LOS ANGELES -- Life at little Loyola Marymount University, perched on a hillside overlooking the lazy harbor of Marina Del Rey, proceeds with the tanned, relaxed nonchalance of other California campuses, until a visitor looks inside Albert Gersten Pavilion and encounters a scene of electric mayhem.

At a school of only 3,500 students, Paul Westhead, who once coached the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA championship, has fashioned a basketball team averaging more than 108 points a game and signaling a rise in the West of small powers in the ruins of the larger Pacific-10 basketball schools.

Not long ago, the only people who showed up for a Loyola game were parents, girlfriends and the opponent's fans. But, lately, with the Lions leading the nation in points per game, basketball enthusiasts from around the city have waited in ticket lines hoping for a chance to see the team perform its blitz of fast breaks and slam dunks as it defends a 17-game winning streak. At 20-3, Loyola Marymount is one of the few Division I teams already to have 20 victories -- and, for the first time ever, has made the wire service ratings, at No. 20 in both AP and UPI polls.

Under Westhead, the program has attracted national attention for its quick-paced, high-scoring style. It is the only style Westhead, a native of Philadelphia, will coach.

It is what made two former Philadelphian starters at the University of Southern California, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, defect to Loyola.

"This is the kind of game I grew up on," Kimble said. "It's like a playground game. To me, it's the only way to play the game."

The two freshmen from Southern Cal looked for another home court after a dispute with incoming USC Coach George Raveling, putting their scholarships in jeopardy. The refugees from USC were soon joined by another Pac-10 starter, Corey Gaines from UCLA.

Faced with talented recruits who threatened to cut into his playing time, Gaines decided to transfer to a school where he could play out his senior year in a program that fit his running style, even if it meant sitting out a year and paying the private school tuition.

"Everybody can see that this is not as big a name school {as UCLA} but nowadays the small schools are doing well because the players are starting to see that it's not where you go but what you do where you go that counts," Gaines said.

"If Coach Westhead was here at the time I came out {of high school} I probably would have gone here, knowing what I know now."

With these three transfers in the starting lineup, Loyola has not lost.

Meanwhile, as this athletically unheralded school basks in Los Angeles' center court, UCLA and USC, the city's larger, more dominant schools, are having dismal seasons, leading many people to say the West Coast is a barren basketball wasteland.

"Unfortunately, the national image of basketball here is poor because two or three of the big hitters are down, but there's a whole bunch of us who are doing real well like {UC} Santa Barbara, {UC} Irvine, and in the past Fresno State. California is a big state," Westhead said.

"I think it speaks not of the weakness of the bigger schools but of strength and power of basketball on the West Coast," he said.

So far, in the West Coast Athletic Conference, Loyola has been unbeatable. The Lions press almost every inbounds play and take defensive chances by overplaying for a steal. On offense they quickly pass the ball upcourt and try to shoot within the first six or seven seconds of a possession.

In the normally moderate-scoring conference, with coaches known for emphasis on defense, Loyola has allowed opponents to score 92 points a game and shoot 52 percent. But the tiring pace eventually wears the opponent down and Loyola has been winning by an average margin of 16.5 points a game.

"We try to get steals, so of course we take gambles and risks on defense and they get a few easy buckets, but they pay for it in the long run by staying with our pace," Gaines said.

Asked how his team would fare against the nationally higher-rated teams, Westhead said, "We'd score in the hundreds and they'd be tired. Whether we would win or not, who knows? But those two things are guaranteed."

In his third year at Loyola, Westhead finds the lure of coaching in the NBA not as important as it once was. "Happiness is when your scheme is working and the players have bought into it," he said.

"Coaches are in it for the thrill of the game . . . so whether you're sitting at the beach because you're an NBA coach waiting for the next game or you're in a high school gym recruiting before the next game, that becomes irrelevant.

"This team has good quality and excellent commitment to the scheme. They really believe that this running system is invincible," he said.

Indeed, the players and students of Loyola Marymount walk around campus with the proud conviction that "the system" is unbeatable.

"I definitely think we are one of the best teams on the West Coast, if not in the nation," Gathers said. "I think we can run with anybody."

Westhead realizes he has critics who, despite his current success, say his system is too one-dimensional because it does not prepare the team for other game situations. He agrees.

"It's true, it only works if you buy the whole system," he said. "Without buying in like that, it becomes very mediocre." But as long as his players buy it, he's sold that it's the best system around.

"I decided," Westhead said, "not to follow the advice of Ben Franklin, another Philadelphian, who said, 'Don't put all thy eggs in one basket.' Instead, I'm following the advice of Mark Twain, who said, 'Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket.' "