The strange season of Loyola Marymount basketball has drawn to a close, but the results--a 12-16 record and a fast break that gave up more points than it scored--have Coach Paul Westhead and his staff working hard on the second season--recruiting.
The season was fast-paced but frustrating for the Lions, whose best team at times was the four redshirt players who shone in practice but couldn't play in the real games.
The Lions started out relatively well, holding a 9-6 record and 2-1 conference mark in mid-January. Then came an injury to freshman guard Jeff Fryer and--not coincidentally, Westhead said--an eight-game losing streak that dropped Loyola into the cellar of the West Coast Athletic Conference.
The Lions finished strongly, winning two of their last three regular season games handily, but the season ended with a loss to WCAC champion San Diego in the first round of the WCAC tournament.
Westhead didn't bother going to the conference finals last weekend. He was busy recruiting in Philadelphia and Chicago.
He hasn't spent a lot of time reflecting on the season. "I've tried to put it aside and think about the future. We now have a new group and a whole new evaluation process has to take place."
The Lions graduate center Vic Lazzaretti, forward Darryl Carter and guards Chris Nikchevich and Dennis Vogel. Returning will be the most effective front-court players: leading scorer Mike Yoest and leading rebounder Mark Armstrong, 6-10 center John Veargason and guards Fryer and Enoch Simmons. Forward Jeff Roscoe, who saw limited time as a freshman, also returns.
Waiting in the wings is an entire team: USC transfers Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, UCLA transfer Corey Gaines, 6-8 redshirt freshman Marcus Slater and 6-10 Marcellus Lee, who had to sit out his freshman year due to Proposition 48 grade restrictions.
Gathers, a powerful 6-7 inside player, figures to see time at power forward and center. Kimble, 6-5, is a zone-breaking shooter at guard and small forward. Both have sophomore eligibility. Gaines, a 6-3 senior, will be the point guard.
Westhead said he was not particularly frustrated by seeing his redshirts star in practice while his team was taking lumps in games. "I did a pretty decent job of putting those possibilities aside. I kind of had blinders on. They were there and practicing but I was never tempted to say, 'Gee, why can't they play?' Now I'm very optimistic to feel we have a few players who will help us."
He does wonder occasionally whether things might have been different if Fryer had stayed healthy. The sharpshooting freshman, who averaged 8.3 points, had just been installed as a starter when he was disabled for a month with a shin-stress fracture. "I sure would have liked to have a full season with a healthy Jeff Fryer," Westhead said. "We eased him in, get him going, then he has the fracture. With him in we will have a much more legitimate scoring punch."
Another player who was at less than full speed much of the season is Simmons, a fine athlete who had arthroscopic knee surgery just before the season. The sophomore, now playing baseball, averaged 11 points and increased that to 12.6 in conference games. "I felt he never did recover, and he did some compensation-type things," Westhead said. "He could not get into the gear he had as a freshman. His desire was always top-notch; he's a competitive kid. He just was struggling."
Westhead would like to recruit a point guard to replace Gaines and find another big man, though there aren't many available.
He's also looking for players to fit his high-speed offense. The Lions averaged 85.3 points, just off the school record of 85.4, but allowed 87.6. Westhead said the problem was not style but execution and problems finding the right combinations. If anything, he said, he is more committed than ever to the approach of outscoring the opponent rapidly.
"The season made me realize for fast-break basketball to work, we need to do it better, run harder, be more committed to non-stop five-man basketball," he said. "There were flashes, like the last Pepperdine game (a 98-78 victory). I think with the addition of some of the redshirt players, and improvement in guys like Fryer and Veargason, there's every reason to feel" the running game will be successful.
Before the season Westhead said he thought the team would exceed its individual talents. That happened only occasionally, and the team bogged down in a series of close calls and overtime losses. "I thought we could steal some wins, we were close enough to everybody," Westhead said. "It could have gone either way. Once you lose a couple, that little bit of an edge we needed became an insurmountable edge."
There were positive aspects to the season. Yoest emerged as a scorer, averaging 19.3 points and topping 1,000 for his career. He had season highs of 37 and 35 points and will enter next season needing 260 points to become the school's eighth all-time career scorer. After three seasons Armstrong has more than 500 career rebounds, and Lazzaretti set a school record for field goal accuracy, hitting 60.6% of his shots.
Westhead is already looking forward to next season, which starts in Madison Square Garden in the St. John's Lapchick Tournament. There are also stops at Oregon State and Marquette and home games against Loyola of Chicago and the University of Pacific.
"I want to get right back into it," Westhead said. "I'm very happy and very involved and interested in staying a part of Loyola basketball."