SAN DIEGO — A radio station in Miami recently called Gary Zarecky to ask him about his United States International University basketball team, which plays Monday at Florida International.
This represents progress of sorts.
"A couple years ago, a radio station would rather play a commercial than talk to the USIU coach," Zarecky said.
Times are changing, albeit modestly, for the USIU Gulls.
"Now there are teams that won't play us," Zarecky said. "My first year we never got a phone call. Nobody even asked for a film."
Nobody needed a film.
When Zarecky took over in 1985, USIU was 6-78 the previous three seasons. In Zarecky's first season, USIU was 8-20. Last season, the Gulls were 11-17, the first time USIU had double-figure victories since it was 13-12 in 1980-81.
Zarecky enters his third year, one he admits is crucial to himself and the USIU program.
"This is going to be my test as to how good of a coach I am," Zarecky said. "To me it's a real challenge. A personal challenge."
USIU opens its season against Wright State at Golden Hall at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
The challenge, however, really starts after the opener because the Gulls play their next eight games on the road, including a game against San Diego State at the Sports Arena.
The Gulls open the season with two local players in the back court. Sophomore Steve Smith (Serra) will play off guard and senior Charles Redding (Point Loma) will be at the point. Smith (6-2, 175) averaged 3.5 points last season and Redding (6-2, 180), the team captain, averaged 5.7.
Senior Russ Heicke (6-4, 180) is expected to provide the scoring punch for the Gulls. Heicke, a swingman, was second on the team in scoring (15.6) and rebounds (5.5) last season. Zarecky said he will move senior Dexter Magee (6-7, 215) from center to power forward. Magee averaged 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds last season.
"We expect big things out of (Magee)," Zarecky said. "We moved him to his more natural position so he doesn't have to bump and grind with the guys bigger than him."
Zarecky brought in some height to try to improve the rebounding. The Gulls were out rebounded 1,302 to 1,143 last season.
Freshman Mike Sterner (6-10, 235) will start at center. Sterner was an all-state player at Mitchell High School in Mitchell, S.D. Zarecky said freshman John Arabia (6-9, 225) from Servite High School in Anaheim will also see time at center.
Zarecky also has two players from Yugoslavia who should help in the backcourt. Sophomore Rade Milutinovic (6-7, 225) and junior Goran Petrovic (6-5, 210) will come off the bench. Milutinovic is recovering from a broken wrist.
The Gulls defeated Brisbane, Australia, 90-88, in an exhibition game Nov. 14. It was Brisbane's only loss in 10 games against American colleges.
USIU, however, will be playing tougher teams than Brisbane this season. The Gulls have road games against Iowa State, which recently defeated No. 2 Purdue, Oregon State and Oral Roberts.
After opening its eight-game trip with Florida International Monday, USIU does not return home until Dec. 22 against Delaware State.
"We haven't got an easy schedule," Zarecky said. "That's part of the scheduling problems you have as an independent. For us to win 12 games is realistic."
Reality is something Zarecky is getting familiar with since leaving the high-powered basketball program he built at Sweetwater High School to take over at USIU.
"I think (this season) is pivotal," Zarecky said. "The kitchen's getting hot and I'm in the middle of it. They are only going to give you so much hype, so much fanfare. At this level, there are a lot of people who are buried, people who didn't make it."