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Players Will Run, Shots Will Fly At Walberg's Pepperdine

Aug. 11, 2006

By Gary Parrish
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer

One of the great things about staying up entirely too late during basketball season are those games that originate from the West Coast and tip at midnight ET.

That's when the majority of the country (that suffers from insomnia) gets to enjoy schools like Gonzaga, UNLV, Nevada and Air Force, schools that might otherwise be mysteries to fans of the Big Ten, Big 12, Big East and everyone who thinks anything that happens significantly left of the Mississippi River is no big deal.

I love those games. I'm a loyal viewer.

Now allow me to make a suggestion to my friends at ESPN.

Add Pepperdine to the schedule. You won't regret it.

"The way we're going to play is going to be a lot of fun," said first-year coach Vance Walberg. "It's going to be very exciting."

And fast.

And high-powered.

And man, you gotta see it to believe it.

On offense it's like Pop-a-Shot, only without Chuck E. Cheese (and the bad pizza). On defense it's like 40 Minutes of Hell, only without Nolan Richardson (and the accompanying lawsuit).

Depending on your stance -- old-timer who still enjoys VCRs or New Age thinker sporting an I-pod -- you'll insist it's either the craziest thing since Gary Busey or more ahead of the curve than Google. Either way, you will be entertained by a style of play that has been so successful it helped take Walberg, 49, from high school head coach to junior college head coach to Division I head coach in the matter of just four years.

"What Vance has created might be some of the most innovative stuff I've seen in the 20 years that I've been coaching," said Memphis coach John Calipari. "It's a heck of a way to play."

Calipari is not just an endorser, it's worth noting. He's also a client.

Remember that Memphis team that scored 2,961 points last season, more than any school in the nation not named Florida? Every bit of that was done with Walberg's system, though the creator himself believed the Tigers still played too slow.

"I told John he could be even better, win more games," Walberg said. "He said, 'Really? Win more than 33 games?'"

The friendship between Calipari and Walberg is as unlikely as the latter's path to Pepperdine. It began four years ago after Walberg had just left Clovis West High in Fresno, Calif., to become coach at Fresno City (Junior) College. He was in Memphis enjoying his annual excursion that began in 1987 with a trip to Indiana to observe Bobby Knight.

See, Walberg is a basketball junkie. He loves to watch it, loves to talk it, loves to learn it and think it and teach it. So in 1987 he decided to start spending a week every preseason with a different coach. The first year was Knight. The second year was Lute Olson. The third year he went to Tobacco Road, saw Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith and Jim Valvano.

The 16th year took him to Memphis. He spent time with Calipari and then-Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown.

"Vance had been there two or three days, and he had about three guys with him, and I took them to dinner one night," Calipari recalled. "He was asking questions, and the other guys were, too. And finally I just said, 'Why don't you tell me how you guys play?' and Vance was like, 'You don't want to know.'"

Walberg remembered similarly.

"I was a high school coach about to be a JC coach for the first time, and what we were doing people didn't even think was going to work at the JC level," Walberg said. "So I'm going to talk to a guy who is at the top of Division I and tell him what we do? I didn't even want to get into it, to be honest with you."

Still, they got into it, and Calipari was intrigued. He liked the spacing, how it enabled athletic guards to penetrate for layups or kick for open 3-pointers. So he started making regular trips to Fresno to observe Walberg's practices before last season scrapping nearly everything he learned from Hall of Famer Larry Brown to put into place the offense Walberg developed.

"I've won a lot of games over the past 15 years doing what I do, so for me to toss it all and say that I'm doing this different stuff, you can imagine how much I think of it," Calipari said. "I've watched it. I've studied it. It took me three years to do it, but now it's the way we play."

Calipari never missed a chance last season to praise Walberg, and when Memphis played in the Oakland Regional he spent a lot of time lauding this relative unknown on the West Coast to the West Coast media. Meanwhile, Walberg was just finishing his fourth year at Fresno City College. His teams went 133-11 in that span and averaged 35 3-point attempts and 106 points per game while playing a defense that pressed after made shots, missed shots, everything.

That success combined with that excitement combined with the publicity and respect of guys like Calipari and Division II coaching legend Mike Dunlap were enough to spark the interest of Pepperdine athletic director Dr. John Watson. Next thing you know, Walberg was being introduced as the man who would replace Paul Westphal in Malibu. Now he's going through two-a-days in advance of a preseason trip during which the Waves will play games in France, Switzerland and Monaco.

They leave Sunday.

"The style of play is like a foreign language to the players, but they've been really receptive in these practices," said Walberg, who has coached this style for five years at the high school level and four years at the college level while compiling a record of 292-29. "These guys have busted their tails. And as a coach, that's all you can ask."

It stands to reason that if Pepperdine was loaded with talent Westphal would have remained in charge and be on the verge of making a run at the Adam Morrison-less Zags in the West Coast Conference, meaning Walberg probably doesn't have the personnel to win big this season. Put another way, the cupboard is bare.

But that's changing.

Pepperdine has already secured a commitment from Class of 2007 standout Tyrone Shelley, a 6-foot-6 wing from San Diego ideal for Walberg's system who reportedly also had offers from Connecticut, Arizona and Oklahoma State. Shelley's pledge materialized despite the Waves enduring negative recruiting thanks to more established schools throwing around phrases like "just a JC coach" and "gimmick offense" and "mid-major program."

But Walberg had a counter each time.

"Some people call it a gimmick, but I don't think it's a gimmick if you go 292-29 in nine years," he said. "Other coaches are always going to say different things against us, you know how it is. But what nobody is going to be able to say is that they shoot more than we do. I can tell you that for sure."