Cautious optimism is the mood as Paul Westhead prepares to make his first odyssey through the West Coast Athletic Conference basketball wars.
Westhead's Loyola Marymount team, which finished its pre-conference schedule at 8-6, opens WCAC play tonight at the University of Portland, then plays Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., on Saturday.
A year ago an 8-6 record at Loyola would have been cause for celebration. But Westhead's coaching reputation and an improved roster have heightened expectations. The Lions got off to a 6-2 start before stumbling through a four-game losing streak, then bounced back last week against weak competition, scoring 116 and 151 points in two victories. As Westhead noted, the team has shown it can win--and lose.
Now the wins and losses mean much more. Tonight's game starts what Westhead calls "the second--and most important--season." WCAC teams haven't made a sterling showing against good non-conference competition, so the conference winner figures to be the only team invited to the NCAA tournament.
Defeated by Portland
Loyola has already played Portland (9-5), losing a 77-56 decision in the consolation game of the Wolfpack Classic in Reno. It was a game neither team particularly wanted to play, and Loyola's heart was never in it.
The Southern California contingent of the league--Loyola, Pepperdine and the University of San Diego--was expected to be the strength of the conference. Pepperdine and San Diego have good records but Portland, which beat Oregon State early in the season, has been the surprise.
"If Portland was any indication, the league is a lot tougher than those around here evaluated," Westhead said. "If we can get into gear and stay there we can beat some people. We haven't shown we're locked into (being) a team that's staying in a winning mode."
The Lions are among the nation's scoring leaders, averaging 88.6 points per game, but they may be lucky to total the 151 points in two games this week that they recently scored in one. Portland is allowing opponents only 58.6 points per game and Gonzaga is allowing 61.3. Loyola is allowing 81.3. Portland held Loyola to its season low of 56 points--either a great defensive game by the Pilots or Loyola's most lackluster offensive showing.
Something figures to give.
The Lions have known firepower in senior stars Keith Smith and Forrest Walton-McKenzie, averaging 24.6 and 19.6 points, respectively. Smith scored 54 in the two games last week to earn WCAC player of the week honors for the third time. Both broke the school career scoring record last week and rank 1-2, with McKenzie 16 points ahead.
The question mark is where their support will come from.
Sophomore 6-6 forwards Mark Armstrong and Mike Yoest and freshman guard Enoch Simmons have had good games against weaker competition but have struggled and shown their lack of experience against tougher teams. Armstrong leads all WCAC players with a 9.5 rebounding average but sometimes fails to take part in the offense. He has shown the ability to score in double figures.
The same is true of 6-8 junior center Vic Lazzaretti, who has been slowed by injuries and had to be rested frequently in some of Loyola's faster-paced games. His presence is more essential in league games, which place more emphasis on defense and inside play.
The 6-7 McKenzie, who has been playing a guard-wing position recently, allowing Westhead to bring Simmons off the bench, predicted that the next two weekends will determine Loyola's fate in the conference. The Lions return home to face Santa Clara and San Francisco on Jan. 24 and 25. "I think those first games will dictate how we do this season," he said. "If we can win at least three we'll be in good shape."
Portland suffered something of a Pyrrhic victory against Loyola, losing leading scorer Tony Havior to a hip injury toward the end of the game. He needed surgery and is out for the year, confined to a wheelchair. In his absence, Dwayne Corbitt has moved up to forward and Fred Harris has taken over as scoring leader at 12 points per game. The Pilots have lost two straight and are a small team playing what amounts to a three-guard lineup.
Gonzaga (7-6), which plays host to conference favorite Pepperdine tonight, is led by guard Jeff Condill's 12.8 point average, which is matched by sophomore swing man Danny Roe off the bench. The team also includes talented freshman Jim McPhee (9-point average), younger brother of former Gonzaga star Bryce McPhee, and guard Dwan Hurt out of Serra High and Harbor College.