Tonight's National Invitation Tournament opener between Loyola Marymount University and UC Berkeley is the first time either has appeared in the New York-based postseason tourney, but you'll excuse the players if the contest seems more like a neighborhood get-together--or a South Bay alumni game.
This may be as close to an all-South Bay game as you can get, considering it's being held 400 miles north of the South Bay in Berkeley's Harmon Gym.
In that rickety, rocking 6,600-seat arena, Loyola will be taking on a Cal team that starts Dave Butler from Rolling Hills High, Chris Washington and Leonard Taylor from St. Bernard and brings Inglewood's Ernie Sears off the bench.
It hasn't been lost on Loyola followers that Butler was recruited heavily by Loyola and that Washington and Taylor and other St. Bernard stars, who prepped virtually in Loyola's shadow, have generally snubbed Loyola's entreaties.
Butler 'Pretty Excited'
Loyola Coach Paul Westhead points out that his family and the Butlers were neighbors in Palos Verdes and that Butler's father and brother are Loyola alumni.
"I'm pretty excited," Butler said by phone this week. "It will be kind of fun for me. My brother went there (Loyola), a lot of my friends go there. I have a lot of connections."
Butler and Taylor were spotted with their first-year coach, Lou Campanelli, at a recent Loyola game and Butler said he was impressed by the Lions. "They're a good team," he said. "I hadn't really seen Keith (Smith) play before. He's a lot bigger than I thought. That might be a problem. They run well. If we can slow down their fast break and take care of their outside game, we'll be all right."
Smith, the Lions' leading scorer, is looking forward to playing the Bears. "I played against Chris Washington in high school and in summer leagues and Leonard Taylor used to come over (to Loyola) and play here. I remember Dave Butler from Rolling Hills."
Play Well in Bay
Smith also likes the Bay Area. His first comment to Westhead on learning of the match-up was it was a good omen. "We've always played good in the Bay Area," he said. "I kind of like the area. I think we'll do well up there. Getting out of L. A. will make us play that much harder, make us stick together."
Smith and back-court partner Forrest Walton-McKenzie provide the backbone of Loyola's scoring, combining for 40.8 points per game. Sophomore forward Mike Yoest is the other Lion in double figures, with a 10.9 average. The Lions ranked among the nation's scoring leaders, averaging 79.9 points on the way to an 18-10 record and their first postseason appearance since 1980.
Berkeley (19-9) spreads the offense around, with four starters in double figures. Junior guard Kevin Johnson leads with a 15.2-point average, followed by Taylor (12.0), Butler (11.8) and Washington (10.2). Butler leads in rebounding with a 7.9 average. The fifth starter is 6-5 junior Jeff Huling, the Bears' best defender.
On paper, the Bears have the size advantage up front, with Taylor and Butler at 6-9 going against Yoest, 6-7, Mark Armstrong and Fred Bradford, both 6-6, and 6-8 Vic Lazzaretti off the bench. The Lions, matching the 6-4 Smith and 6-7 McKenzie against Cal's 6-1 guards, have a big edge in back-court height. However, Johnson and Washington may be the quickest back court on the West Coast.
Bears Tough on Defense
"If they play a zone there's not that much of a mismatch," Smith said. "If they play man-to-man, we'll try to take advantage."
Butler said the Bears will counter with the team's trademark defense. Campanelli is considered a defense-oriented coach and the Bears allow only 62 points per game. "Look for tenacious defense, some trapping. When our defense gets going we play pretty well," Butler said.
Loyola's answer is the fast break. "We don't really worry too much about match-ups," Westhead said. "One of the advantages of the running game is we don't have to have scouted a team seven times to figure out what we're going to do. We're going to get out and run. If it's clicking, we'll do well. If not, we're in trouble."
Loyola holds a 2-1 edge in the lifetime series against Cal but the two haven't met since 1973-74. In common opponents this year, Loyola lost to UCLA while Cal split two games; Loyola swept home-and-home series with San Francisco and St. Mary's while Cal won single games; and Loyola lost a one-point game to Montana State, which lost to Cal. The Bears are 13-1 at home.
Dry Spell for Cal
The winner of tonight's 7:30 game will play Sunday or Monday against an opponent to be determined by the NIT.
Both Smith and Butler are looking forward to making some noise in their first playoff appearances. It's been an especially long dry spell for Cal, which won the NCAA title in 1959 but hasn't been to a postseason tournament since 1960. Lately the school has been filling up Harmon Gym and a sellout is expected tonight.
"We're excited being in the postseason," Butler said. "The campus is pumped up. Harmon is going to be rockin'. I think it's a little more like a pit than some of the other places around."
Sounds like just the place for a South Bay shootout.