This may be the season that UCLA and USC determine a conference basketball title.
The title in question, however, is in the West Coast Athletic Conference.
Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine are the favorites in the WCAC, thanks in large part to transfers from Pacific 10 schools. Santa Clara and San Francisco, who appear to be the WCAC's other top contenders, also will benefit from Pac-10 defectors.
Those schools have never been thought of as havens for flocks of transfers--and their administrations would shudder to be thought of as renegade schools--but the sudden influx of big-time talent figures to be immediately noticeable on the court.
Most league observers suggest that they will make a major impact on the conference standings, as well. In some cases, teams' best players were on the bench last season, sitting out the year after transferring, as required by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. They hope to make, "Wait till next year," ring prophetic.
WCAC Commissioner Michael Gilleran refers to "Our transfers, as everybody calls them."
Loyola was certainly a major recipient. The Lions will open the season in the Lapchick tournament at St. John's this weekend with Corey Gaines, who played three seasons for UCLA, at point guard, and Hank Gathers, who played as a freshman at USC, at power forward.
Another USC transfer, Bo Kimble, is recovering from a knee injury but is expected back as a starting guard for Loyola in a few weeks.
"The red-shirts by themselves would make us a good team," Loyola Coach Paul Westhead said when practice began.
Pepperdine got the other player who started as a freshman at USC, high-scoring forward Tom Lewis.
Santa Clara's lineup will have swing man Jeffty Connelly, another USC emigre. USF expects to start 6-foot 9-inch forward Pat Giusti, who transferred from Oregon State and played the second semester for the Dons last season.
Another player who left UCLA, forward Jerald Jones, was also headed to USF--he's listed on the summer roster--but apparently didn't have enough academic credits to qualify and is at a community college.
Still, that's a bumper crop of Pac-10 talent for the WCAC, which is trying to outgrow its reputation as a coaches' conference.
Two more transfers will be on display a year hence in Los Angeles. Shann Ferch, a standout swing man from Montana State, is sitting out this season at Pepperdine, and Tom Peabody, a former Santa Ana Mater Dei High School star who transferred from Rice, is red-shirting at Loyola.
Loyola Athletic Director Brian Quinn said that the flow of talent may continue, though neither he nor Westhead foresees a pattern.
Quinn said: "We play in the (Pac-10's) shadow. Often, kids get to those universities and they find, 'Hey, it's not for me,' for a variety of reasons. You're seeing that across the country. Conferences like the WCAC are ideal for those kind of kids--smaller schools, good competition, good academics. It's a situation where those kids can often step right in and make an impact."
Westhead said: "Transferring is usually a pattern of large to smaller. It's not unusual that a player who selected a top 20-type program like, say, Syracuse, doesn't (transfer) to Kentucky. That's not a knock against schools of this size. It just means we don't have a major, front-line image."
Westhead said he's not sure how much influence the new players will have on the conference, but added: "They're going to have an impact on Los Angeles . . . on what I call the Loyola-Pepperdine week of basketball." The teams will play their showdown games back-to-back in February.
Gaines, at point guard, will be a key player for the Lions, directing Westhead's full-throttle offense. The 6-4 fifth-year senior with Walt Frazier's body had Frazier-like press clippings at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey, virtually in the shadow of Loyola, but never seemed to be the right guy at UCLA. He averaged six points in his last season with the Bruins. Westhead said Gaines is the fastest point guard he has ever had, and that some of his untamed instincts were ironed out during his red-shirt year.
"He has the potential of being a great player," Westhead said. "I think he'll be very poised and relaxed here. I think he's aware of his past pluses and minuses. That's one of the advantages of sitting out a year. He is a very driven person. Between his desire and our system, I think he'll be able to find the perfect (blend)."
There has been concern among Loyola followers that Gaines will be playing for himself, hoping for a shot at the National Basketball Assn. Gaines laughs off that suggestion.
"There's not really that much pressure on me 'cause in coach's offense, it all seems to come out naturally," he said. "I'm not going to come down and clear everybody out (go one-on-one). I'm going to concentrate on assists, steals and defense. The shots will come."
In the Lions' opening exhibition against an Australian team last Saturday, Gaines made 9 of 10 shots but also had 16 assists.