The Vance Walberg experiment has ended at Pepperdine. Walberg, the coach that jumped from high school to city college to Division I basketball, resigned today citing personal and family reasons for leaving.
It was a short, ugly tenure for Walberg, his 14-35 record speaks for itself and his final game as head coach was one of the worst Division I games I have ever watched. Gonzaga, who in fairness is hitting their stride and with Josh Heytvelt finally healthy might be good enough to beat anyone in the country, made Walberg’s Waves look downright silly in front of Pepperdine’s largest crowd of the season and the largest student crowd that I have seen in the threes years I’ve been going to their games.
It’s disappointing to see the experiment end this way. Walberg’s attack-attack-skip-attack-attack style of play – a style that emphasizes quick drives to the basket followed by a pass to outside shooters if the layup isn’t there – was supposed to, at the very least, make the Waves an interesting team to watch. As the originator of this style that has been partially implemented by many teams on all levels across the country including John Calipari at Memphis, Walberg was called on by Pepperdine to bring his style whole-heartedly to the Waves and take a team that had become dull and predictable under Paul Westphal and turn it into something exciting and completely crazy.
Unfortunately, the cupboard was left so bare by Westphal except for returning freshman Michael Gerrity and raw talent Kingsley Costain, Walberg never had the horses to make it work. Gerrity, a talented, gritty point guard, quickly transferred to Charlotte before the 2006-2007 season leaving just Costain to shoulder the load of a demanding style of play. He played admirably in a forgettable 8-23 season, but when he was mysteriously kicked out of school just before this season started, Pepperdine was left with a young, largely anonymous group of players that currently aren’t deep enough to make the system work. And except for occasional games against lower level teams like Division III Hope International earlier this month, we never got to see AASAA in all its glory.
Assistant coach Eric Bridgeland takes over for Walberg on an interim basis. If Pepperdine wants to continue working with and developing the AASAA style of play, Bridgeland is a good choice to take over for Walberg permanently. As a coach at Division III Puget Sound, his teams played a similar (if not the same) up-tempo style and were wildly successful. As Pepperdine’s recruiting coordinator, he has worked for two seasons to put together a team that eventually, with more experience and even more athletes on board, could make the system work. Their top three scorers are talented, athletic freshman. Crawford High School (San Diego) teammates Tyrone Shelley and Malcolm Thomas lead the way with 15.6 and 13.6 points per game respectively while Australian forward Daniel Johnson is chipping in 9.7 ppg.
I am of the opinion that this is the direction Pepperdine should take the program. It is unfair to these freshman and the recruits coming in next year that they recruited specifically to play this style to suddenly bring in someone that will totally change what they are doing. It’s a better option than completely throwing away the last two seasons and starting over, as tempting as that seems. It can’t get much worse than 14-35, but if they dump AASAA after just two seasons, I fear that it will get worse.
But I fully expect Pepperdine to go after a replacement with a bigger name than Bridgeland to make some, please excuse me, waves. They took a lot of heat for making such a bold decision to go after a gimmicky city college coach with no Divison I experience in Walberg and I have to think that they are wrongly excited to show the Pepperdine community that they are taking the losing very seriously and want to correct a mistake in judgement, whether it really is the right move or not.
This is Malibu after all, image is everything. Firestone Fieldhouse is not immune.