A year ago Loyola Marymount University offered a new basketball coach and a new look for the program.
But there were the old standbys, Keith Smith and Forrest McKenzie, to fall back on. And indeed, Smith and McKenzie were 1-2 in the conference in scoring and Loyola had the West Coast Athletic Conference scoring leader for the fourth straight year. It was a comfortable new look.
But now Smith and McKenzie are playing in the National Basketball Assn. and there is indeed a new look to Coach Paul Westhead's second edition as the Lions open the college season Friday in Gersten Pavilion against Azusa Pacific University.
Will Loyola be able to produce yet another scoring champion under Westhead's fast-break system? Who will emerge as the new leaders? There are questions even Westhead can't answer yet.
"I don't have an accurate feel yet," he said last weekend after the team's annual intrasquad game, which produced 273 points. "We're running the fast break system well. Some of the veteran players are beginning to take charge, like (Mike) Yoest and (Mark) Armstrong. It will probably take (transfer Chris) Nikchevich a few games to get back into it. I think (transfer John) Veargason will be a help to us as he gets experience. (Dennis) Vogel and (Darryl) Carter have been playing well--let's hope they sustain it. I like the mix. They're good guys and they work hard."
Part of the problem in defining the team's personality is that there is an entire team in the wings, some of whom look like the team's best players in practice. Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers from USC and Corey Gaines from UCLA have to sit out a year after transferring. Freshman Marcus Slater, 6-8 and growing, will be redshirted to get a year's experience. Freshman Marcellus Lee, 6-10, did not qualify under the NCAA's new grades policy and can't practice with the team but is in school. Kimble and Gathers scored 46 and 38 points in the intrasquad game, and Gaines had 24.
Further clouding the situation, starting center Vic Lazzaretti is recovering from a foot injury and may not be ready until mid-December. Sophomore swingman Enoch Simmons is coming off knee surgery and is playing but is not back to full strength.
That leaves things, for the time being, up to juniors Yoest and Armstrong, both returning starters; point guard Nikchevich, who sat out last season after transferring from Brigham Young; and seniors Vogel, who will start at the shooting guard spot, and the 6-8 Carter, who will play center in Lazzaretti's absence. Neither Vogel nor Carter played extensively the last three seasons, but they're being counted on to produce now.
Newcomers who will play regularly are the 6-10 Veargason, a sophomore who played at San Jose City College last season, and freshman guard Jeff Fryer, an outstanding shooter who led Orange County high schools in scoring. "He and Veargason will come in and play more than just fill-in," Westhead said. "The question is how long it will take them to fit in."
Yoest, who came on strong as a sophomore, averaging 11.3 points overall and 12.4 in WCAC play, has taken on a leadership role and appears to be a blossoming scorer. He scored 25 points in the Lions' last game, a second-round National Invitation Tournament defeat at Wyoming. Armstrong is the team's most relentless rebounder and a solid baseline shooter whose biggest problem is he sometimes has trouble controlling his intensity.
"Yoest started out (last year) as just another no-name garbage man and ended up our leading scorer in our last game," Westhead said. "Last season he did so much for our team and himself.
"Armstrong is a relentless rebounder. He's playing well. He just needs to relax his game. Sometimes he has trouble relaxing."
The rebounding of Yoest, 6-7, and Armstrong, 6-6, is a key for the fast break. The Lions were relatively small last season but averaged six rebounds per game more than their opponents. The two juniors may be Loyola's best rebounders. Armstrong averaged seven rebounds per game as a sophomore. Simmons, 6-4, can also hit the boards. "Our mid-size guys are better than average (rebounders)," Westhead said. "We want to make sure we stay on the plus side. That really wins games."
Nikchevich is expected to push the running game that will involve more players than last season. The 6-3 senior is also expected to do some scoring and has three-point range.
"We'll be a little different without the leading scoring backcourt in the country," Westhead said. "My goal is to replace those two (Smith and McKenzie) with five, a team fast break. We'll be relentless in running downcourt. Nikchevich will push the ball every time. If you play with him he will run right up your back if you get in his way."