The Loyola Marymount basketball team embarks this weekend on what may be the pivotal road trip of the season.
The Lions play at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on Monday, then face Marquette in Milwaukee on Wednesday before returning home.
The team is on a roll, having won four straight and averaging 110 points, second in the nation behind Oklahoma. Moreover, the Lions beat two good teams last week--Loyola of Chicago and Holy Cross--after playing a series of weak sisters at home.
The road, however, has been another matter. The Lions are 1-3 away from Gersten Pavilion, including a three-point loss at St. John's and a four-point overtime loss at Long Beach State.
To uphold their preseason vote as the favorite in the West Coast Athletic Conference, the Lions have to establish an ability to win close road games when they open conference play in mid-January.
Loyola Coach Paul Westhead called the Wisconsin trip "perfect timing."
"We get on the road and play some very tough teams," he said. "If anything will help tune us more for league play, that will do it. We'd like to get a couple Ws (victories) on the road."
Wisconsin-Green Bay plays in the shadow of Marquette but took a 7-1 record into the weekend. Marquette ended the week at 5-4.
After Monday's 99-89 victory over Loyola-Chicago--the Lions' most convincing victory over a solid opponent--Westhead said: "In all three games we lost, we just were tired out. We let a few slip away. I think we'll get better at sustaining our defense and the (fast) break."
Part of the reason for Loyola's late-December surge was the return of big guard Bo Kimble. He missed the first six games with a knee injury and Loyola's depth was affected. Since his return the Lions are undefeated, and Kimble is averaging 21 points in less than 20 minutes per game.
Westhead now has a solid eight-man rotation and has been giving sophomore center Marcellus Lee some quality time as well.
The question now is when Kimble will take his place in the starting five. The Lions, who had problems at guard last season, are suddenly four-deep in the back court and all of them--Kimble, Corey Gaines, Jeff Fryer and Enoch Simmons--are playing well.
Speculation around Loyola is that Kimble will probably re-enter the starting lineup around the start of WCAC play on Jan. 15. For now, Westhead said, "I like the way it's going. We'll play Bo as many minutes as he can absorb. I'd say he's about 70% ready. He's anxious to play more and more. He thinks he's 103% ready. Whatever you see of Bo Kimble now, a month from now you'll see much more."
Up front, the lineup of Mike Yoest, Mark Armstrong and Hank Gathers is set, with John Veargason the first big man off the bench. Simmons is also capable of playing small forward.
Westhead said he is "kind of fishing a little" with his substitution patterns. "I'm really pleased with Enoch Simmons and John Veargason and now Bo Kimble," he said. "I don't have to be very smart. Just put 'em in and see who does well. They're anxious, ready and into what we're doing. I don't consider Enoch Simmons a substitute. He's playing as well as he ever has here. And I'd like to get Marcellus Lee into the rotation more."
Five Lions are averaging double figures, led by Gathers at 24.2 and Kimble at 21. Right behind are Gaines at 19.2, Yoest at 15.8 and Fryer at 12.7. Simmons is chipping in nine points per game and shooting 54% from three-point range, and Armstrong, a dirty-work guy who had disappeared from the offense for a while, has scored 28 points in the last two games to raise his average to 7.8. He's also averaging 7.3 rebounds per game.
Gathers and Yoest are both grabbing more than eight rebounds per game, and Gaines is among national leaders in assists with an average of 9.6. He's also shooting 55% from the field and 68% on three-pointers. Yoest is shooting 61% from the floor and Gathers is right behind at 57%. The Lions are shooting 51% from the field and 49% from three-point range.
The Lions are drawing raves from recent opponents.
Loyola-Chicago Coach Gene Sullivan said: "They've got two guys, Gathers and Yoest, who are terrific inside. He's got eight guys who can play--we think four of 'em are eventually gonna get drafted (in the National Basketball Assn.). He's got two guys who have been here four years (Yoest and Armstrong) and three blue-chip transfers (Kimble, Gathers and Gaines) so you know they're tough."
Sullivan also was surprised at Loyola's proficiency when forced to play a half-court setup. "They didn't get many easy baskets. They beat us with their half-court offense. We didn't think they could score than many inside," he said.
Holy Cross Coach George Blaney, whose team has played three Big East opponents, said he thought his Crusaders could run with Loyola, and tried to. Excedrin headache No. 127. As in 127-104. The Lions blitzed Holy Cross 10-0 at the start of the game and 9-0 to open the second half.
"Once we got behind, we were in trouble," Blaney said.
Loyola's pressing defense has pleased Westhead as well. "The guys are really working at it," he said. And the offense is rolling. Westhead noted that several times in the Holy Cross game, after the Crusaders scored, "I think we had the ball down court and in the basket in about a second and a half."
Now they find out of the Midwest freeze will put a chill into Loyola's shooting touch. "We have and can play better," Westhead said.