SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- CBS is going to love Loyola.
The network that turned the Winter Olympics into a 16-day soap opera will need two hours to detail the plot twists that got the Greyhounds their first appearance on The Eye this afternoon (approximately 5:20 p.m., Channel 11). That's when Loyola makes its debut in the NCAA tournament against Arizona, the Pacific-10 Conference champion and No. 2 seed in the West Region.
Some oddsmakers have Arizona a 24-point favorite, but the 15th-seeded Greyhounds grew quite comfortable playing the underdog at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. Loyola finished fifth in the MAAC in the regular season, but three disparate groups finally jelled in Albany, N.Y., and gave the NCAA one of its most improbable entries.
"It's unbelievable what we've been through just this season," said Tracy Bergan, a senior point guard who sends hand signals to his deaf family when he isn't directing the Greyhounds. "When you consider the ups and downs of the last couple of years, how we came together, it's amazing."
More than half of the Loyola roster, including two starters and four of the top nine, consists of players who dragged their way through a 2-25 season last year, the worst in the Greyhounds' 82-season history.
It was a bleak situation because the prodigal sons, Bergan and forward Michael Reese, were missing, victims of their own mistakes.
It wasn't until January that both returned, and the mix already had been shaken by the addition of three freshmen. Most important of all, Loyola brought in one more rookie, 43-year-old Skip Prosser.
In his debut as a college head coach, Prosser whipped the Greyhounds into condition early. He's still working on their minds, but the former Xavier assistant in effect crammed into four months what everyone outside the program expected would take two or three years.
Loyola had to win its regular-season finale to clinch the program's first winning record in seven years, but Prosser measured its growth in other ways. "We don't shoot great, we don't pass great and we don't rebound great," he said. "I'm a pretty harsh critic, but I got a lot of calls from coaches around the country, telling me, 'Your guys play hard.' They better, because it's the only way we can be successful."
Prosser, who nine years ago was teaching high school history in Wheeling, W.Va., will quote Emerson one minute and Joni Mitchell the next, but the Greyhounds' motto is trite: Play hard, play together.
Actually, they weren't together until January. Reese, who was suspended in November 1992, didn't academically regain his eligibility until the end of the first semester. Bergan also missed four games due to academic shortcomings.
Bergan also missed a game in December with knee tendinitis. Minus the two fifth-year seniors, Loyola lost by 16 to American, one of the worst teams in the Colonial Athletic Association.
It wasn't until the 13th game, Jan. 22 at Canisius, after junior center David Credle returned from arthroscopic knee surgery, that the Greyhounds' starting five was close to being set.
Without the makeshift lineups of December that sped the maturation of freshmen Darius Johnson, Milton Williams and Julian Tate, the Greyhounds would be in Baltimore. In the MAAC tournament title game against Manhattan, Johnson hit what turned out to be the game-winning three-pointer, and Williams clinched it with two free throws and a steal.
Before taking on the MAAC, the Greyhounds made themselves respectable locally. They went to Maryland on Feb. 19 with a 4-0 record in the state. They beat UMBC, Patriot League champion Navy (without Bergan), Mount St. Mary's and Big South regular-season champion Towson State (without Reese).
It was not that long ago that the Greyhounds lost 12 straight games to state Division I teams. The proposition is different now, with Arizona, and perhaps the best backcourt in the country in Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire, looming.
"Stranger things have happened," Prosser said when asked about beating Arizona. "It's really hard to detach myself from the situation and say, 'Wow, we really did something.' But when I finally get the chance to step back, I'll realize there are probably not a lot of stories like ours."
LOYOLA (17-12) vs. ARIZONA (25-5)
Site: Arco Arena, Sacramento, Calif.
Time: 30 minutes after Virginia-New Mexico ends, approximately p.m.
TV: Channel 11
Regional/seedings: West. Arizona, No. 2; Loyola, No. 15
What Loyola needs to do to win: First, shake off the cobwebs. It's been 11 days since the Greyhounds upset Manhattan in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title game. Coach Skip Prosser knows his team will play hard, but to stay with the Wildcats, the Greyhounds have to shoot the way they did in Albany, N.Y., and find a way to slow Wildcats guards Khalid Reeves (23.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Damon Stoudamire (18.3 ppg, 6.0 apg). Stoudamire appears quicker than Tracy Bergan (17.7 ppg, 5.9 apg), and Bergan must win that matchup.
What Arizona needs to do to win: The Wildcats, ranked ninth in the nation, have to forget their first-round failures of the past two years and remember how they played in February. They were 6-3 in the Pacific-10 Conference at one point, but won 12 of 13 to clinch their seventh conference title in coach Lute Olson's 10 years. Arizona's three guards get most of the attention, but the Wildcats also can take advantage of their size and strength inside with Ray Owes and Joseph Blair.