Rodney Tention is trying to lead Loyola Marymount back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 17 years.
Nov. 8, 2006
By Josh Herwitt
Josh is CSTV.com's men's basketball editor and writes a weekly national column.
Rodney Tention doesn't like to dwell on numbers, but that's how long it's been since Loyola Marymount booked a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Yet who could forget about the Lions last visit to the Big Dance in 1990.
It was a season that produced two of college basketball's greatest scorers in Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble -- an inseparable tandem born at Dobbins Technical High School in Philadelphia and renewed in Los Angeles, first at USC and then at Loyola.
These two long-time friends quickly turned a small school into a legitimate national power, guiding the Lions to a program-best 26 wins and a third consecutive Western Coast Conference title.
And with coach Paul Westhead's run-and-gun style in place, the Lions set a Division I record with an average of 122.4 points per game while suffering only one loss in conference play.
But even when Gathers suddenly collapsed on the court during the WCC Tournament semifinal and never stood back up, this once-storied program didn't quaver, advancing to the Elite Eight as an 11th seed in the West region.
Things haven't been the same since with LMU spending the last decade in the WCC cellar.
Now on the practice court just days before the Lions' season opener at home against Cal Poly-Pomona, Tention stresses patience to his greatly-improved squad.
After all, Loyola (12-18 overall, 8-6 WCC last season) took its lumps during the first half of last season with a 3-11 start before almost shocking Gonzaga on its home floor in the WCC Tournament final.
Almost doesn't cut it in Tention's book, and his players still realize that they were just a second away from earning a NCAA Tournament bid had Chris Ayer's lay-up gone down as the buzzer sounded.
"We didn't do the little things to close out that game," Tention recalled after leaving practice last week at Gersten Pavilion.
It hasn't been easy getting over the heartbreak, but Tention believes that last year's struggles have his players craving for a shot at redemption.
"There is a sense of urgency on their part," the second-year coach agreed. "They know where they can go now...They didn't know what to expect last year."
But there's a different vibe floating around the Loyola Marymount locker room this season, and you can see it in the way Tention's players conduct themselves on and off the court.
"They talk like they want to win," Tention explained.
It's not just the players that have changed.
After spending eight seasons at Arizona as one of Lute Olson's assistants, Tention is starting to get a feel for his own team.
"Going in last year we didn't know what we had," he said. "Now we have a better idea of what we need to do and how we need to play."
But Tention ultimately knows that his team must go through Gonzaga if it hopes to contend for a WCC championship in March.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few has propelled a once small-time program into the national spotlight since coming to Spokane, and with senior point guard Derek Raivio returning, the Bulldogs (29-4, 14-0 WCC in 2005-06) are once again the favorites to capture a seventh consecutive WCC title.
It might not be as easy for the Zags this year, though.
Few won't be able to lean on All-American Adam Morrison or J.P. Batista to carry the offense and step up in late-game situations.
On the other hand, Loyola returns a veteran lineup that features three starters from last season's team, but Tention understands that his team will only go as far as senior Brandon Worthy can take them.
"As he goes, we're gonna go," Tention claimed. "He wants to go and win a conference championship, and he's going to do what it takes."
The 6-foot-2, 205 pound shooting guard from San Jose, Calif., may not be a true threat from the perimeter, but his ability to get out in transition and create off the dribble have coined him as one of the WCC's premier players this season.
"Every team finds its own identity," said Worthy, who averaged 15 points per game and ranked third in the conference in assists and steals last season.
"We have to find ours."
LMU's scoring production won't solely rest on the shoulders of Worthy.
The first-team All-WCC selection has a seasoned and skilled big man in Matthew Knight, who can battle with some of the country's best down in the post.
And he certainly proved that last season after leading the Lions in scoring (16.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.0 rpg).
"He draws double-teams and opens up a lot for the guards," Worthy said of his teammate. "He just makes everything easier."
At 6-8, 240 pounds, the Australian native has the size to bang down low, but Knight also possesses soft touch around the basket and can step out from 15 feet and knock down an open jumper.
"We're ready to take some teams by surprise," the senior forward said. "Not many teams respected us last season."
With possibly the league's best inside-outside combination, it's no secret that Tention will be looking at Worthy and Knight to score each trip down the floor.
"Obviously they're going to be go-to guys," Tention said. "They've earned that respect, and I think that their teammates understand that...But they don't need to try to do too much."
Finding a consistent third scorer could be the only question mark remaining for Tention.
Junior Damian Martin takes over the point after sitting out last season with a torn Achilles tendon and has the potential to make shots from the outside, while junior John Ziri also brings intensity to a three-guard starting lineup that will be expected to force turnovers in half-court sets and run the floor for 40 minutes.
Derick Grubb, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Pepperdine, might be the Lions' biggest acquisition in the off-season with his experience at the center position.
"Those first couple weeks I felt a little out of place," Grubb said about his cross-town move to Loyola. "It's home now...We just want to win."
The expectations are certainly there. Now it's just a matter of Tention's players living up to them.
"We feel like we're an NCAA tournament team," Worthy said. "We should have been there last year, and this year we're going to make it happen."