Loyola Marymount University's basketball team travels to the San Francisco Bay area this weekend to open West Coast Athletic Conference play while Coach Paul Westhead is still hot on the trail of his 7-5 team's personality.
Westhead predicted before the season that it would take five or six games for the team's patterns to emerge. But a dozen games into the season, only two things are certain: the Lions can score points rapidly and give them up just as fast.
After Saturday's 116-104 track meet against U.S. International University, Westhead said, "I had hoped I would have our team figured out and I don't. We haven't emerged. We just really haven't identified what we really do well."
Loyola began the season with center Vic Lazzaretti and guard Enoch Simmons hobbled by injuries. Both are back and beginning to assert themselves, especially Lazzaretti. That is one reason the team has a different look lately. Forward Mike Yoest averaged nearly 30 points in the first handful of games and has been the focus of opponents' concern since. While he has leveled off to a more down-to-earth 22.5 average, Lazzaretti returned to the starting lineup four game ago and has soared.
Going into Friday's WCAC opener at Santa Clara, the 6-8 senior has averaged 17.3 points, 12 rebounds and has shot 64% as a starter. His return has also changed Westhead's substitution patterns, with 6-10 sophomore John Veargason first off the bench and early season starter Darryl Carter reduced to spot backup duty. Westhead has also been experimenting with his own twin towers version, playing Lazzaretti and Veargason together at times.
Yoest and fellow forward Mark Armstrong remain the team's yeomen, combining for about 36 points and 19 rebounds per game, shooting better than 50% and leading the front court players in minutes.
However, the back court is less settled, especially with Simmons returning to full strength. "Our guard play has not yet solidified," Westhead said. Point guard Chris Nikchevich is scoring 13.4 points per game and leading the WCAC in assists with an 8.5 average, but both he and Dennis Vogel, the other starter and a 10.3 scorer, are shooting around 40%. The Lions also have an alarming turnover ratio, having committed 47 more than opponents.
Freshman Jeff Fryer had his best game against USIU and started the second half. Westhead said he is pushing for a starting job. "He's evolving as our best shooting guard," Westhead said. "We're aware he's a freshman and we're trying to bring him along at the right pace. He'll play more and more. He may start soon."
Pushing all three is Simmons, who had a 19-point game last week and may be the team's best athlete. Westhead used a three-guard lineup at times last week and liked what he saw. "We may be a better running team when we have Fryer and Nik and Simmons," he said.
The Lions go into conference play averaging 93.3 points and allowing 91.9. They have scored more than 100 points five times, while opponents have reached triple figures in four games. Incredibly, opponents have taken 113 more shots than the Lions (26 more from three-point range), but Loyola has gotten 86 more free throws and has a 2.4-rebounds-per-game advantage.
Santa Clara, 9-5, will attempt to slow the pace and push the ball inside, where the leading scorer is 6-9 sophomore Jens Gordon at 10.9 points per game. Next are 6-4 forward Roland H'Orvath, the former Redondo High star, and guard Chris Lane, both at 9.2 points. Freshman Osei Appiah out of Long Beach Poly High was recently installed as a starter. The Broncos, 7-1 at home, score 71 points per game while giving up only 66.4.
On Saturday the Lions play a vastly improved University of San Francisco, 10-3. The Dons, who play host to Pepperdine on Friday, are 8-1 at home including victories over UC Berkeley, Nevada-Reno and Pacific. USF depends on its power up front in 6-8 center Mark McCathrion, averaging 13.4 points, 6-8 forward Pat Clardy, a 15.5 scorer, and 6-5 forward Anthony Mann, scoring 9.4 points per game. Pat Giusti, 6-9, is a strong backup. The team leader is junior guard Rodney Tention, averaging 9,.5 points and 5 assists. McCathrion has been the team's hot player, averaging 18 points and 8.4 rebounds over the last five games.
Both games begin at 7:30 p.m. Time for the truly Lion-hearted to sign in, please.