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VALLEY/VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | WCC MEN'S BASKETBALL
PREVIEW

Teams on Left Coast Play All Right, Too

January 09, 1998|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Bradley, Loyola Marymount's first-year coach, might have gotten a little carried away this week when he called the West Coast Conference, "as good a basketball league as there is in the country."

The Atlantic Coast Conference, for one, could take issue with that claim.

But there's no denying that the WCC, rated No. 11 in the Sagarin rankings, has made an impression against teams from more elite conferences.

The evidence: Gonzaga beating then-No. 5 Clemson of the ACC and Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference, Pepperdine routing Wisconsin of the Big Ten, St. Mary's and San Francisco both beating Pacific 10 neighbor California, and Santa Clara downing Oregon and Oregon State of the Pac-10.

Entering WCC play this week, six of the eight teams had winning records and the conference was 37-4 in home games, leading most coaches to expect a dogfight for the title.

"There are about six teams in our league that realistically have a chance to win the [championship]," Santa Clara Coach Dick Davey said. "We have a chance but we could also end up last.

"There's not a team in the league that can afford to lose a [starter] or two."

Injuries have already become a factor. Brad Millard, St. Mary's 7-foot-3, 345-pound center, is sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot and San Francisco, the coaches' preseason favorite, opens conference play without three starters, although two are expected to return.

Pepperdine, picked to finish second, has avoided injuries to key players and has shown signs in recent games of becoming a more consistent team. The Waves (8-4) have made better than 50% of their shots in the last four games and bring a three-game winning streak into a WCC opener tonight at 7 against Portland at Firestone Fieldhouse.

Adding to Pepperdine's confidence is a 4-1 record in games decided by four points or fewer, its only setback a 53-52 loss at Brigham Young. Last season, the Waves were 0-7 in close games on their way to a 6-21 record.

"If you take the BYU loss away, I couldn't have scripted it any better at this point," Pepperdine Coach Lorenzo Romar said. "It has been a complete turnaround from last year."

Guard Gerald Brown has led the revival. One of three Wave starters who sat out last season, Brown is tied for second in WCC scoring with an 18.9 average and has bailed Pepperdine out of several tight spots by making clutch shots at the end of games.

Brown appears fully recovered from knee surgery that was performed after the 1995-96 season, regaining the form that earned him All-WCC honors as a sophomore and junior.

The Waves have also gotten steady play from 6-7 forward Bryan Hill, an All-WCC selection last season. But touted transfers Jelani Gardner, a 6-6 guard from California, and omm'A Givens, a 6-11 center from UCLA, have struggled at times while trying to blend in.

"We have talent but I think sometimes our talent is a little overrated," Romar said. "Gerald Brown and Bryan Hill are the only ones to accomplish anything on the college level."

A potential problem for Pepperdine is a lack of depth. With only eight scholarship players, an injury could prove devastating. Last season, the Waves had a thin bench and were 0-7 in the second conference games of the week.

Romar said he'll know better if his team can handle back-to-back games after hosting Gonzaga at 5 p.m. Saturday, not 24 hours after the opener.

A look at the other WCC teams, in alphabetical order, with nonconference records:

* GONZAGA (11-4)--The surprising Bulldogs have emerged as favorites for the WCC championship. They grabbed everyone's attention by beating Tulsa, Mississippi State and Clemson during a tournament in Fairbanks, Alaska in November.

Forward Bakari Hendrix averages 18.9 points and 5.6 rebounds and guard Matt Santangelo, the WCC co-freshman of the year last season, averages 15.9 points and 3.8 assists. The Bulldogs, in their first season under former assistant Dan Monson, have made 45.2% of their three-point shots.

* LOYOLA MARYMOUNT (4-8)--After struggling early, the Lions won their last two games after inserting 6-11 Silvester Kainga, a junior from Kenya, into the starting lineup. Kainga had 11 rebounds and five blocked shots in 24 minutes in a 76-68 victory over San Jose State on Saturday.

Loyola has gotten a boost from 5-4 point guard Haywood Eaddy, the smallest player in WCC history. Eaddy, chosen WCC player of the week after sparking the Lions' first winning streak of the season, is averaging 18.1 points and 4.8 assists.

* PORTLAND (7-5)--The Pilots fattened up on a weak nonconference schedule, including two victories over Denver, a first-year Division I program, and a victory over Southern Oregon, an NAIA school. Point guard Dionn Holton leads WCC players in assists with a 5.7 average. Sophomore forward Jason Franklin averages a team-leading 11.9 points.

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