The first annual Freedom Bowl basketball tournament debuts tonight at UC Irvine's Bren Center. It's actually billed as The Freedom Bowl "Classic" but--like the football game it's connected with--it hasn't quite reached that status yet.
In the first game at 6 p.m., Manhattan College, 6-21 overall last season and 2-12 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, meets Air Force, which returns all five starters from a team that finished sixth in the WAC with a 5-11 record. Army (14-15, 8-6 in MAAC) plays the host Anteaters at 8. The championship game is Saturday night at 8.
Manhattan's strength lies in an experienced and deep backcourt. Seniors Billy Wheeler, who led the conference in scoring average (20.7), and Ed Lawson, who averaged 12 points and 4.7 assists a game, are backed up by two returning reserves.
Everybody's back and fighting for their starting positions at Air Force. Sophomore Ray Dudley, who led the team in scoring last season with a 13.6 average, and senior forward Rob Marr, who averaged 12.4 points and a team-high 5.6 rebounds, lead the veteran Falcons.
Senior center Scott King is the lone returning starter for Army, but sophomore forward Steve Rothert is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder (6.3 points, 3 rebounds). Coach Les Wothke, in his sixth season at Army, is counting on three freshman guards. Kevin Houston, who led the nation is scoring last season with a 32.9 average, is now a Cadet assistant.
UCI Coach Bill Mulligan would like to see his team shoot well and play some adequate defense. He should get his first wish, anyway. And the Anteaters (14-14 overall and 9-9 in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. last season) have been working hard to improve on defense.
The Freedom Bowl women's field features four teams with a total of 17 returning starters.
At 1 today, St. John's, which has four starters back from last season's 13-16 team, meets Irvine, which has its top nine players returning from last season's 14-15 team. At 3, Colorado, which was 14-14 last season and returns its top nine, faces Creighton, which returns its top two scorers from a 23-7 team that finished third in the 1987 National Invitation Tournament.