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WCAC Tournament : Coaches Agree It Should Be Wide Open

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, Loyola Marymount waltzed into the West Coast Athletic Conference’s postseason basketball tournament with a 21-game winning streak, a top-20 ranking and high expectations of winning the conference title and receiving the automatic berth in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.

The Lions were tested in the tournament but lived up to expectations.

St. Mary’s goes into today’s opening round of the WCAC tournament at the University of San Francisco with similar credentials and hopes.

But a media gathering with the WCAC’s eight coaches Friday gave the impression that there are few results the coaches would consider upsets this year.

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Even St. Mary’s Coach Lynn Nance, whose team is 24-3 and ranks among national leaders in several categories, was hedging his bets Friday. His team plays the noon opener today against last-place Portland (2-25). Semifinals are Sunday and the championship game is Monday night.

“My wife started talking about Sunday. I said, ‘Sunday, we could be in church,’ ” Nance joked. “You look around the country, rarely does the regular-season champ win the postseason tournament. It’s very difficult.”

Most of the coaches predicted a wide-open tournament with five or six teams capable of winning. Nance said the three-games-in-three-days format puts a strain on everyone.

Pepperdine and Santa Clara, which have 18 wins, and Loyola with 17, all have postseason hopes even if they don’t win here. But Loyola Coach Paul Westhead had this warning for his fellow coaches: “You better win the tournament if you want to go to the big show.”

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A look at today’s opening matchups:

St. Mary’s (24-3) vs. Portland (2-25), noon--The Pilots continue their roll . . . downward. Two weeks ago they lost their leading scorer, Josh Lowery, who was suspended for an off-campus scuffle. This week they even lost a coin flip with San Diego and were seeded eighth, drawing No. 1 St. Mary’s.

Pepperdine (18-11) vs. San Diego (8-19), 2 p.m.--Wave Coach Tom Asbury said he didn’t think last weekend’s losses at USF and Santa Clara indicated a slump, but he is wary of San Diego, which gave the Waves two tough games.

Asbury called the Toreros “very dangerous.” Forwards Dexter Howard and Tom Lewis lead Pepperdine, averaging 16 points apiece.

Loyola Marymount (17-10) vs. Gonzaga (14-13), 6 p.m.--When these teams met two weeks ago in Los Angeles, three players scored 40 points apiece in the highest-scoring game in WCAC history, a 147-136 Loyola win. Gonzaga Coach Dan Fitzgerald calls it indoor track. "(Today) is our third meet,” he said.

Loyola is the team many of the coaches fear because Bo Kimble is back in the lineup after knee surgery. If Kimble and Jeff Fryer are hitting from outside, opponents can’t triple-team Hank Gathers, the national scoring leader with a 33.5-point average, inside, and the points fly.

USF (16-11) vs. Santa Clara (18-9), 8 p.m.--If there’s a sleeper, it’s USF, which is coming off three impressive wins and gets to play on its own floor, in the shadow of Bill Russell’s retired uniform and two national championship banners. If senior Mark McCathrion is on his game, the Dons could rule again.

“I’m glad USF is in the other bracket,” Asbury said. “You bet they’re a contender.”

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