Loyola Marymount basketball on rise under former UNLV coach

It was the second weekend in November, and as the 2011-12 basketball season was about to start, few were giving Loyola Marymount a chance to be particularly good in the West Coast Conference.

To many of their fans, the Lions had underachieved last year, going 11-21. They figured they would be disappointed again.

But LMU coach Max Good knew better.

His team had just scrimmaged UNLV on Nov. 5 and competed well in an 80-72 loss. On the bus ride back to Los Angeles from Las Vegas, Good sensed that the Lions, who were picked to finish sixth in the WCC preseason poll, might have a chance to silence their critics.

"I liked the way we competed" against UNLV, Good said Thursday after the Lions practiced at Cox Pavilion. "We weren't intimidated, and, to me, those were two positive signs."

Turns out he was right.

Fast-forward to today. LMU brings a 19-11 record -- its most wins since 1989-90 -- and a fourth-place conference regular-season finish of 11-5 into today's 6 p.m. WCC tournament quarterfinal game against No. 5 San Francisco at Orleans Arena. The fourth-seeded Lions, who have won seven of their past nine games, have posted victories at UCLA, Brigham Young and Saint Mary's and beaten then-nationally ranked Saint Louis at Gersten Pavilion.

"We have good kids," said the 70-year-old Good, a former UNLV assistant coach who served as Rebels interim head coach for 22 games in 2000-01. "They're smart, hard-working and are willing to learn."

Good, who is under contract through 2014 but was under fire a year ago by fans and boosters, was named the WCC's Coach of the Year on Monday. Two of his starters, Drew Viney and Anthony Ireland, were All-WCC first-team selections.

"The players get all the credit," Good said, downplaying the honor he received. "They've very coachable. They're very conscientious. They knew we had to get better defensively for us to have a chance to be successful, and they've done that.

"We're a pretty versatile team. We can play slow or fast. We defend well. We make our free throws, and we've done a good job of limiting our turnovers."

Loyola Marymount leads the conference in defensive 3-point percentage, allowing opponents to make 29 percent of their tries. The Lions also lead the league in free-throw percentage, hitting 73.5 percent. At plus-1.3, LMU is third in the WCC in turnover margin.

Statistics aside, the main reason Loyola Marymount has bounced back this season has been the play of Ireland, a 5-foot-10-inch sophomore point guard from Waterbury, Conn. He has competed with the kind of toughness Good has loved to coach during his 43-year career. He has raised the play of his teammates, and he knows what Good wants from him in terms of leadership and accountability.

"I expect a lot of myself," said Ireland, who leads the team in scoring (15.5 points) and assists (4.8). "But we felt like we had the potential to make some noise in the conference.

"We were riding home on the bus after we scrimmaged (UNLV), and I saw we had the talent to compete. I thought about how I could make us better, and I've been aggressive all year."

Good said Ireland's ability to lead and get his teammates to trust him has helped turn things around.

"He controls tempo and the pace of a game really well," Good said. "And he's just a really tough kid."

Like every player who comes into contact with Good, Ireland knew he wasn't going to be coddled.

"I thought he was crazy at first," Ireland said.

But Good has not been as verbally tough on this team as his previous squads. For one, this group responds better to less profanity. For another, LMU officials asked Good before the season to tone it down. He's still the same demanding person he always has been, but he's doing it with fewer expletives.

"Coachability and toughness are skills," Good said. "We've got a lot of both with this group."

Enough to perhaps make a run at their first WCC title game since 2006. A win over San Francisco would put Loyola Marymount in Saturday's semifinals against Saint Mary's, a team it split with this season. Beat the top-seeded Gaels, and LMU will get a shot Monday night to cut down the nets and earn the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, a place the Lions last visited in 1990.

The players believe they can stay the weekend and earn their place in the title game.

"Everything's clicking right now," Ireland said. "It's all positive vibes, and we've got both feet in. If we're not playing Monday, we feel like we'll have let everyone down."

■ No. 6 San Diego 76, No. 7 Pepperdine 54 -- Freshman guard Johnny Dee scored a career-high 30 points as the Toreros advanced to face third-seeded Brigham Young in a quarterfinal at 8 p.m. today.

Dee, who totaled six 3-pointers, was 4 of 5 from beyond the arc in the first half as San Diego (13-17) built a 27-10 lead.

But the Waves (10-19) stormed back with an 11-2 run to start the second half to pull within 35-33. Then Dee reeled off San Diego's next 12 points as the Toreros pushed their lead to 51-39. USD led by as many as 24 points, with 4:20 left.

Ken Rancifer scored 12 points for the Toreros. Corbin Moore led Pepperdine with 16 points.

■ No. 5 San Francisco 87, No. 8 Portland 66 -- The Dons used an 18-4 run to close out the final four minutes of the first half and made 11 3-pointers for the game.

Rashad Green and Angelo Caloiaro led San Francisco (19-12) with 19 points apiece. Nemanja Mitrovic led the Pilots (7-24) with 16 points.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at 702-387-2913 or scarp@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.