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This Could Be the Year of the Lion : New Faces Are Bringing Enthusiasm to Loyola Basketball Team

November 21, 1985|ALAN DROOZ | Times Staff Writer

The Loyola Marymount University basketball team's numbers are already more impressive than last year: The program has twice as many stars and twice as many head coaches. They hope to double their pleasure and double their fun, and they wouldn't mind doubling last year's victory total of 11.

When the first jump ball goes up Saturday, Loyola fans and administrators hope all the optimism hasn't been double talk. And they hope the team won't need twice as many basketballs to keep everybody happy.

The reasons for optimism after seasons of hard luck are evident: There's a new, enthusiastic athletic director, Brian Quinn, a former Loyola letterman, to go with a new, well regarded coach, Paul Westhead, who won a National Basketball Assn. title with the Lakers. The team has two NBA prospects in forward Forrest McKenzie and guard Keith Smith, the last two conference scoring leaders. It finally has a legitimate big man in 6-9 junior Vic Lazzaretti, a transfer from Marquette. And Loyola should have its deepest team in decades.

"I don't know the league so I don't know what I'm in for," Westhead said recently. "I think it's really an exciting time. I think we're going to get it going here in L.A."

UCLA on Tap

Westhead will find out quickly. After opening at home against Azusa Pacific on Saturday the Lions play 10 games before the new year, including two meetings apiece with Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine and a Dec. 20 showdown at UCLA that is the bull's-eye on every Loyola schedule. It's Loyola's first game with UCLA since 1948.

If that's not ambitious enough, Westhead has scheduled a season-opener in 1987 in Madison Square Garden against St. John's.

"I would like to win a West Coast Athletic Conference championship," Westhead said. "We're trying to pick things up to make this league much more competitive."

Last year, the Lions were in a learn-to-walk stage, with McKenzie on the sidelines and three freshmen in the lineup.

This year they may have been running too fast. Injuries may be the team's biggest obstacle in the early weeks. The 6-8 McKenzie, returning to small forward after sitting out a year because of a grades technicality, broke the thumb on his shooting hand in a preseason practice. The cast comes off in early December and it is hoped he won't need further medical care. Westhead needs a strong season from the fifth-year senior, who averaged 20.9 points and 6.4 rebounds as a junior. He needs 230 points to break Loyola's career scoring record.

Playing Hurt

Lazzaretti also suffered an injury, missing much of the preseason with a strained foot tendon, but he is back in the lineup and apparently sound. Highly regarded sophomore forward Mark Armstrong injured the arch of his left foot and may miss up to two weeks. Guard Chris Rettig has a broken bone in his left (non-shooting) hand and is out for a while, and guards Steve Haney and Dennis Vogel are playing despite hand and wrist injuries. Seven-foot backup center Lawrence Irwin is having knee trouble that necessitated an immobilizing cast. It is not known how much he will play this season, and he was ineffective as a junior.

Westhead told the team one day before practice, "Some of you guys aren't working hard enough. You don't have bandages."

If McKenzie and Lazzaretti are healthy, two-thirds of the front line is set, leaving sophomores Armstrong and Mike Yoest and senior Fred Bradford fighting it out for the power spot. The 6-6 Armstrong was forced into action as a freshman and is impressive around the boards. "He really goes after it," Westhead said. Yoest, also 6-6, scored 32 points in an intrasquad game and gets most of his points on hustle. Sophomore Hunter Knapp, 6-6, may have to struggle for playing time but provides shooting off the bench. Darryl Carter, a 6-7 junior, is the backup center for now.

Smith, a 6-3 guard, enters his senior year as the nation's second-leading returning scorer. He averaged 25.1 points last year to lead the conference and led in assists at 5.6 per game. He'll again combine scoring and play-making duties. The other guard spot will be manned by Haney, a sweet-shooting sophomore, and Enoch Simmons, the team's only freshman, with Vogel, a junior, fighting for playing time.

Comfortable as Shooter

Haney was the team's second-leading scorer with a 13.1 average but had problems when coaches tried to convert him to a point guard. He still appears more comfortable as a shooter, which may make him an ideal sixth man. Simmons is a more physically imposing player who can also score. "I like his game," Westhead said.

One observer connected to a rival school said, "I have no doubts about Loyola's ability to score. We still have to see if they can play defense--that's always been their problem--and if they don't need two or three balls to keep all those guys happy."

In addressing both those issues, Westhead is calling on years of experience, first as a longtime coach at LaSalle University in his hometown, Philadelphia, and later with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls in the NBA. And if that's not enough he can tap the expertise of Jay Hillock, who resigned as head coach at Gonzaga to become a Loyola assistant. Thus, the team likes to think of itself as one that will out-coach most, and the players reportedly consider Hillock an excellent teacher, adept at carrying out Westhead's designs.

Westhead is looking to push the ball as much as possible on offense--that makes all the scorers happy--and play a variety of defenses. Beyond that Westhead is avoiding predictions.

After Saturday's last-minute exhibition loss to the University of Victoria (Canada), an unruffled Westhead said, "We have to get some people well. I want to play some different combinations till we see how they blend in. We have quite a bit to work on."

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