Team preview: Pepperdine

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 20, 2004, 5:20 PM ET
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It was no surprise to Paul Westphal that life in his third season at Pepperdine became considerably easier after January.

By then, a brutish non-conference schedule dotted with the likes of Dayton, Oklahoma State, Maryland and Utah, plus the conference opener against Gonzaga – all NCAA Tournament teams last season – was behind the Waves.

And 18 games into the season, after a 6-11 start, Pepperdine welcomed touted junior college transfer Yakouba Diawara onto the floor.

With the 6-7 Diawara (18.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg) in the lineup, the Waves went 9-5 the rest of the season, their wildly inconsistent season finally ending with a loss to Saint Mary's in the first round of the West Coast Conference Tournament.

"Our biggest problem," Westphal said, "was getting our leading scorer on the floor. I don't really want to get into specifics, but basically it was because he was French."

After an investigation, the Paris native was found to have played eight games for a professional team in France while in high school. Diawara signed an agreement with the team, though he received no money, just meals and boarding.

The NCAA initially suspended Diawara for the duration of last season and the first eight games of the 2004-2005 season.

But after winning his appeal, Diawara made an immediate mark in league play, prompting conference coaches to put him on the all-conference team despite playing just 14 games.

"He's an outstanding player," Westphal said.

"He's a hard worker, a great competitor and our best defender. The guy just leads by example. We saw enough of him in the preseason practices to know he was the real thing."

And with its roster largely intact from a year ago, Pepperdine has enough talent around Diawara to make a serious run at a conference championship.