Jacko photo

Something old, something new

Saint Mary’s College, the WCC’s stay-at-home champs for 2015-16, take flight this weekend (Thursday-Saturday) for their first road trip of the season (no, a bus trip down I-680 to Santa Clara or a jaunt through the Caldecott Tunnel to Berkeley don’t count).

This will involve an airplane ride, a hotel stay and food from a source other than Oliver Hall. Traumatic for the young Gaels? I don’t think so, mostly because of the caliber of competition awaiting in Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.

Loyola, competing under the hand of Mike Dunlap for the second year, and Pepperdine, guided by Marty Wilson, just don’t scare anybody.

The Lions of Loyola stumbled through an 8-23 season last year as Dunlap rolled in and pronounced almost all that had been there before him  unacceptable. Even the excellent Evan Payne, who seemed likely to surpass Anthony Ireland as one of LMU’s all-time great guards, didn’t meet Dunlap’s standards. He was first benched, then transferred.

Dunlap was given a pass for that first year, as he had a charter to get his own team in place before any judgments were rendered. With eight new players coming in and a redshirt becoming eligible, now is the time for Dunlap to prove himself. Standing at 7-7 overall and 0-3 in WCC play, the results have been mixed, to be charitable.

Dunlap has assembled a group of foreigners (Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Egypt), JC transfers (7) and new recruits (3) to try and change a culture that seems frozen in 1990 and the wondrous run of Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers. So far they haven’t beaten anybody of note, and it’s not clear Dunlap will prove more successful than the beleaguered Max Good or a host of previous LMU coaches.

Of the new faces, three players show promise: 6-8 forward Adom (pronounced “autumn”) Jacko, 5-11 point guard Brandon Brown and 6-6 swing man Steven Haney. Jacko is making a case for Newcomer of the Year with averages of 14.2 PPG and 6.4 RPG. He is the kind of rugged paint presence that a good program needs, and the Lion faithful are rooting for him to succeed as league play continues.

Another need for a rebuilding team is a solid point guard, and the  Lions seem to have found one in Brandon Brown, who was a juco all-American at Phoenix College in Laveen, AZ. It also doesn’t hurt to have a knockdown jump-shooter, and redshirt sophomore Steven Haney, a JC transfer from Central Florida, is pegged to fill that role.

In the photo above, courtesy of the Loyola Marymount Athletic Department, LMU power forward Adom Jacko stuffs against Oregon State back in December.

That’s a good foundation, and LMU was having some success, winning six out of eight before the WCC season kicked off. There followed a disastrous trip to Gonzaga and Portland, both blowout losses, and a short ride down the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu, where Pepperdine defeated them in overtime 68-65.

In its favor awaiting the Gaels’ arrival is the fact LMU has played only two home games since late November. Settling back in to Gersten Pavilion might revive the Lions’ early-season optimism. Then again, Saint Mary’s has won nine straight times on that same floor.

What’s up with the Waves?

Pepperdine was something of a media darling before the season began, boasting a squad returning intact from an 18-13 record and fourth-place WCC finish. That fact, compared with Saint Mary’s having graduated its entire starting five and having no players anyone could recognize, prompted WCC coaches and several pundits to elevate the Waves over the Gaels in pre-season predictions.

It hasn’t happened, as the Waves joined LMU in ignominy on the Gonzaga-Portland trip and barely scraped by the Lions at home last week. Pepperdine stands at 8-6, 1-2 in conference, and ponders many questions. The most pressing is how to restore its stellar guard play behind last year’s triumvirate of Jeremy Major, Amadi Udenyi and Shawn Olden.

Major is back better than ever, but Udenyi is proving slow to recover from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered near the end of last season (3.4 PPG on 21 minutes per game). Even worse, Olden, who averaged an excellent 9 PPG in earning all-freshman WCC honors, has shut it down for this season to undergo surgery on a banged-up ankle. Suddenly the back court is a problem instead of a strength for the Waves.

That puts Pepperdine’s strength right back where it’s been for the last three years, in the hands of all-everything forward Stacy Davis. Davis, the undersized but never over-matched power forward, is on a pace to become Pepperdine’s all-time leading scorer. Aided by the cagey Jett Raines, the elusive Lamond Murray Jr. and outstanding freshman Kameron Edwards, Davis can still wreak some havoc in the WCC.

The Gaels at 13-1 (4-0 in the WCC), are starting to attract some national attention. Stanford’s victory over then-no.21 Utah last week prompted some observers to posit that the Gaels’ 17-point domination of the Cardinal back in November might have been worth something after all.

In addition, Saint Mary’s leads the nation (not just the WCC) in three offensive categories — assist-to-turnover ratio, field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage — and is in the top 16 in 11 others. As the college season nears its halfway point, those numbers are beginning to look pretty impressive.

In a season of clearing hurdles, winning on the road is one item on the checklist that the Gaels have yet to strike off. A strong weekend in southern California would do much to rectify that situation.

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