Tighter Race Predicted for West Coast Cage Conference

Times Staff Writer

Loyola Marymount’s 14-0 waltz through the West Coast Athletic Conference basketball race last year probably won’t be repeated by any of the eight conference members this season.

As the WCAC teams opened their conference schedule this week (Loyola plays host to Santa Clara at 7:30 tonight, Loyola assistant coach Jay Hillock, who has been scouting WCAC opponents, predicted 12-2 would win the conference and 11-3 might be good enough.

A stronger-than-ever WCAC, with six teams that appear capable of contending for the title, might come down to the postseason tournament that determines the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, with Hillock predicting a chiller-thriller ending:

“The team that wins the league will not necessarily win the tournament. And there’s nobody with enough wins to go to the NCAA without winning the tournament--St. Mary’s has played too many Division II teams. You could see only one team go to the NCAA, with a couple of NIT bids.”


St. Mary’s (12-1) and Santa Clara (11-2) have been the early front-runners, with Gonzaga going 9-4 and San Francisco 8-5. Loyola (6-5) and Pepperdine (8-7) have lesser records but have played stronger schedules than the others, with the possible exception of Santa Clara.

San Diego (5-7) and Portland (0-13) bring up the rear, but the young San Diego team has beaten New Mexico in the infamous Albuquerque Pit, and Hillock fears Portland--which now has the nation’s longest losing streak--has a few upsets in its sleeves: “They have athletes. I think they will win two games. The law of averages has to catch up.”

St. Mary’s has looked like the most complete team. The Gaels lost only to Stanford by one point, and transfer James Dailey has added depth to a lineup that returned intact from last year. The Gaels continue to rank with the nation’s leaders in defense (57.8 points per game allowed) and have turned up the offense with five players averaging double figures, led by Robert Haugen at 13.3.

Santa Clara has a physical lineup and plays three people 6-foot-10 or taller. And senior forward Jens Gordon, who battled knee tendinitis last year, has returned to form and gives the Broncos a game-breaker, averaging 16.5 points and 9.4 rebounds. The Broncos can also shoot the 3-pointer.

Pepperdine has been something of a disappointment, losing to several unranked teams despite an assortment of talent--Tom Lewis, Dexter Howard, Craig Davis and Shann Ferch. The team has a new coach in longtime assistant Tom Asbury, but Hillock doesn’t think the transition is the problem. “That might be too simplistic,” he said. Whatever the Waves’ problems, Hillock said, “they can beat anybody on the planet on a given night.”

USF is beatable but has a sometimes-dominating player in center Mark McCathrion (16.4 points, 7.3 rebounds), who had 26 points and dominated in an upset victory last week over Notre Dame.

Gonzaga is tough at home and has a high-scoring 1-2 punch in guards Doug Spradley (21.6) and Jim McPhee (19.3). However, the Zags have a depth problem up front because center Paul Verret broke an ankle. He’ll be out until mid-February.

The Lions remain the WCAC’s iconoclastic team, running up triple figure scores while most of the conference prefers moderately paced affairs with coaches matching chess moves.

In this year’s WCAC, there appear to be few pawns.