It’s not every day that an NAIA school like Westmont College gets to play basketball games in the mecca of the college basketball world. In fact, it’s never happened.
The Warrior men will take on two legendary programs in three days in a pair of exhibitions. On Thursday at 7:30 p.m., they’ll be at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion to face coach Ben Howland and the Bruins. On Saturday, they’ll play at St. John’s in Queens, New York. That will mark the debut of ex-UCLA coach Steve Lavin on the Red Storm’s sideline. Lavin is the brother-in-law of Westmont’s 18th-year coach John Moore.
The UCLA game will be broadcast locally in Santa Barbara on AM 1290 radio.
“It will be a real thrill for our guys to play underneath those (11 NCAA championship) banners and play against three future NBA players,” said Moore. “My sister won an NCAA (basketball) title for UCLA and my dad’s a UCLA grad.
“And then to play at St. John’s two days later … We’re playing two of the top 15 programs in the history of college basketball. That’s going to be a treat.”
Concordia, which competes in the 11-team GSAC with Westmont, played at UCLA last year and lost by a point on a 3-point shot.
“Ben has the Santa Barbara connections (he played at Dos Pueblos High and SBCC and was an assistant at UCSB) and he’s really generous,” Moore noted. “UCLA is a whole lot better than they were last year. They were picked to finish third in the Pac-10.
“We’ll have to zone them some and just try to keep their athleticism to a minimum which will be a huge challenge.”
Westmont is coming off a 21-9 campaign that ended with a 94-89 loss at Fresno Pacific in the first round of the GSAC Tournament.
Three senior starters return, led by two-time All-GSAC pick Dan Rasp. The 6-6 senior from Camarillo averaged 14.9 points and 4.7 rebounds last year.
“We definitely have the most talent in my four years,” said Rasp. “We have a lot of size and athleticism. And we have experience too.”
Rasp scored 22 points in an 88-68 season-opening win over Cal State Maritime and is 16th on Westmont’s all-time scoring list. Rasp averaged 15.1 in his first three years and could rise to the top of the illustrious chart by averaging 12.3 this season.
“I’m aware of that but I try not to think about it,” he said. “I’m not going to score 400 points in one game, so I’m just taking it game-by-game.
“I’m excited about going to Pauley Pavilion. Pretty excited and a little nervous. We’ll be ready to go.”
The other returning seniors are 6-9 center Evan Haines and 6-7 guard/forward Blake Bender. They’ll be joined in Thursday’s starting lineup by 6-3 sophomore guard Preston Branson and 5-9 sophomore point guard Niko Brooks, a transfer from UC Riverside.
Bender was the Warriors’ No. 2 scorer (12.4) and rebounder (6.1) last year while Haines set a school record with 54 blocks. He needs 31 more to become the all-time leader.
There are three JC transfers — 6-2 swingman Matt Hornbuckle from Moorpark; 6-3 TJ Lipold from state champion Saddleback and 6-0 guard Landon Boucher from Chemeketa CC in Salem, Ore.
Four freshman who figure to contribute are 6-6 C.J. Miller, 6-7 Marcus Farrand, 6-4 Jason Ritchey and 5-9 Brendan Hill. Returning players Jordan Sachs and 6-6 Lucas Miller (older brother of C.J.) provide experience off the bench.
“Defensively, we’re going to be better than we have in quite some time,” stated Moore, who’s 337-186 (.644) and needs 21 wins to pass Hall of Fame coach Chet Kammerer as Westmont‘s winningest coach. “Blake Bender is a big factor in our defense, along with Branson, Brooks and Haines.”
Moore said Rasp is blessed with “incredible” poise.
“He doesn’t get rattled,” noted Moore. “He goes to the free-throw line in tight situations and his heart rate goes down, not up. He has great touch and he’s a phenomenal jumper.”
Rasp shot .565 from the field last season and an impressive .465 from the 3-point line (20-43).
Offensive execution will be one of the keys to success.
“When you’re learning something as sophisticated as the Princeton offense, you better have great execution,” said Moore. “The sooner the new guys get it, the better off you are.”
The GSAC will be typically tough with Azusa Pacific, last year’s national runner-up, ranked first in the NAIA preseason poll. Concordia is No. 5, Biola is 16th and Westmont is 26th.
“I think we’re good enough to go deep in the national tournament,” declared Moore, whose team hasn‘t been to Kansas City since 2007. “If we come together and play with intensity, we can go a long way.”