The way that West Coast Athletic Conference basketball teams have played in non-conference games hasn't changed the way that Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick felt about them before the season.
Harrick said he still believes that Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara and his team will finish 1, 2 and 3 in the league race, which opens next week. The other conference teams, he said, should wind up in about the following order: San Francisco or St. Mary's, Gonzaga, San Diego and Portland.
Harrick's top three teams have more or less been living up to expectations.
High-scoring Loyola was 8-3 early this week and had won its last five games. Coach Paul Westhead's Lions, led by USC transfers Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble and UCLA transfer Corey Gaines, were averaging 110 points a game, second in the nation to Oklahoma, before they won a slowdown game Monday night at Wisconsin Green Bay, 70-67.
Gathers, Kimble and Gaines and the other heralded ex-Trojan, Pepperdine's Tom Lewis, have made an impact among conference scorers, and Kimble got a late start because of an injury. As the week began, Gathers was leading WCAC scorers with an average of 24.2 points a game, followed by Lewis (22.1), Kimble (21) and Gaines (19.2).
The top conference rebounders were Levy Middlebrooks of the Waves, who was among the nation's leaders with an average of 11.3 a game, Gathers (8.8) and Loyola's Mike Yoest (8.4).
Santa Clara, which won the WCAC's first tournament last year and the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, was 8-4, including victories over Stanford, San Jose State, Seton Hall and Colorado. The Broncos have four starters from last year, including Jens Gordon, the most valuable player of the conference tournament.
"Winning the league last year gave Santa Clara tremendous confidence," Harrick said.
Other conference squads and their records are St. Mary's (7-3), USF (7-5), Gonzaga (7-4), San Diego (6-4) and Portland (4-8).
Pepperdine is 7-5, not quite what some observers expected of the Waves but not exactly a disappointment to Harrick. He was far from disappointed with last Monday's 99-90 win over Marshall in Malibu. Lewis scored a career-high 35 points in that game, one in which Pepperdine played run-and-gun better than at any other time this season.
"I still think we're going to be in there at the end," he said. "We have a pretty good team, and we haven't played any chopped liver. Every game has been difficult."
The Waves opened the season in Chicago with their first win ever against DePaul, ranked among the nation's top 20 teams before the season.
Pepperdine also lost a road game to highly ranked Arizona, 73-68, and last week lost to Tennessee, 95-76, in the Vols' tournament. The Volunteers have won their tournament 19 times, including the last nine. On a third long road trip, the Waves, who played seven of their first 10 games away from home, defeated McNeese State and lost to Oklahoma State.
Pepperdine's other losses have been to Connecticut, which plays in probably the nation's best conference, the Big East, and to UC Santa Barbara and Marshall, both strong teams.
That kind of scheduling has taken its toll on Pepperdine, which has had only four players on its bench and has used just two substitutes, guard Donny Moore and center Casey Crawford, with any degree of regularity.
The same five players have started every game: Lewis, Middlebrooks, guards Craig Davis and Marty Wilson and center Dexter Howard, normally a forward.
Most of the starters have not had enough rest. In minutes played, Middlebrooks has led the way with an average of 39 a game. Others who have probably been averaging too many minutes are Lewis (37.7), Davis, (35.5) and Wilson (32.9).
"We've been on four road trips and have gone across the country three times," Harrick said. "We played some emotional games, and that has drained us. The schedule has been very, very difficult--probably much too hard and with seven of 10 games on the road.
"It seemed like it was always one more plane ride and one more big emotional game--and there are only so many emotional games in a team. It caught up with us a little but, hopefully in March, it will make us a better basketball team." The return tonight of 6-7 senior forward-center Mike Cumberland, who was ineligible to play in the fall term, should make Pepperdine better and do much to abate what Harrick calls the "fatigue factor." Cumberland, a part-time starter last season, is expected to see action when Pepperdine plays host to Texas Arlington at 7:30 at Firestone Fieldhouse.
Harrick said that "everybody else is in mid-season form. Mike's just beginning, and it's going to be awhile. But he plays all three front-court positions, and makes us a little bit better." He will also provide rest for the starting front line.
Pepperdine will open conference play at home against St. Mary's at 7:30 Jan. 15 and San Diego at 7:30 Jan. 16.
There will be a change in format for this year's WCAC tournament. The first round-games were played last year on the home courts of the teams that finished in the top four places, and the semifinals and finals were held at one site, USF, a week later. This year all tournament games will be played in three days, March 5-7, at Santa Clara's Toso Pavilion.