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Can LMU rekindle the magic in L.A.?

6/27/2005

Waking the echoes
WCCBrandon Worthy is feeling a bit contagious.

He doesn't have a cough. Or a sore throat. Or a runny nose. He isn't acting lethargic or grumpy. He's not downing spoonfuls of Benadryl like it's water. It's his attitude. He wants it to rub off on those around him.

"A winning one," he says.

Worthy plays basketball at Loyola Marymount and, for the first time in a long time, that means something to others across the small private school campus – the former home of Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers and 122 points per game and a memorable Elite Eight in 1989-1990.

The Lions have a new coach with a notable résumé, offering hope they can again officially join the list of contenders in a rejuvenated West Coast Conference.

The WCC is no longer Gonzaga and the seven dwarfs. It placed three teams in the March postseason, including two NCAA Tournament contestants. It finished No. 7 in the RPI, best in conference history – better than Conference USA, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Atlantic 10 and the WAC and everyone else not defined by the letters BCS. It won 79 non-conference games, also an all-time high.

"The thing is," said new LMU coach Rodney Tention, "we have the potential to be even better."

Tention hopes to do his part, inheriting a last-place program that went 11-17 last season, won just three league games and ranked 193rd or worse nationally in scoring, scoring defense, shooting and field-goal defense. The Lions were pretty much kittens all the way around, which is why five-year coach Steve Aggers was shown the door.

But losing is not something Tention knows much about. He spent the previous eight seasons as an assistant to Arizona coach Lute Olson, recruiting superior talent and helping mold the Wildcats into annually one of the nation's best teams. He was on a coaching staff that lost just 37 games since 2000. During that time, LMU lost 92.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about Arizona was that we got the elite of
the elite players and just rolled the balls out and won," Tention said. "But
we understood that it was important to get better every day. We coached them
hard every day. We walked off the court every day asking, 'Did we get better in
all phases?' That's what I want to bring [to LMU]. That energy. I expect to
win. I understand what it takes to win.

"There is tradition here. They have been good before. I don't think they have
forgotten about it. Things just haven't gone the program's way of late. I'm
not saying we're going to win the conference next season, but we'll be competitive
right away. It all starts this summer. I've told each of the kids to take care
of their business academically, be in the weight room and play. They each have
to do what it takes to get better before practice begins [in October]."

It's not like the WCC is foreign land to him. Tention played three seasons at San Francisco in the mid-1980s and assumes his first Division I head coaching role with the knowledge other coaches in similar circumstances have risen recently in their conference's standings.

There are few, if any, better rebuilding jobs nationally than the one Randy
Bennett has completed at Saint Mary's. The Gaels won 25 games last season and made the NCAAs for just the fourth time in school history. At USF, first-year coach Jessie Evans led the Dons to 17 wins and an NIT berth.

"I actually think [LMU] is in pretty good shape, nowhere near where we were
when taking over our program," Bennett said. "Rodney has some good young
talent coming back and the infrastructure is set up. Rodney is a really good
person and a good recruiter and after working under [Olson], obviously knows
what a good team looks like. I think he's taking over the program at the most
opportune time."

Makes sense. LMU will offer a team loaded with upperclassmen in the fall,
including Worthy. Injuries limited the guard to just 19 games last season,
but he still managed to average 11.8 points, 3.7 assists and 2.0 steals while
shooting 51 percent.

Tention's message – supported by a Final Four appearance and Pac-10 championships – sunk in immediately.

"He brings instant credibility," Worthy said. ""Everyone here is excited
about his background and what that might mean for our program. We're excited
about the style of play he has in mind – up-tempo, run a lot. He's going to
help us emerge from the bottom of the conference into the top couple of
teams."

That attitude is contagious at LMU right now.

Summer indicators
Good sign: It appears as though the WCC will be shown on some of the "Big Monday" telecasts throughout next season – yet another sign the conference is headed for bigger things. Mountain West Conference coaches – whose league is nearing the end of its ESPN contract and will switch to CSTV in 2006 – often complained of the late start time (10 p.m. locally at some of the schools) following Big East and Big 12 games.

"I see this only as a positive," said Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett. "I've always said that when the Big West Conference was on 'Big Monday,' it was a great league. But it has never been the same since. Television drives a lot of things in our business. This is a great opportunity for our conference. It doesn't matter to me what time we start – 9, 10, whenever. Those are all minor details for this kind of television exposure and package."

Red flag: For all teams except Gonzaga. The conference tournament moves to the northwest in 2006 and '07 and will be played at the McCarthey Athletic Center (i.e the new Kennel) on Gonzaga's campus next March. Since 1986, the Zags are 138-43 at home and have won six of the past seven tournament titles. Portland hosts the '07 event.

The Zags will open in or near the top 10 nationally in most preseason polls. Four of five starters return, including honorable mention All-American Adam Morrison. He'll get plenty of help from teammates such as Derek Raivio and J.P. Batista, All-WCC Tournament selections last season.

Worth watching: Expect Saint Mary's senior forward Daniel Kickert to give Morrison a serious challenge for conference Player of the Year honors. The 6-foot-10 Kickert is a two-time all-conference selection and likely would have won the award had the Gaels outlasted Gonzaga for the regular-season title in 2004-05.

In their own words
"I really think the conference has grown to where four or five teams could
have a chance at winning it. It's not just about Gonzaga any more. Last season
might have been a surprise to everyone not in the conference, but this league
has good players and coaches. Look back at the scores from last season. Almost
every game was close."
– San Francisco guard Alan Wiggins

"I think it says a lot about our league if ESPN wants to get involved on a
'Big Monday' basis. We can bring not only competitive teams, but entertaining
ones. We made a statement last season and now need to continue what we started
as a conference. All of us need to strive for excellence."
– Portland guard Darren Cooper

Bracketology
A repeat of last year's two NCAA bid performance? Not in the cards, according to our resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi.

In his early look at the 2006 bracket, Joe has Gonzaga winning the WCC's auto bid (again) and getting a high seed (again). The conference's best hope for two bids? Beat the Zags on their home court in the conference tournament.

Early 2006 Bracketology

Standings/Stats
Last season was about as tough a battle as Gonzaga's had recently, dropping games at St. Mary's and San Francisco and surviving a handful of other tussles. While the Zags still have the best talent in the league on paper, the depth of the WCC should put them to the test again this season.


* – NCAA Tournament
# – NIT participant

Think fans staying up for Big Monday games will be disappointed? Not with six players returning who averaged at least 15 points a game last season.

Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ed.graney@uniontrib.com.