The point man
Walberg has some loyal practitioners of his high-pressure offensive, defensive attack and is considered by many to be the latest up-and-coming coach to guide Pepperdine
By Peter Yoon
Times Staff Writer
January 30, 2007
Denver Nuggets Coach George Karl and Memphis Coach John Calipari believe in Vance Walberg and are running up big scores and winning plenty of basketball games using his system.
Using guidance from Walberg and tips from watching his practices, Karl's team is 22-20 and in playoff contention. And Calipari's Conference USA leader is 17-3 and ranked No. 11 in the nation.
Locally, the Walberg influence has been felt at Cal State Fullerton, which is fourth in the nation in scoring, and at Long Beach State, which last season led the nation in scoring and currently is one game back of first-place Fullerton in the Big West Conference standings.
The tenacious defense and innovative, up-tempo offense Walberg teaches has attracted dozens of copycats to his practices, and he has been flown in on occasion to work with the Nuggets. But pardon the first-year Pepperdine coach if he's not feeling much like a guru these days.
His own team is 6-17 and only one game out of the West Coast Conference cellar.
"I'd trade all those accolades for a couple of wins, I'll tell you that," Walberg said. "I'm just glad someone else is having success with it."
Applying pressure is a key element in Walberg's system — one that has been compared to Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" Arkansas teams — so it's ironic that he's now feeling some.
His hiring by Pepperdine was greeted by a collective "Who's he?" from casual fans, but with an approving nod by those in the close-knit basketball coaching community who believe it's only a matter of time before Walberg turns things around in Malibu.
On smaller stages, he has had plenty of success.
Walberg was 133-11 with a state title in four seasons at Fresno City College and 343-68 with three state championship game appearances in 13 seasons at Clovis West High.
That success drew the attention of Pepperdine administrators looking to replace Paul Westphal, who was fired after the Waves went 7-20 last season.
The hire was a risky one. Walberg had no experience at the Division I level. Before Clovis West, he coached at two other high schools but was never so much as an assistant at any college level.
Yet here he was being asked to make a rare leap from junior college to Division I — and replacing a coach who once led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals.
"Yeah, I'm feeling that a little bit," said Walberg, whose team had won consecutive games for the first time this season before losing to Santa Clara on Monday. "There aren't too many guys like me who get opportunities like this and I'm sure there are a lot of people who are going to be watching to see if it works."
Pepperdine has a track record of such hires, giving Jim Harrick and Lorenzo Romar their first head coaching jobs.
The 2001 hiring of Westphal, a big-name coach with a proven high-level track record, was the exception in Pepperdine's usual hiring philosophy.
"We have a history of hiring up-and-coming guys before anyone knows who they are," said Sam Lagana, assistant vice chancellor for athletics at Pepperdine.
Walberg calls his team's style "semi-controlled chaos," but the premise is straightforward: On offense, players strategically space themselves on the floor so that the ballhandler has room to operate. That player then attacks the basket.
If the attacker beats his man, it's a layup. If the attacker draws a double team, he kicks the ball to the open man. If that player has an open three-point shot, he takes it. If not, he becomes the attacker and the process starts over again.
Seeing a screen set or a mid-range jumper taken is rare in the system, which relies more on speedy guards and slashing forwards than 7-foot post players.
"The more I looked into it, the more I thought it would make us better," Memphis' Calipari said. "Really, how many blue-chip post players are there out there anyway? More and more kids are wanting to play here because of this style. Everyone gets to go one-on-one."
On defense, the philosophy is to press at all times.
"It makes playing a lot of fun," said Marvin Lea, Pepperdine's leading scorer. "If we were winning then it would be incredible, but even so it's kind of like a street-ball game sometimes."
Walberg developed the style after years of consulting with a who's-who among college coaches, gathering bits and pieces of information from the likes of Dean Smith, Bob Knight, Lute Olson, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino and others.
It's not an entirely run-and-gun system such as what Paul Westhead used at Loyola Marymount in the late 1980s or what Gary Smith teaches at Redlands. Richardson's Arkansas teams used a similar defense, but the offense, if it couldn't score off turnovers, was more structured.
Walberg wants players spaced out, not close enough to set screens.
"What we do is a little different but it's based on sound, fundamental principles," Walberg said. "That's why it works at different levels. It's basic principles, we just kind of extend them to the max. I don't think there's anything fancy there."
At Pepperdine, Walberg has been handicapped by the loss of several top players. Three, including two starters, transferred during the summer. Two more, including guard Mike Gerrity, the Waves' best player, left just after the start of the season.
Even so, team members say there are several reasons to be optimistic about the future.
"We're playing with walk-ons and transfers against ranked teams with All-Americans," said guard Kingsley Costain. "But the fact that we're in games shows that what coach is telling us is working. He's bringing out the best in us and every game we feel like we're going to be right there at the end with a chance to win."
Also, there is evidence of improvement in some numbers:
• Hamstrung by a lack of depth, Pepperdine can't fully capitalize on its high-pressure style because it requires an aggressive substitution pattern. Yet the Waves have lost nine games by five points or fewer, a 10th by six points and an 11th by nine in double overtime.
• The team has only three players taller than 6 feet 6, a situation Walberg is confident will be resolved by recruiting.
• The Waves are averaging 76.6 points a game, which is 48th in the nation.
There's also this: Pepperdine has a solid recruiting class coming in, headlined by highly-touted swingman Tyrone Shelley from San Diego and Stoneridge Prep forward Mychael Thompson, son of the former Lakers forward.
However, Walberg isn't looking too far ahead. "I still think we can turn things around and we can do it this year," he said. "It's not going to be easy when you're starting 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 and 6-7. It's pretty darn tough at Division I. But to see this team — basically last year's reserves off a 7-20 team — stay in games, it's unbelievable."
Calipari predicted Walberg will turn things around — maybe not this year, but soon.
"He took over a program that was in bad, bad shape," Calipari said. "Then with injuries and guys quitting and all of a sudden he's down to seven guys. When he gets his first recruited class in there, in his third and fourth year, you're going to start seeing a big difference."
Right now, that day seems a long way off but that doesn't mean Walberg has lost faith in what he believes.
"I think if you don't dream and you don't believe, you're never going to give yourself or the players a chance," Walberg said.
"I know this can work."