Last season, the balance of power in the West Coast Athletic Conference swung conspicuously away from Los Angeles, where Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine brought up the rear.
The scoop this season is that the finish will reverse itself.
A preseason media poll conducted by the WCAC has decreed that Loyola, which ended up eighth in the eight-team league last winter, will win the title, followed by Pepperdine, which is coming off an unaccustomed seventh-place finish.
In two national publications, Pepperdine is picked to win its sixth WCAC title in eight years. The Sporting News tabs Loyola the favorite. Yet another picks Santa Clara.
Meanwhile, the University of San Diego, the defending regular-season champion, graduated the most starters and is picked seventh. San Diego Coach Hank Egan's reaction to preseason predictions: "Not only don't I know, I don't care."
Indeed, the WCAC has always been a put-up-or-shut-up conference when league play begins, and blowouts are rare, even when the best plays the worst.
Examples: Last season, first-place San Diego needed two overtimes to subdue Loyola, and second-place Gonzaga was beaten by Pepperdine in the WCAC tournament. Two of the three overtime games in the conference were played by Loyola--against the top two teams.
It may not be a conference that gets much notice in the top 20 polls or one that pops up in Dick Vitale's conversation often, but fans are generally assured of seeing tight, competitive games. And the feeling this season is that the Southland teams will be on the winning end of more of them, perhaps emulating their 1-2 finish two years ago.
Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick is probably on the mark when he predicts a wide-open race with four, possibly five, contenders.
Here's how the league shapes up, in the order of the poll result: LOYOLA MARYMOUNT
1986-87 records: 12-16 overall, 4-10 in WCAC)
WCAC finish: Eighth
The Lions will run. The Lions will score. The Lions' opponents' tongues will be on the floor.
But will the Lions play defense? And will as good a collection of athletes as has ever been assembled at the little Westchester school mesh into a good team?
Those are questions that intrigue even Coach Paul Westhead, who says that he has the horses not only to outrun and outgun opponents, but to play a pressing defense as well.
Forwards Mike Yoest and Mark Armstrong are starting their fourth varsity seasons and led the WCAC in scoring, at 19.3, and rebounding, at 9.0, respectively, as juniors. Also back are athletic junior guard Enoch Simmons and sophomore guard Jeff Fryer, a three-point marksman.
They'll be bolstered by the addition of transfers Hank Gathers, 6-7, and Bo Kimble, 6-5, from USC, both sophomores, and fleet senior point guard Corey Gaines from UCLA. Kimble is recovering from a knee injury but should be back by mid-December.
Freshman Marcus Slater, 6-9, and sophomore Marcellus Lee, 6-10, both red-shirted last season and are raw, but add size and promise. Junior John Veargason, 6-10, has been hampered by an ankle injury but is the team's best outlet passer.
"We're a good team," Westhead said. "I don't know how good. We'll evolve as the older and newer players mesh together. . . . We can go eight (deep) without much of a change in ability. I think the guys sense they can be pretty good, and they sense it's not just from one guy.
"The red-shirts (from last season) by themselves would make us a good team. Mark (Armstrong) and Mike (Yoest) would make us a good team. For the first time, we're not entering into a season hoping for some new-found player to change our fates."
The Lions will be tested early, opening against Tennessee Tech in the Lapchick Tournament at St. John's Saturday night and traveling to Oregon State in early December. PEPPERDINE
1986-87 records: 12-18, 5-9
WCAC finish: Seventh
When asked if everything is fine at Pepperdine, Coach Jim Harrick forgoes the usual one-liners. The Waves should be better than last season, when they were beset by backcourt problems, but they are relatively small up front and are a team in search of a personality.
The schedule, however, doesn't give them much time to experiment. They open at DePaul Saturday night, and the December schedule includes Arizona, McNeese State, Oklahoma State and Cal State Fullerton. They open the new year playing host to Connecticut of the Big East and Marshall, which is getting some top 20 votes.
"I kind of like our team," Harrick said. "We've got a little quickness. We can shoot OK. I don't know if we can get a rebound. The schedule is a little scary sometimes, but if we can get over the hump. . . . "
Harrick's big man again is muscular 6-7 center-forward Levy Middlebrooks, who tied Loyola's Armstrong for the conference rebounding lead, 9 a game, and averaged 13 points, but has yet to put together a consistent year.