In a season of good news for the Loyola Marymount University athletic program, the best--even more than this week's No. 1 national rating in the baseball poll--may be that Paul Westhead is staying on as basketball coach.
As the recruiting season culminated in three signings last week, the man who revived the Lions basketball program was rumored to be up for more positions than Peter Ueberroth. There was USC, then Stanford, then the Clippers. Loyola officials reportedly were worried that Westhead would consider an offer from the pro Clippers. But the jobs came and went and Westhead stayed put--as he said he would do when he took the job last year.
That's good news for a program that finally received national attention and a post-season bid. More than the 19-11 record--the most victories for the school in 18 years--more even than the NIT appearance and a victory over UC Berkeley, Westhead stressed in an informal post-mortem the transformation the team underwent and the resulting buildup of its appeal on campus as the real successes of the season .
'A New Character'
"What had to be worked out of this team was the feeling losing was expected, losing was right around the corner," Westhead said. "The predictable thing for this group was they'd go (on a road trip) and lose and ride out the season. Somewhere along the way they developed a new character, a new personality."
Westhead said several conference road victories during a record 10-game winning streak, particularly against a tough University of San Diego team, "showed we had become a different team. That's harder than winning--to shed a personality and take on a new one.
"In that regard we're a team that played beyond its expectations because we became another team. I think it surprised me because what I'm suggesting is something that doesn't happen a lot in basketball."
The success in Westhead's first year "hopefully will be enough to add to what is already here as a university to encourage future players to come," he said. "We're looking for the type of player that the other 100 top programs in the country are looking for. We have to make an impact into that market. When I took the position I felt all along it was doable."
3 Promising Recruits
Westhead has signed three players: 6-9 Marcellus Lee from Pomona High, 6-2 Jeff Fryer from Corona del Mar and 6-9 transfer John Veargason, who will be a sophomore, from San Jose City College. Lee was All-CIF and averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds a game. He first announced he would sign with Pepperdine but changed his mind at the last minute.
Fryer, one of the top shooting guards in the Southland the last two seasons, averaged 28 points and earned all-CIF honors. Veargason, a graduate of Bellarmine High in San Jose, averaged 12 points and 5 rebounds at San Jose City.
Loyola will return a solid nucleus in center Vic Lazzaretti, forwards Mike Yoest and Mark Armstrong, guard Enoch Simmons--who all started during the season--and redshirt point guard Chris Nikchevich, plus subs Darryl Carter, Dennis Vogel and Hunter Knapp.
However, Westhead said the graduation of Keith Smith and Forrest Walton-McKenzie leaves a void he tried to fill through recruiting. His emphasis was not on filling a particular position but on getting the best athletes, particularly players with the scoring credentials to fit his running game. Of the three recruits, Fryer's numbers jump out. He led Orange County in scoring.
Set 3 School Records
Looking over the final season statistics, several numbers jumped out at Westhead. The team set school records for shooting percentage (.500), field goals (954) and points (2,408) and had the edge over opponents in free throws and rebounds, areas in which Loyola has traditionally been lacking. In fact, Loyola out-rebounded opponents by more than six per game, a margin that was in the top 20 nationally.
"I told the team before the season we'd shoot better and we'd clearly shoot more fouls--that's very predictable in a relentless running game," Westhead said.
"If there's any one area the new personality shows evidence, it's rebounding. Rebounding translates into effort. That was the new personality. And we were not a bad road team--that's another example of the new personality. Most teams that don't have that glue, that cohesiveness, can win at home but crumble on the road. And that (success) didn't happen immediately. We lost three in a row on the road in December, so it was something that evolved."
Loyola began well, running off to a 6-2 start, but stumbled at the end of December and entered the new year at 6-6. That was when the new personality seemed to rise from the ashes. McKenzie was switched to guard and responded by teaming with Smith for the most prolific back court in the country (41.1 points per game). Yoest emerged as a scorer, averaging 16 points over the final 10 games. Simmons became a terrific sixth man.
The Lions kindled a 10-game winning streak. The students responded with the first full houses in the four years the team has played in Gersten Pavilion and arrived en masse for road games at San Diego and Pepperdine.
After losing to Pepperdine, with Smith hobbled by an ankle injury, the team played well the rest of the year and earned the NIT bid. The Lions went into Berkeley and pulled off a 80-75 victory against a team that had lost only once at home. The season ended with a second-round loss at Wyoming, but Loyola had proved that it could play.
"I thought we could win. But I thought we'd kind of fluctuate," Westhead said. "I think our team went about things in the right way, won enough key games. The win at Berkeley was enough to say we were a legitimate team capable of playing and beating other good basketball programs. It wasn't like a wild bit of luck."