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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
A year ago, Rodney Tention came to Loyola Marymount with high hopes, tons of credibility built up over eight years as one of Lute Olson's assistant at Arizona, and, most of all, a system.
And though it might have taken awhile for the Lions to figure it out, by the end of last season it had become apparent the system works.
The light went on after LMU slogged to a 3-11 start, and by the end of the season, the Lions were the No. 2 seeded team in the West Coast Conference and battling national power Gonzaga into the final seconds for the league title and a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Chalk one up for the system, which Tention based on the teachings of Olson and then "tweaked" himself. The result is a high-energy style highlighted by a commitment to pushing the ball on offense and relentless intensity on defense, allowing the formerly punchless Lions to raise their scoring average from 67.8 points per game in 2004-05 to 72.6 last season, including 76.6 in conference games -- more than any WCC team except Gonzaga.
"I like to be up-tempo," Tention said. "I want to get up and down. I want to be very solid in the half-court defensively, then I want to create offensive opportunities out of our defense and go. Something I stress to all my guys -- post guys and perimeter guys -- is they have to run. They flat-out have to run the floor."
"I don't want them thinking an awful lot," he said. "We'll set it up in a half-court situation, but we're trying to run on made shots and missed shots. We're not going to extend the defense, we're just going to be very good in the half-court. We're going to get into the passing lanes and not make it easy. I tell those guys there's never one second they can relax on defense.
"If they're guarding the ball, their job is getting a deflection. If they're not guarding the ball, they're up in the passing lane trying to deny the lead pass. There is never a time to relax. And once we get the rebound, now we're going."
Of course, any system is only as good as the players running it, and what really makes the Lions go is perhaps the league's best inside-outside combination.
Senior Matthew Knight is a splendid combination of brute force and finesse. Guard Brandon Worthy, a 6-2 senior, is a take-no-prisoners bulldog who drives to the basket with ferocity and consistently disrupts opponents on defense. Both earned all-conference honors last season.
Together, they have a chance to push the Lions into serious contention for the league title.
"Brandon really flourished in the style I brought in because he's able to cut to the basket and get out in the lanes," Tention said. "He's very strong, very strong in transition. …
With Matty, I've just got to make sure he continues to get better and can be a big-time option within the offense. I think he's going to get double-teamed a lot, especially in the conference because those guys are real familiar with him. He's just got to be patient and keep working like he's been doing."
What Knight (16.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg) has been doing has worked quite well, thank you. Last season the 6-8, 240-pound Australian led the Lions in scoring and led the WCC in rebounding, becoming the first LMU player since Hank Gathers in 1989-90 to average a double-double for the season.
Knight was remarkably consistent, scoring in double figures in every conference game and recording a conference-leading 17 double-doubles, and displayed a wide variety of skills, from a back-to-the-basket power game to a soft face-up jumper to solid post defense. He thrived in Tention's system, often beating his defender down the floor and scoring, one reason he shot better than 50 percent from the field.
The one concern about Knight is that he will be surrounded by inexperience up front, and because of that, he could be forced to move from his natural position of power forward to center.
The only other veteran inside is 6-9 sophomore Marko Deric, another Australian, and the extent of his college experience is the mere five minutes per game he averaged last season, in which he scored a grand total of 17 points. Deric (0.8 ppg, 0.6 rpg) is also more of a forward than a center and would likely stay put -- keeping Knight at center -- if he wins the starting job.
But perhaps more likely is that the starting center will come from a trio of promising freshmen that form the heart of Tention's first true recruiting class at LMU. His hope is that at least one of them can make an impact from the first day of practice and seize the job by mid-November.
"We brought in three freshman big kids and they're going to play," the coach said. "They're going to get their shot early. If it works out that one of those freshmen ends up getting that starting spot, that's what will happen, and if not, Matty will start along with whoever else. I would hope that one of the freshmen will step up and maybe -- if not right at the start of the year, then soon -- earn that starting position at center. I like being a little bigger there."
