It has been oft observed in posts on this page that the WCC is a sort of sideshow to the rest of College Basketball. The conference equivalent of a Law and Order episode, it is a place where the up and coming and past their prime have intermingled briefly, rapturously, before disseminating back into the basketball ether.
With its rich history, intense loyalties and intermittent relevance, the WCC is the mid-major’s mid-major. And never is this more glaring than in the conference’s constant struggles with its own identity. After all there is no reason for these programs to be only intermittently relevant. These are some of the wealthiest schools, on some of the prettiest campuses, in some of the best cities on the West Coast. And yet far too often far too many of said programs find themselves playing catch-up to big conference schools and other mid-majors. The aforementioned big conference schools are part of the problem. Many WCC campuses are in close proximity to those of Glamour Programs and they consequently find themselves, rather helplessly, losing players, coaches and fans to places they could never fairly compete with in the first place. Even more damaging, far too often those same small schools decide to mimic the hiring trends and decision making processes of larger programs, operating under the understandable but entirely mistaken premise that big conference schools know what they’re doing. Any fan of Oregon State basketball knows such is not the case.
The exception to this rule is Gonzaga, which, thanks to its incubation in Spokane, was able to develop its own unique culture bereft of outside influences before exploding onto the collective American consciousness with the force and surprise of the Cloverfield Monster. I cannot tell you the number of people who have told me those late-90’s/early 00’s Gonzaga teams helped them win their brackets. Enough people to know most of those people are lying, which is even more fascinating.
But perhaps most fascinating is that 2008 seems to be the year where the WCC finally found itself, where it hit its runners high and became fully aware of its own capabilities. Three teams in the Tournament will do that to a Conference. And while two of those teams never made it out of the first round (Gonzaga losing rather poetically to the team that will become another generation of Bracket fillers Gonzaga in Davidson; St. Mary’s losing rather unpoetically to a beatable Miami squad), the quality of competition in the WCC and the public’s perception of the quality of competition are at all time highs. Proof? In 1999 Don Monson left the Bulldog team he built for the theoretical greener pastures of Minnesota, a decade later his protege Billy Grier dismissed the overtures, chiefly the financial ones, of Oregon State to stay at USD.
And this brings us, in a roundabout way, to Loyola Marymount. After three weeks of thrillingly flirting with the best gainfully unemployed coach in college basketball, LMU announced last week the hiring of…Billy Bayno. Mike Montgomery would have been an unquestioned coup. And the school could have had him if it had fired Rodney Tention a year ago and gone after Monty when the stench of his two Golden State seasons still lingered. However, had they hired him they would have been in no different a position then the one they found themselves in this March, as Montgomery would have certainly left Westchester after one season for Berkeley, the luster of 10 million a tad too much to pass up.
At first glance Bayno feels like a mistake. He hasn’t coached in almost a decade and that coaching stint was marred by disappointment and controversy. But disappointment by UNLV standards is distinctly different than disappointment by LMU standards. If we lose in the first round of the tournament twice, pull over in case of rapture. After all, we’ve been to the tournament all of two times. It is easy to dismiss a retread as a retread, Bayno indeed breaks the trend of hiring up-and-coming Few and Howland and (thank God) Olsen assistants. But it is much harder to dismiss said retread when his coaching mentors are Larry Brown and John Calipari and his coached alumni include Keon Clark and Shawn Marion.
Bayno has the opportunity with the Lions to be either fabulously successful or an unmitigated disaster; coaching in the Land of Diminished Expectations will do that to an individual’s career trajectory. Obviously Bayno knows basketball. Kevin Pritchard, himself a well respected hoops mind, invented a position for Bayno on the Portland staff he so respected his acumen, and again it bears repeating that Bayno’s mentors are Larry Brown and John Calipari. But John Calipari has his own recruits, and they ain’t ours. I’m sure Tention understood basketball, that near upset of Gonzaga in the 2006 WCC Tournament would indicate such, but he was never smart enough to understand the recruitment autopilot light from U of A needed to be shut off. I understand the near impossibility an LMU Coach faces when asked to recruit chiefly in a city that is a feeding frenzy for Pac-10 schools. But who said an LMU Coach needed to recruit chiefly in Southern California? Remember that despite being USC transfers, Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble were both from Philadelphia. Is it too far-fetched to believe that the virtues that make Loyola Marymount as a University attractive to out-of-state students are not the same virtues that would make it attractive to out-of-state athletes? Some kid in Houston with the option of playing for SMU or LMU wouldn’t give LMU serious consideration? That Bayno’s two star recruits, Clark and Marion, were both itinerant JuCo kids with Midwest roots should be encouraging to everyone but Father Lawton.
This is a unique moment for Loyola Marymount. The Southern California college basketball revival is in full swing and occurring in tandem with the best, if not most top heavy, era of WCC hoops we’ve seen in a long time. Succeed and the ghosts of Hank’s house are finally exorcised. Fail or frustrate and we’re left to stare in perpetuity at that Kimble dunk on the Sports Illustrated cover. Perhaps there is some fitting synergy that our fates are in the hands of a Coach whose last moments of basketball relevance, like Loyola’s own, were inextricably tied to UNLV.