A conference crying out for an identity probably lost more stars than it has coming back--including three high NBA draft choices in Keith Smith, Forrest McKenzie and Dwayne Polee. So the West Coast Athletic Conference may face another season of relegation to the small type on sports results pages.
But the league is making some inroads in its image as a minor league for the Pacific 10.
Pepperdine, under Coach Jim Harrick has played DePaul and Houston competitively and lives up to Harrick's boast that the Waves will play anyone, anywhere. UCLA, DePaul, Washington State and Marquette are on the nonconference schedule this season.
Loyola Marymount made a statement last March in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament, beating California in a fervid Harmon Gym.
With the league's approval--and some nudging--most of the eight teams are toughening their schedules, weeding out lower division opponents.
And the WCAC, like the Pac-10, will go to a postseason tournament to determine the team getting the automatic NCAA bid.
The University of San Diego and defending champion Pepperdine are the favorites for that bid. Last season, the Southern California triangle--Pepperdine, Loyola and San Diego--swallowed the league. "We think the balance of power remains there until we see different," Commissioner Michael Gilleran said.
The league is seen as more balanced than a year ago, however, with Pepperdine boasting the only preseason All-American, 6-8 forward Eric White. That doesn't make Harrick overly confident, despite having appeared in four of the last five NCAA tournaments. "I see someone lurking in the bushes, always," he said of the conference season.
A capsule look at the WCAC teams:
1985-86: 25-5, 13-1 The Waves have a relatively new lineup but boast a veteran duo up front in White and muscular 6-7 junior Levy Middlebrooks. Slender 6-11 sophomore Casey Crawford, who red-shirted last year, will open at center. Freshman Dexter Howard, 6-7, is expected to contribute. Ed Allen, a transfer from City College of San Francsico, appears to be one of the guards. Marty Wilson is the only letterman in the backcourt. At least three other guards will be looked at.
"We play in December and see who rises to the top," Harrick said. He is confident that someone will rise to the top and he has a pretty good eye for back court players. "Every guard that's ever started (in Harrick's seven-year tenure) has been drafted," he said.
White, a fluid senior who averaged 15.3 and 15.9 points the last two seasons, has shot 56% for his three-year career and may be Pepperdine's steadiest frontcourt player ever. "He's not flash and not dash but when the end comes you'll see him in the top four or five" in most categories, Harrick said.
Middlebrooks has been less consistent but the 225-pound junior has the potential to dominate. He averaged 10.3 points as a freshman but fell off to 8.2 last season. "He hasn't even scratched the surface," said Harrick, adding, tongue in cheek, "I call Levy my man-child. We're trying to get the child out of there and we'll be better off."
LOYOLA MARYMOUNT 1985-86: 19-11, 10-4
The Lions lost the nation's highest-scoring backcourt in Smith and McKenzie, who accounted for 41 points a game last season, and they may not have the WCAC scoring leader for the first time in five years. But Coach Paul Westhead believes that the Lions will continue to score, with a little more emphasis up front this season.
"My goal is to replace those two with five," he said. "We'll be relentless in running downcourt."
Brigham Young University transfer Chris Nikchevich will run the show, and 6-8 center Vic Lazzaretti and 6-7 forward Mike Yoest should be the recipients of his play making. Lazzaretti, out with a foot injury until mid-December last season, could be the key. Loyola began to click last season when he finally got into playing shape in February.
Yoest, a junior, emerged as a scorer in league play and finished with an 11.3 average. Mark Armstrong, a 6-6 forward, returns as the Lions' best rebounder. Senior Darryl Carter, 6-8, returns as backup center. Westhead also added 6-10 John Veargason, a sophomore from San Jose City College.
Senior Dennis Vogel and talented sophomore Enoch Simmons join Nikchevich in the backcourt, along with freshman Jeff Fryer, a long-range specialist.SAN DIEGO
1985-86: 19-9, 9-5
The Toreros have the league's premier big man, 7-foot, 260-pound Scott Thompson, who averaged 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and blocked 52 shots last season. He has shot 54% for his three-year career. If Thompson is no Samson, he's no Delilah, either. "That guy is a moving mountain," Harrick said.
Also back are 6-8 forward Nils Madden, who was good for 9.3 points as a junior, and point guard Paul Leonard, who averaged 8 points and 7 assists. "Those three are a great anchor to build a team around," said Coach Hank Egan, whose major need is outside shooting. He's looking to sophomore guard Danny Means for that.