BILLINGS, Mont. — A comparison can be suggested between the Cal State Northridge men's basketball team earning an invitation to the NCAA Division II West Regional and a person receiving a packet of junk mail.
"You can win one of these three terrific prizes," the junk letter says, " but to qualify you must . . . "
Or, in Northridge's case: "Congratulations on winning the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship. You can now qualify for the NCAA Division II championship tournament . . . but first you have to travel to Billings, Mont."
That's kind of like finding out the private island you just won sits in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle.
Certainly no one from Northridge can complain too loudly, however. After all, the Matadors were picked in the preseason to place seventh in the eight-team CCAA.
They should be happy just to be here, and they are. But . . .
"We're happy to be in the regionals, but not so happy they're in Billings," said CSUN basketball Coach Pete Cassidy while sitting comfortably in his office early this week. "Don't get me wrong, I love the people from Billings. To me, they should be considered American heroes just living in weather like that. They're beautiful, and so is the city . . . in June."
Cassidy spoke just after making a call to Billings. It was 4 degrees here at the time.
"I'm worried about the drastic change in climate," Cassidy said. "The game, of course, is played inside, but anytime you take people out of their normal routine it can cause problems. The weather is a mental preoccupation. The players will just have to realize that they'll have to deal with it and still be ready to play."
Already the weatherman has granted Cassidy an assist. Temperatures climbed all the way into the 40s Thursday under a sunny sky.
First obstacle aside, the Matadors can now concentrate on beating their regional hosts, Eastern Montana College, today at 4 p.m. (PST). The game will be broadcast live in Los Angeles on campus radio station KCSN-FM (88.5).
Cal State Hayward (19-7) will meet Norfolk State University of Virginia (22-6) in the other regional game today at 2 p.m. The winners of today's games will play Saturday at 4 p.m. for the right to advance to the second round of the Division II championship tournament next weekend. The losing teams end their season after playing for third place at 2 p.m.
Eastern Montana (23-5) is the champion of the Great Northwest Conference, and the Yellowjackets are ranked No. 7 among the nation's Division II schools.
EMC has five players who average scoring in double figures. Guard Jeff Andrade, a former all-Southern Section selection at Ocean View High in Huntington Beach, leads the team with an average of better than 16 points a game. A transfer from the University of Pacific in Stockton, Calif., Andrade has scored more than 1,000 points in his three years at EMC.
Forward J. J. Davis is the Yellowjackets' other top scoring threat. He averages 14 points a game. Forward James Wells, center Kurt Brott, and reserve guard Darryl Roberts each average 10 a game, while point guard Dominic Washington passes off an average of 7.9 assists a game.
Sound impressive? Well, here's the real bad news for Northridge: Eastern Montana is 13-0 at home this season.
"We don't know a lot about any of the teams up there," Cassidy said. "What we do know is that they certainly sound impressive. Montana should be particularly tough at home. They'll have the crowd behind them and they're playing in a familiar place. Should we win, we'll certainly have earned it."
Guard Mike Almeido, the CCAA Player of the Year, leads the Matadors in scoring with an average of 13.1 points a game. He is shooting 57.4% from the field and 85.7% from the free-throw line.
Forward Larry White is the only other Northridge player scoring in double figures (11.6), but the Matadors have four other players averaging 7.9 points per game or better. Top rebounders are center Tom Ruetten and forward Dale Brandsberg at 5.3 a game, while White is at 5.1.
Northridge (19-9) enters the game having won four in a row, 11 of its last 13, and 14 of 17.
"We've played well of late, especially in the last three games," Cassidy said. "What has particularly impressed me is that we've done well against a style of defense that bothered us earlier in the year. Teams with a lot of quickness who pressured us were beating us. Lately though, we've been able to overcome that.
"We've been down early. We've been down late. We've beat teams who play a transition game and teams who slow it down. Maturity-wise, we've come a long way."
Now if they can just get out of Billings . . .
Playoff Notes The winner of the West Regional will meet the winner of the North Central Regional at that school's home court next weekend. Teams in the North Central Regional are South Dakota State, Northern Michigan, Grand Valley and Gannon University of Pennsylvania. . . .
The regionals are being played in the afternoon because of a state high school championship tournament being played at the nearby Yellowstone Metra arena at night. Apparently, tournament officials thought that, faced with a choice, Billings basketball fans would go see the prep tournament instead of the college tourney. . . .
Northridge has never played Eastern Montana or Norfolk State. The Matadors are 4-1 against Cal State Hayward, but lost to the Pioneers in December, 65-57, in overtime. . . .
CSUN has been in the West Regional twice before. In 1978, the Matadors finished second, beating UC Davis before losing to UC San Diego. The following year, CSUN lost in the first round to Puget Sound and then lost to UC San Diego in the third-place game.