force turnovers and confusion.
Starting three freshmen on the perimeter and lacking strong inside play, and facing three talented players in Acker, McGowan and Diawara, it would be an upset for the baby Bruins to win this game.