SAN DIEGO — A conference race seemingly conceded to defending champion Pepperdine before the season is looking like more of a contest as the West Coast Conference begins its 40th basketball season Saturday.
Santa Clara Coach Carroll Williams was on hand 40 years ago--as a player--for the inaugural 1952 game in the California Basketball Assn. that eventually became the West Coast Conference. Santa Clara, St. Mary's and USF remain as the three charter members, but the power shifted to Southern California in the 1980s.
Pepperdine remains the standard so far in the '90s, but as of Saturday it's an eight-horse race.
A few weeks ago, while scouting USD, one conference coach approached a reporter and whispered, "What do you think--Pepperdine in a cakewalk?"
That was before the Waves lost to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Recent developments indicate that Pepperdine, still the heavy favorite with all five starters back from its 13-1 team, might not run away. At 7-5, Pepperdine has looked vulnerable at times. The Waves appeared intimidated in Pauley Pavilion, losing to UCLA by 40 points, and last week were upset by visiting Cal Poly SLO, a Division II school.
As a result, some coaches aren't so willing to put Pepperdine on a pedestal. After Saturday, when the Waves play host to crosstown rival Loyola Marymount, they play five of their next seven games on the road.
The WCC expected to be improved from last season, when the eight teams managed a 51-56 record against nonconference opponents, and going into conference play they have upgraded to 58-41.
A recent victory by USF (8-5) over DePaul--on the same night the University of San Diego (8-5) took Arizona State into overtime in Tempe--gave evidence that there may not be many easy nights in the WCC. St. Mary's (8-6), Portland (6-5) and Gonzaga (10-3) are on the upswing, making the conference's dreaded Northwest trip, to Portland and Spokane, that much tougher.
In fact, the only WCC team with a losing record is Santa Clara (4-9), which Saturday visits San Diego.
Entering conference play, Santa Clara has been the biggest disappointment, literally and figuratively, probably followed by Loyola (7-5).
USD falls somewhere between the favorites and the fallen. The Toreros' tenacious defense might be able to frustrate the conference's higher-scoring teams--their defensive average of 67.4 points is third-best in the WCC--but their lack of power makes them susceptible to teams with a good inside game, notably Pepperdine and Santa Clara.
Coaches are warily noting that, with the exception of one poorly played game, the Toreros have hung tough and adapted to all styles. They have the fewest turnovers in the conference and a smart, veteran nucleus led by seniors Kelvin Woods, Wayman Strickland and Michael Brown plus Gylan Dottin, who has been a standout at forward after redshirting last season.
On the other hand, without a consistent inside game, the Toreros put away few people. They've lost two in a row, both road games they had chances to win. "Every game's gonna be close," Coach Hank Egan has maintained.
Nobody is taking the Waves lightly: Three of their five losses have come in overtime, and they took fourth-ranked Kansas into overtime last weekend before losing, 79-73. The Waves have the WCC's best all-around player in 6-foot-6 guard Doug Christie and among the best front-court talent in center/forward Geoff Lear and forward Dana Jones.
Christie, the final player cut from last summer's Pan American team, has returned from two subsequent surgeries on his right knee. Projected by some pro scouts as a first-round draft selection, Christie ranks among WCC leaders in scoring (17.8), assists (5.3) and steals (2.5).
Fellow senior Lear, a two-time all-conference choice, is among leaders in scoring (14.7), rebounding (6.2), blocked shots (1.8) and shooting (57.3%). Jones, a sophomore, is following up on his freshman-of-the-year laurels by averaging 12.2 points and seven rebounds a game, shooting 56.6%.
Loyola, a veteran team featuring the scoring of guard Terrell Lowery, was expected to be the team that might unseat Pepperdine. At least stylistically, the Lions have struggled. Hoping to lead the nation in scoring again after falling to second last season, they have dropped to a relatively meager 93.8 points per game. They haven't averaged less than 104 points since the 1986-87 season.
Lowery has been the only consistent scorer, averaging 26.5 points, and he has shot only 42%. The Lions rank near the bottom of the WCC in three-point accuracy (33%), one of their staples in recent years, and when the front court players don't score, defenses are ganging up on Lowery. They've been a notoriously slow-starting team, averaging 34 points in the first half, 60 in the second. Teams still fear an offensive explosion if the Lions hit their stride.
"We're an unknown quantity," Lion Coach Jay Hillock said. "We've got to come up with some answers quick."