Injuires derailed LMU's season last year and the team finished last in the WCC. But a return to full strength could see a much-improved Lions' team.
If you're like me, you're already getting desperate for basketball. We've already missed a week of NBA games, and Grand Moff Stern's latest ultimatum ("Accept the deal by Wednesday or I will
destroy Alderaan reduce your share of BRI and roll back salaries") doesn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling that there will be basketball in Staples Center any time soon. So what's a Southern California hoops junkie to do?
One obvious alternative is the college game, which gets underway in earnest this week. The high profile teams are of course the Pac-12 schools, UCLA and USC. But what if you're a contrarian? What if you're a Clippers fan in a sea of Lakers' purple? Or maybe you just don't want to drive downtown to watch the Bruins at the Sports Arena (while Pauley Pavilion is being renovated) or the Trojans at Galen Center?
In that case you might consider the Loyola Marymount Lions.
Admittedly, we're over 20 years removed from the last time LMU won the West Coast Conference or played in the NCAA tournament, when Bo Kimble led the run and gun Lions to the Elite Eight in the aftermath of Hank Gathers' tragic death. Still, there could be some decent basketball happening in Westchester this year.
LMU appeared to be on the right track two seasons ago. During head coach Max Good's first full season with the team, they posted their first winning record (18-16) in six seasons, and only their second since 1992. They also managed a 7-7 conference record to finish tied for fourth. Along the way, they recorded wins over the likes of USC and Notre Dame. This was all the more encouraging considering that (a) the season before the Lions had managed just two conference wins and just three overall and (b) the team was young and figured to be improving.
Hopes were understandably high last season, but something went horribly wrong - they dropped back to last place in the conference with a dismal 2-12 conference record. But there may yet be reason for optimism. For one thing, the team was wracked with injuries last season, forcing Coach Good to use 15 different starting lineups. And on closer inspection, LMU was reasonably competitive in league despite their record - half of their losses were by three points or fewer or came in overtime, games in which they were 0-6 in conference. Get healthy, catch a couple breaks, win some close games, who knows?
Injury-riddled seasons like the one the Lions just suffered can have a silver lining. If other players can rise to the challenge of more minutes, the team can benefit greatly moving forward when the roster returns to full health. In LMU's case, three freshman were thrown into starting roles last season and responded well: forward Godwin Okonji (4.9 points and 5.3 rebounds) and guards Anthony Ireland (10.6 points, three assists) and Ayodeji Egbeyemi (5.5 points, 3.1 rebounds) all received invaluable game experience last season and should be much better for it this year as sophomores. The Lions also get back senior guard Jarred Dubois, who averaged 12.3 points per game two seasons ago, but was lost to an ankle injury after just six games last year. In all, the Lions have ten rotation players back this season.
But if injuries derailed last season, this one is already off to an inauspicious start. Senior forward Drew Viney, the team's leading scorer and rebounder the last two seasons, an All Conference selection each of those seasons and a member of the WCC's pre-season All Conference team this year, is currently sidelined after off-season foot surgery. He may be back as soon as early December, but the Lions need him to be at full-strength in order to compete, especially now that BYU has joined the WCC to make it arguably the best conference outside of the Majors. Viney has averaged nearly 17 points and seven rebounds over his LMU career after transferring from Oregon and he can't get back on the court fast enough for the team's chances.
Things get started this Friday as LMU faces UCLA at the Sports Arena in the regular season opener for both teams (without Viney, unfortunately). So it won't be long before we get a feel for whether this LMU squad is the logical successor of the 18 win 2009-2010 Lions, or the 11-win 2010-2011 team.
If you're jonesing for some basketball, consider a trip to the cozy confines of Gersten Pavilion in Westchester this year. Against conference foes like Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary's, you know that the quality of the opposition will be high. With a little health and a little luck, LMU could be right there with them.