As a coda to Loyola Marymount’s basketball season, the ending of “Shane” comes to mind. One can see Hank Gathers holstering his six-shooter, riding off into the sunset, with Paul Westhead forlornly beseeching, “Come back, Hank.”
Will he or won’t he?
With a 48-13 record over the last two seasons and two straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, Westhead and Loyola would appear to be in good shape for next season. Enoch Simmons is the only starter who graduates, and John Veargason the only other senior on this year’s 20-11 squad.
But Gathers, the dominating 6-foot-7 junior center who led the nation in scoring and rebounding, is weighing the temptations of pro ball, and his return may be the key to how much Loyola struggles next season.
Back for certain are starters Bo Kimble, Jeff Fryer and Per Stumer, part-time starter and floor-burn leader Tom Peabody and key reserve Terrell Lowery. Chris Knight, Marcus Slater and Jeff Roscoe, all 6-8, and Marcellus Lee, 6-10, will return. At least one recruit, 6-9 Chris Scott of Union City will also join the roster and is expected to play as a freshman.
That cast by itself is experienced and competitive enough to cause problems in the West Coast Athletic Conference and capable of scoring loads of points again. With Gathers, the Lions would again be a formidable team in the WCAC. In Gathers’ two seasons, the Lions are 24-4 in WCAC play and 6-0 in the postseason tournament, and Gathers has been named most valuable player in the last two WCAC tournaments.
The Lions have a great deal to bask in now: a second-straight 20-win season and conference tournament title despite some injury problems; a fast-break style that shattered virtually every collegiate scoring record; an all-time performance by Gathers that earned him All-America honors, and a gutty performance in the NCAA Regionals against Arkansas without the injured Simmons.
Loyola averaged 112.5 points per game, breaking Nevada-Las Vegas’ 13-year-old record by two points. The Lions averaged more than nine three-point baskets per game. They scored 181 points in one game, 94 points in one half (both against U.S. International). Gathers led the nation in both scoring (32.7) and rebounding (13.7) and tied a school record with 49 points against Nevada-Reno.
Long-range gunner Jeff Fryer ranked among national scoring leaders at 22.9 points per game and had 42 in a televised game at DePaul. The Lions appeared on national television a half-dozen times, including their 120-101 loss last week to Arkansas in the NCAA tournament, a game in which they erased most of an 18-point deficit before wilting in the final minutes. Much of what the Lions accomplished was despite the absence of the prolific Kimble, who had knee surgery early in the season and didn’t return to the starting lineup until mid-February.
“We really made the season in winning the conference tournament,” Westhead said. “The NCAA was a fitting reward. I thought we did about what we could, given the injury to Bo. That really caused a lot of problems for us. Then the injury scenario was climaxed by Enoch Simmons missing the (NCAA) game. In between and during all that, I thought the guys played pretty good.”
Though Westhead admits his latest team wasn’t as dominant as last year’s 28-4 edition, he felt it was even more explosive at times.
The difference? Westhead said ultimately the Lions missed the blue-collar inside work of Mike Yoest and Mark Armstrong, and the quickness and defensive skill of Corey Gaines on the press.
Westhead is looking ahead with encouragement: “With the absence of Enoch, we started an all-returning team (in the NCAA). That alone would say we have the possibility of being a very good team to repeat in the NCAA--but put an asterisk there. I’m still convinced you have to win your (conference) tournament. It really is a special proving ground, to win three in three days.”
Loyola will play host for the WCAC tourney next March.
Westhead expects the conference to see a seasoned Loyola team with a strong outside game featuring Fryer and Kimble and improved guard play from Lowery and Peabody. Lowery, who had highs of 18 points and 13 assists while playing in 30 games, will be a sophomore, Stumer and Peabody juniors.
The key questions in Westhead’s mind are the health of Kimble and the development of Knight, the slender forward known to teammates as “Blade,” who saw sporadic action in 22 games. He will be a sophomore, and Westhead is hoping he can make the lineup.
“The unknowns are: ‘Will we be able to have a healthy Bo Kimble to say, “Here is the real Bo, watch out.”?’ He has the ability to be a dominating player. Terrell (Lowery) and Knight are right there at the point of becoming effective and valuable players. They can’t stay the same--they have to step forward in the next six months before we get back to practice. Knight is someone I think can punch through and get 15 to 20-plus minutes of valuable time a game. Terrell has some of the talents and skills of Keith Smith and Corey Gaines.”
Also figuring in are forward John O’Connell, a hard worker who showed steady improvement and a head for the game in 22 appearances as a freshman, and the recruit Scott, of whom Westhead said: “He’ll be a valuable player, and in his freshman year.”
Westhead takes Loyola’s six games of 130 or more points in stride, pointing to the February weekend when his lineup was intact and scored 144 and 147 points on consecutive nights against Portland and Gonzaga. “We have it within us to generate that on a regular basis,” he said.
To that aim, Westhead is continuing to explore unconventional training ideas and track running techniques. “I’m gonna talk to a running instructor and get some ideas about training, the art of running,” he said. “There are still some notches left in this system that we haven’t reached.”
Without Gathers, however, the inside-outside balance and presence of a dominating figure might be gone.
Westhead said Gathers’ return is the player’s decision, and they won’t seriously discuss it until after spring break. He thinks a final year of college would help Gathers’ standing in the National Basketball Assn. draft.
“My impression is you get famous first, then become a lottery pick the following year,” Westhead said. “The amazing thing is a year ago he was not one of the top 94 invited to try out for the Olympics. The progress he’s made in a year is immense. I think the year was used up in getting a reputation. For that reason, I think another season is important. You evolve as a star, then need the year on Broadway.”
In other words--come back, Hank, come back.