The Loyola Marymount University Lions take to the road with visions of postseason sugarplums dancing in their heads. Loyola's first West Coast Athletic Conference title in 25 years is in view but will remain tantalizingly out of reach unless the Lions can sweep their final three games.
They have to win at San Francisco on Friday, at Santa Clara on Saturday and at Pepperdine in the big finale on Wednesday.
Pepperdine plays the same opponents this weekend and holds a one-game lead on the Lions with a 10-1 conference record. Loyola is 9-2 in the WCAC, 17-8 overall and is assured of its best record since 1968.
But history, even recent events, means little now. It's a three-game season for Loyola. Should the Lions sweep all three and tie Pepperdine for the title, the teams would hold a playoff game in San Diego for the league representative to the NCAA tournament. Pepperdine, which has won 22 games, would have a chance at going to the NCAA tournament even as a second-place team. But Loyola's only legitimate chance is to win the title and automatic tourney bid.
As Coach Paul Westhead said after last weekend, "We have no options. We have to win every game, including Pepperdine."
Should Loyola place second and win 18 or 19 games, there is speculation the Lions might be an attractive team to the National Invitation Tournament, with a nationally known coach of East Coast pedigree and two star seniors--Keith Smith and Forrest Walton-McKenzie--drawing NBA attention.
Whether the Lions get a postseason bid or not, Westhead, in his first season at Loyola, has worked a remarkable turnaround on a program that hasn't been above .500 since 1975. Since appearing in the NCAA Tournament in 1980 as the WCAC's second-place team with a 14-13 record, Loyola had a 44-92 record going into this season.
After one recent game Westhead talked about exorcising the ghosts of "the reputation the school had for losing," not only among alumni and the Loyola community but on the team.
Part of the turnaround can be credited to new faces--particularly freshman guard Enoch Simmons and junior transfer Vic Lazzaretti--and the maturation of sophomore forwards Mike Yoest and Mark Armstrong. Simmons, who started early in the season but has blossomed as the team's sixth man, sparked the Lions in both games over the weekend and hit two long-range shots in the closing minutes of a hard-fought victory over Portland. "He has no fear," Westhead said after the game. "He just bombs away. I teach bombs away."
Simmons Bombed Portland
Simmons had 16 points against Portland, his conference high, to raise his season average to 9.3. Yoest is just ahead at 9.8 and Armstrong continues to lead in rebounding with eight per game.
Seniors Smith and McKenzie have ranked 1-2 in the WCAC in scoring for the entire season but have been content to let the others see the ball as well. Smith, who appears to be nearing full strength after being slowed several games by a sprained ankle, is averaging 21.7 points and 6.8 assists. McKenzie is averaging 19.6 points and 7.8 rebounds.
McKenzie says part of the reason for the team's turnaround is Westhead's uninhibited game plan. "Coach Westhead is more a if-you've-got-the-talent-do-it coach," McKenzie said. "He allows the game to be more of a players' game. He'll listen to our input. If we come over during a timeout and say we think something will work, he's willing to listen. That's a sign of confidence in himself. You're given a chance to play."
The new program at the University of San Francisco, after a good start, is suffering first-season blues and the team is in last place in the WCAC at 2-9, 7-18 overall. Freshman Mark McCathrion is the top scorer at 11 points per game.
Santa Clara poses problems, however, having moved into a tie for fourth place at 5-6. The Broncos are 10-15 overall but have won four of their last five and are 9-5 at home. Senior Steve Kenilvort leads the Broncos with a 16-point average.