Which is why even though Tention said none of the freshmen is ahead of the others yet, French-Canadian Max Craig will likely get the longest look, simply because at 7-0, 260, he towers over the others. Craig's game features a smooth jump hook, and Tention said he has the skills to be an effective shot blocker.
At 6-9, Terron Sutton doesn't have the height of Craig, but his skills and potential have his new coach raving.
"He can play above the rim," Tention said. "He can run the floor. He can block shots. He can score on the block. He can face up. It's just now to the point that he has to start doing it consistently every day."
Tention called 6-9 Mason Maynard "probably the most athletic of the three," but at a generously listed 220 pounds, he lacks the bulk to play the inside power game the Lions are looking for. Still, he can shoot and run and get to the boards and will get a chance to bang with the big boys and try to win a job.
"He's got to get physically bigger and stronger," Tention said. "He's undersized right now, weight-wise, but he'll get a chance to get in there and see how it goes."
Last season, the Lions played with three guards, mostly because they had to. This year, they have more options, assuming 6-5 senior Adoyah Evans-Miller (4.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg) is healthy. Back and shoulder injuries have limited him to 10 games the last two seasons, but if he can stay on the court, he'll have a chance to win the starting job at small forward. Miller will have to battle 6-6 freshman Brad Sweezy and last year's starter, 6-2 junior Jon Ziri (5.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg), though Tention would prefer to use the rugged and steady Ziri as a backup at the shooting-guard spot.
That would put him behind Worthy (15.0 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.8 spg), the backcourt's biggest gun. Playing out of position at the point last season, the tough senior nevertheless emerged as a star, ranking third in the conference in assists and steals.
And most telling of all, Worthy went to the free-throw line 197 times, behind only Gonzaga All-American Adam Morrison among WCC players. Not only is that evidence of his hard-charging style, it also gives the 82 percent free-throw shooter plenty of chances to put points on the board.
"He's a kid that really flourished in the style I brought in because he's able to cut to the basket and get out in the lanes," Tention said. "He's very strong, very strong in transition. If I can get him out to the wing, he's really strong and powerful when he comes at you. And he gets to the line. He's not [NBA star] Dwyane Wade, but he plays that style -- rugged, tough, great competitor."
Tention expects to have the luxury of moving Worthy to the wing because his top point guard, 6-2, junior Damian Martin, is back after missing last season with a ruptured
Achilles' tendon suffered while practicing with the Australian national team.
Martin is the classic pass-first point man who complemented Worthy well when they played together two seasons ago, but Tention is pushing him to become more of a scorer.
"I don't want to play four on five, I want to play five on five," Tention said. "I've seen that he's able to shoot the ball. He just didn't shoot the ball for some unknown reason."
Martin will be backed up by 6-1 senior John Montgomery (3.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg), the sort of heady player you'd expect the son of NBA coach Mike Montgomery to be.
Montgomery played a key role last season despite struggling through his recovery from ACL surgery. He's at full strength now, but he'll have to fight off a challenge from talented freshman Shawn Deadwiler, a 6-3 blur who, Tention said, has a chance to rise to the top of the depth chart right away.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Buoyed by their strong finish last season, the Lions appear to be very much a team on the rise, and with Knight and Worthy carrying the load, they have the weaponry to make a lot of noise in the WCC.
The key is the bench, which, given Tention's fast-paced system, will need to hold up its end of the deal. While LMU isn't playing the frenetic, 100-plus-points-per-game style of its storied past, the Lions will run enough to make depth a significant factor.
"I would like to go deep into the bench," Tention said. "We need to run. The way we play, we're going to get a little tired, so I need the next guy to be ready."
The concern is that much of the depth is young and freshmen are being counted on to fill important roles. If they're ready, the Lions will be off and running.
"I told them I don't want them looking over at me wondering what to do," Tention said. "I don't want them saying, 'Coach, what play are we running?' You know what we're running. Just go out and execute it. If we rebound, we're running. If you miss a shot, we're running back in transition defense to get ourselves in a position to go get the ball."
For the most comprehensive previews available on all Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2006-07 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).