Through all the preseason hype, through a five-game winning streak and subsequent four-game losing streak, through blowouts and being blown out, Hank Egan, like a true Torero, has stood his ground and waved a proverbial cape.
There had been early claims that this University of San Diego basketball team would be Egan’s best, and that it would be the class of the West Coast Conference and the favorite to run away with the championship.
Recently, the claims have been toned down somewhat. A four-game losing streak will do that. And there have even been some rumors about dissension.
“What’s wrong with the Toreros?”
“We have a chance ,” Egan has said all along. “We have a chance to be very good, but we have to play hard every night. We’re not the kind of team that can come out and win when we don’t play well. We have to play well in order to win.”
That chance, after a 7-5 record proved Egan prophetic and tested his patience, begins at 8 tonight as USD opens its WCC season at Santa Clara.
USD, at times, has played hard and looked unbeatable. At other times, it has been lethargic and looked unimposing.
So the WCC title may still be the Toreros for the taking, since there isn’t a dominating team among the other seven schools as there has been in the past. But it doesn’t appear to be the sure thing many thought it would be in October.
“I think the top four teams, in any order, are still San Diego, Pep (Pepperdine), Loyola and Santa Clara,” said Gonzaga Coach Dan Fitzgerald, whose 9-3 Bulldogs have had the most success in nonconference games. “Any one of those four could win it, but I still like Egan’s team. They’ve got depth and experience. They may be lacking size, but they’re a more physical ball club than (most).”
It has been seven years since a team last won the WCC regular-season championship with as many as three conference losses. That team was USD (9-3 in 1983-84). Since then, only one team has won the conference with as many as two losses--St. Mary’s in 1988-89.
Most coaches, at this point anyway, believe that a team with three or even four losses will win the title in this year of apparent parity. It may also be a case of not who wins the title, but who survives long enough to claim it.
“If a team can win half its games on the road this year, they still might be in the hunt,” Portland Coach Larry Steele said.
“It’s going to be balanced,” Pepperdine Coach Tom Asbury said. “I suspect there’s going to some games that will appear to be upsets until the league shakes itself out, and we find out who’s got what.”
And to that end:
Gonzaga had its first losing season under nine-year Coach Dan Fitzgerald last year, going 8-20. But the Bulldogs already are 9-3 this season, best in the conference.
Why isn’t Gonzaga mentioned as a contender?
“I don’t think we’re that good,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re just taking care of business. I don’t think we’ve really upset anyone, but we’ve beaten a few teams that are a little bit better than us.”
Newcomers Jarrod Davis (18.3 points per game) and Eric Brady (12.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game) have helped. USD defeated Gonzaga twice last year after losing six of the previous seven meetings.
Gonzaga has one more game before opening WCC play next week. That game is at Oregon State. The WCC is 0-8 vs. Pacific 10 teams this season.
Asked why he scheduled the game so close to the league opener, Fitzgerald said, “That was the athletic director saying we needed the money.”
Fitzgerald is also Gonzaga’s AD.
Loyola has four new starters and a new coach and has played one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Consequently, the Lions are 5-8, and people still aren’t sure just how good they are. They still run it up, but opponents have done it better. Loyola has been outscored by an average of 122-110 and outshot 55%-46%.
“Loyola’s schedule would have gotten all of us,” Gonzaga’s Fitzgerald said.
Injuries have also been a concern for Coach Jay Hillock, who took over when Paul Westhead left to coach the Denver Nuggets. About the only regular playing at full strength throughout the year has been Terrell Lowery, averaging 29.6 points per game.
USD has lost six in a row to Loyola, but the last two have been close games.
Pepperdine (6-7) will have lost three in a row--a first for second-year coach Tom Asbury--and five of six when it opens at home Friday against USD. But the losses have come against UCLA, Arizona, Kansas, Temple and Boise State.
“We’re not winning any games, but I think we’re getting a little better,” Asbury said. “I think our schedule will be an advantage down the road.”
Geoff Lear, the only returning all-conference selection in the WCC, is averaging 16 points per game, and teammate Doug Christie 17. Last year, they tied for the WCC lead in blocked shots with 34, Christie becoming the first guard in the history of the conference to do so.
USD has lost five in a row and seven of eight to Pepperdine.
Portland, long overdue for some good luck, has had none this year. The Pilots (1-10) have lost eight games this year by fewer than eight points each.
“We’ve had about four or five games that incredible things have happened,” Coach Larry Steele said, “and we’ve come up short.”
In addition to the losses on the court, Portland has lost four players for the season and two of its top three players for the time being because of injuries.
Senior forward David Roth, averaging 18 points and shooting 50% from three-point range, has missed the last two games and is out for another two weeks with an ankle sprain. Senior guard Ron Deaton is out indefinitely with back spasms.
Steele can certainly sympathize with the injured. He underwent arthroscopic heart surgery, a new procedure, last April to correct an irregular heartbeat.
St. Mary’s David Fehte will have had about 48 hours to acclimate himself to his first head coaching job before taking on San Francisco tonight in both teams’ WCC openers.
Fehte, in his first year as an assistant in Moraga, was named to replace Paul Landreaux Thursday night after Landreaux and Athletic Director Rick Mazzuto decided the program would be better off in someone else’s hands. Landreaux already had announced his intention to step down when the season ended, but he was expected to finish out the season.
Fehte inherits a 4-9 team with three returnees from last year’s 7-20 team.
The only players to have started every game are Eric Bamberger, who is averaging 15.2 points per game, and Allen Caveness, who is second in the WCC with 6.4 assists per game. With the left-handed Caveness at point guard, the Gaels have had a southpaw running the floor six years in a row.
San Francisco (7-6) is another team relying on a number of new players. Ten players, including six newcomers, are averaging more than 10 minutes per game.
“We’ve been trying to find some right combinations with so many new kids,” Coach Jim Brovelli said.
One of those newcomers is Mike Brovelli, the coach’s son.
“It’s really been fun (coaching him),” Brovelli said. “I think it would be difficult to coach your son if he was a superstar. But Mike’s not that type of player. Mike knows his role and fits in well.”
Brovelli, a former USD coach, picked the Toreros to win the conference, but said he believes the USF will be a factor. San Francisco was the only team other than Loyola and Pepperdine to beat USD last year.
While most of the talk about Santa Clara has revolved around 7-1 giant Ron Reis, 6-7 forward Rhea Taylor has emerged as one of the top performers in the conference.
Taylor is third in the WCC in scoring (19.1 average) and seventh in rebounding (6.9) and Reis is averaging 15.5 points and leading the WCC in rebounding at 11.6.
Together, they have led Santa Clara, a team with no seniors, to a 9-5 nonconference mark, second in the WCC.
“We thought we’d be improved this year,” Coach Carroll Williams said, “and we are.”