"We have a chance to have a very special year," says John McMullen, Santa Monica College men's basketball coach, in this season's game program.
It has been special and could get better.
The Corsairs, ranked first in the state by the Junior College Athletic Bureau, had won 27 games, the most earned victories in school history. Last year's team finished 27-8, but the wins included a forfeit that was originally a loss.
SMC was 12-0 in the Western State Conference Southern Division at the start of the week after last Saturday's runaway 100-73 victory over Los Angeles Valley.
McMullen said that Valley, the division's second-place team, may not have been ready for the game. He said the Monarchs' point guard had quit the team and that, without him, Valley wasn't able to handle SMC's quickness.
Not many teams have been able to keep pace with the Corsairs.
SMC has lost only to Los Angeles City, Golden West and Cerritos. The Corsairs avenged their loss to Los Angeles, lost to Golden West on a shot at the buzzer and lost to Cerritos on the road in December, when Cerritos was No. 1 in the state.
McMullen's players "are very quick and athletic," said Phil Matthews, coach of Ventura. The Pirates, who won the 1987 state championship under Matthews, entered the week leading the WSC Northern Division and ranked 12th in the state.
"They have great athletes, most of them sophomores," said Matthews, whose Pirates lost a road game to the Corsairs, 83-66, in their only regular-season meeting.
"They know exactly what John wants them to do," he said. "They play hard, are well coached and well disciplined and can play with anybody on the junior college level."
What McMullen wants is quickness, aggressiveness and tough defense. The Corsairs have done what their coach has ordered.
Eight SMC sophomores played for last year's team, which advanced to the quarterfinals of the state tournament before losing to Merced by 5 points. Five of the eight are guards and a sixth plays guard and forward.
McMullen does not have many big men; no player is taller than 6 feet, 6 inches. Two big men who were sophomores last year, 6-6 all-state forward Cortney Able and 6-9 forward Brian Preiss, gave the Corsairs a strong inside game.
Without a dominant inside game this season, McMullen went to a three-guard, two-forward offense that is quick to attack--even quicker to defend.
The other night against Valley, the Corsairs took the Monarchs out of the game in a hurry. SMC's full-court press forced Valley into a rash of turnovers, which the Corsairs generally converted into fast-break baskets. In about six minutes, SMC got out to an 18-1 lead en route to what turned out to be an insurmountable 50-26 halftime advantage.
Of the eight sophomores, six were scoring in double figures through 28 games, led by guard Von Shuler's 16.8 average. Averages for the others were all-conference swingman Keith Amerson, 12.9; forward Kemo Patrick, 12.4, guard Troy Batiste, 11.2; guard DeShawn Pullard, 10.7, and forward Mark Day, 10.1. You can't have much more balanced scoring.
Five of them got used to winning at Crenshaw High School, which has won nine Los Angeles City championships and three state titles in Coach Willie West's 18 seasons. The ex-Cougars are Pullard, guard Terry Clark, Batiste, Patrick and Day.
The uninitiated might think that the Crenshaw alumni are so used to winning that all McMullen would have to do is put their names in the lineup.
But Coach Matthews of Ventura doesn't buy that theory.
Matthews says that most California community college teams have good players "but John has taken those players and molded them into a cohesive unit that has done what he has wanted them to do."
Not all of McMullen's regulars are from Crenshaw. Leading scorer Shuler is from Dorsey High and Amerson from Hamilton. The first players off the bench are sophomore guard Mike Sheehan from New Jersey and freshmen forwards Mark Moton of Sacramento and Chris Cook from Venice High.
McMullen, whose 11-year record of 213-123 gives him more victories than any other SMC coach, said this may be his best team.
"We are playing much more aggressively and with greater quickness this year," he said.
"But we really do it with defense, more than trying to outrun people. Everything is based on shutting the other team down. We have greater quickness than any other team I've had, which lets us put a lot of defensive pressure on other teams.
"We use quite a bit of both man-to-man and zone. We put on the press and keep it on."
The Corsairs' last two conference games are at 7 p.m. Saturday at College of the Canyons and at home against Bakersfield at 7 p.m. Monday.
Unless SMC takes a nose dive, it will win the WSC championship and thus earn a bye in the first round of the Southern California playoffs beginning Feb. 25. As conference champions, the Corsairs would open the playoffs Feb. 28 at home. The state semifinals and finals will be played March 9-11 at Santa Clara.
If the Corsairs get to Santa Clara, they should be favored to win, and that would be the best performance by any of McMullen's teams since the 1981 squad advanced to the semifinals of the state tournament.
If the Corsairs win the state title, it would be only the second time that one of the men's basketball teams has done it. In 1972, the Corsairs were state champions under Coach Bobbie Dye, now head coach at Boise State.
That would make it a very special year, indeed.