The last time Loyola Marymount and Wyoming played basketball, in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament two St. Patrick's Days ago, the Cowboys left the Lions wheezing in the prairie dust and ran away.
The cast for Wyoming, led by forward Fennis Dembo and center Eric Leckner, is largely the same group of oversized leprechauns that shot 66% and won, 99-90. The biggest change is a new head wrangler, Benny Dees.
A lot, though, has changed at Loyola in two years. Only three players--forwards Mike Yoest and Mark Armstrong and guard Enoch Simmons--remain. The team has been bolstered by Corey Gaines, Bo Kimble, Hank Gathers and Jeff Fryer, all averaging in double figures this season.
Yoest, who scored a game-high 25 points in the Wyoming game as a sophomore, and Armstrong and Simmons remember how tired and winded they were at the 7,145-foot level in Laramie, Wyo.
This season's Lions vow that although Wyoming practices at high altitude, the Cowboys will be the ones winded today when they meet in the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Western Regional at Salt Lake City. Game time is 1:37 p.m., PST.
The matchup should be an entertaining one, although it thrilled neither team when it was announced. Loyola (27-3), rated in the top 16 of virtually every poll, is apparently paying for the sins of the West Coast Athletic Conference, which hasn't won a game in the NCAA tournament since 1982. The Lions were seeded 10th in the 16-team regional and drew the champions of the Western Athletic Conference.
Loyola Coach Paul Westhead is philosophical about the draw, however, and his players say they welcome the challenge as a chance for instant respect.
Westhead said: "In my opinion, we're like the young guy on the block, we're not the powers that be. That's the reality. The only way you get a good seeding in this tournament is, you do well in this tournament in the past. I don't think anybody should be angry Indiana was fourth-seeded (in the East). They're the defending champions; they earned it."
In four of the last five years, West Coast Athletic Conference winners drew Atlantic Coast Conference powers.
Westhead said: "That's been the Catch-22 (for the WCAC). We've got to do something in the tournament. It's tough to win when they keep giving you the toughest opponents in the God-awfulest places. I don't think we're in that situation. We're a free-wheeling team. We could(n't) care less who we play."
If the Lions get past Wyoming (26-5), they will play the winner of the game between North Carolina (22-5) and North Texas State (17-12).
Yoest, now a seasoned senior, said: "When I saw the road we're gonna have to go--each team is a great team. I'd rather play them and earn respect. We know we can play anybody. If we beat North Carolina (second-seeded in West) or Wyoming, people will automatically respect us."
And the altitude factor? Salt Lake City is at an elevation of 4,390 feet.
"I don't think it'll be a problem," Yoest said. "We'll be much deeper than we were two years ago. I think they'll be the tired ones this year."
Kimble, who talks almost as fast as he shoots, said: "If Wyoming beats us, I guarantee you they won't beat North Carolina. They won't have anything left. They'll be dead."
Westhead, a former Laker coach, said that when he took pro teams to Salt Lake City, he never noticed an effect from the altitude. "If it's a factor, I didn't notice anything," he said. "I don't think that will be a factor."
If the Lions got a tough-seeded position, though, so, too, did Wyoming.
"If I was Wyoming, I would be angry," Westhead said. "They win their title and their reward is the country's leading scoring team on a 24-game win streak."
Wyoming's Dees agreed. "I'm bitterly disappointed about the seeding," he said in a prepared statement.
When the teams last met, Wyoming was coached by Jim Brandenburg, who favored a more structured offense. Under their new coach, the Cowboys started out as Benny and the Jets.
The electrifying Dembo, who did a number on Loyola two years ago, 24 points and 10 rebounds, and an even bigger number on UCLA, 41 points, to knock the Bruins out of the NCAA tournament last year, was off and running, and the Cowboys were rated No. 1 in several polls.
But the Cowboys were leaving their center, the 6-11, 270-pound Leckner, behind, and the Cowboys, playing in the key of Dees, went flat. They lost three of their first four conference games and Dees had to rethink his offense.
"We took a running team down to Albuquerque and El Paso and just got it stuffed down our throats," he said. "We had to change things."
He slowed things down, got Leckner back in the offense, and the Cowboys have been winning ever since. Dees also changed his backcourt, replacing Sean Dent and Turk Boyd with 6-4 juniors Reggie Fox and Robyn Davis. Each new starter scores nearly 10 points a game, and Wyoming is 11-1 after the switch.
Dembo, Wyoming's career scoring leader, averages 20.6 points and 7.2 rebounds. Leckner, one-time beach boy from Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach, averages 15 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Wyoming assistant Coach Dick Lien said the Cowboys will be happy to run with the Lions.
"We've had trouble getting people to play with us," he said. "I don't think we'll have a problem getting Loyola to play with us."
That enters into Westhead's game plan.
"The pace we're creating, our opponents shoot faster than us. They get caught up in this whirlwind," he said.
"Leckner and Dembo are two very legitimate big-time players. They can kill you--and they did that to us two years ago. We kind of know them. If they think they know us, they don't. We're not the same kind of team we were two years ago, and we were pretty good. But we're a much better team now."