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Loyola Faces Year’s Toughest Road Trip : College basketball: This week the Lions travel East for three games, two against highly regarded opponents. The trip should show whether Coach Paul Westhead’s high-scoring team belongs in the nation’s Top 25.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is Loyola Marymount ready for the Top 25? Is the Top 25 ready for Loyola Marymount?

This week’s three-game swing East will probably answer those questions as the Lions embark on their longest--and toughest--road trip of the season. Loyola, 7-2, will play once-beaten Xavier in Cincinnati on Tuesday, then continue on to Philadelphia for games at St. Joseph’s on Thursday and 20th-ranked LaSalle on Saturday.

Xavier, the only private school in the nation to appear in the last four NCAA Tournaments, has a strong team again, featuring its 6-foot-10 duo of forward Tyrone Hill and center Derek Strong, a Palisades High graduate, and point guard Jamal Walker. In a well-played 118-113 victory over Loyola in Los Angeles a year ago, Hill got 27 points and 22 rebounds and Walker, who now comes off the bench, recorded 27 points and 11 assists.

The St. Joseph’s game marks a return to his alma mater for Loyola Coach Paul Westhead and a homecoming for Philly natives Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble and John O’Connell. The Hawks would appear to provide the least competition of the trip at 1-5 going into the weekend. St. Joe’s top player is sophomore forward Craig Amos, averaging 19.6 points.

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LaSalle, 7-0 and coming off a championship in the Sugar Bowl Tournament, provides a Top 20 opponent, a televised matchup (ESPN, 5 p.m. PST) and one of the nation’s top players in All-American forward Lionel Simmons.

The Lions have hovered in the shadows of the Top 25 all season (they were rated 29th this week in USA Today), owning a victory over Oregon State in Corvallis and having nearly played even with Nevada Las Vegas and Oklahoma in their two losses. But Westhead says moral victories are no longer satisfying for the Lions. “Close is not good enough when you play so hard and work so hard,” he said after the Oklahoma game.

Should the Lions go at least 2-1 on the trip--especially should it knock off LaSalle on national TV--they would be knocking on the door of the Top 20 going into the start of West Coast Conference play, where the competition will drop off noticeably.

The LaSalle game also is a homecoming of sorts for Westhead, who made his reputation as a coach at LaSalle in the 1970s, when he led the Explorers to two NCAA berths and several Top 10 rankings before joining the Lakers as an assistant coach in 1979.

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Kimble and Gathers are contemporaries of Simmons and have played with and against him since high school, when all were Philadelphia prep stars. The Explorers’ standout point guard, Doug Overton, was a high school teammate of the Loyola pair at Dobbins Tech.

All of which means there will be no brotherly love lost when the Lions try to replace their hosts in the rankings.


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