The No. 14 Arizona Wildcats (6-0) will take the hardwood somewhere other than McKale Center for the first time Thursday when they will face the Pepperdine Waves (3-3) to open the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, California.
Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. MST on ESPN2. Here are some things to watch for.
Hello, old friend
Of the seven teams Arizona could have been matched up against in the first round of the Wooden Legacy, Sean Miller hates that it has to be Lorenzo Romar’s Pepperdine team.
“I wish we weren’t playing them,” Miller said. “I consider Lorenzo a great friend.”
Miller and Romar were rivals for several years when the latter was the head coach at Washington. Then they became colleagues. Romar got fired by UW after the 2016-17 season and joined the Wildcats as an assistant coach in 2017-18 before leaving for Pepperdine, his alma mater, after the season.
“He was here with us at a very pivotal time, pivotal year,” Miller said. “Just a tremendous person. We were really lucky to have him.”
Miller was embroiled in the federal investigation into college basketball that season, and even stepped away for a bit in the best interest of the team, missing the Oregon game. Romar was the interim and, by all accounts, provided a steady hand.
“He’s one of the best men I’ve ever been around in my life,” former UA guard Allonzo Trier said in 2018. “Great guy, God-fearing man, never steers you in the wrong direction, wants the best for you, will love you to death. There’s not many better people than Coach Romar and I have a lot of love for him.”
Between the off-the-court issues and a stunning first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament, Romar definitely didn’t get what he signed up for at Arizona, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t cherish his time in Tucson.
“People have asked me that question: Are you sorry you came in the midst of all this? No. If you told me before I got here, your choice is to stay home this year or you’re going to Arizona and these are the things that are going to happen, this is the adversity you’re going to face, I’d take it any day of the week,” he said in 2018.
“Because we were in the foxhole battling. I know (Miller’s) a good man. I know he’s a good man. And I’ve watched what he went through this year. To be in the foxhole this year, I consider it an honor.”
Pepperdine plays like a Romar-coached team
Miller sees Romar’s imprints all over this Pepperdine team.
“Increased talent, playing that fast style that he likes to coach and they have some very talented players offensively,” Miller said. “They really score, and maybe with our early season schedule here, they may be the most dangerous offensive team that we faced.”
The Waves, based in nearby Malibu, have the No. 69 offense in the country, per KenPom, and play at the 26th-fastest pace (which could work to Arizona’s favor). Pepperdine is an outstanding shooting team, converting 40 percent of its triples and 85.2 percent of its free throws.
Leading the charge is 6-foot-1 junior Colbey Ross, who is averaging 20.7 points and 7.0 assists per game while shooting 42 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3, and 91 percent from the charity stripe. The Aurora, Colorado native is on pace to become Pepperdine’s all-time leader in assists as a junior and its all-time scorer as a senior.
Unfortunately for the Waves, they are equally as bad on defense, ranking 218th in the country. They gave up 87 points to Cal and 91 to USC. (Both averaged 1.2 points per possession.)
Opponents are shooting 40.2 percent from the 3-point line against Pepperdine, and hoisting a ton of free throws as the Waves struggle to defend without fouling, a drawback of Romar’s aggressive defensive principles.
“We haven’t been able to put a complete game together yet,” Romar said. “We’ve played well in spurts and poorly in other parts of the game. That’s what we’re working on, trying to put a complete together. Our chemistry is good, we have to learn the importance of playing every possession right now and that’s what we’re trying to develop.”
Contributing to the Waves’ problems is that they are undersized, starting Kessler Edwards (6-foot-8) and Kameron Edwards (6-foot-6) in the frontcourt.
It shows in their rebounding numbers, checking in at 218th and 271st in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, respectively.
Look for UA freshman Zeke Nnaji to have another efficient, high-scoring night against the Waves.
Deng, that’s too bad
Former Salpointe Catholic standout Majok Deng is a freshman at Pepperdine, but has not debuted for the Waves yet and seems like a likely redshirt candidate.
Deng averaged 17.4 points and 7.4 rebounds as a senior in high school, and twice led Salpointe to the 4A state title game. He was a low four-star or high three-star recruit depending on which outlet you prefer, and had an offer from Arizona but was not heavily recruited by the Wildcats.
The Penn-UCF game
Assuming Arizona avoids an upset vs. Pepperdine, it will face the winner of the Penn-UCF game on Friday at 9:30 p.m. MST.
Those teams square off Thursday at 6:30 p.m. MST on ESPNU.
To repeat, Arizona should dominate this tournament
In case you missed it earlier, I outlined the many reasons Arizona is set up to have success in the Wooden Legacy after struggling in early-season tournaments the past two years. Check that out here.
You can also read about Arizona’s plan to get Jemarl Baker Jr. more minutes here.