It's becoming an early March tradition. Six or seven teams enter the last weekend of Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. play jockeying for position in the conference's postseason tournament. Who will play whom is at question, and there are no easy answers. Only endless possibilities.
The regular season is played, somebody at the PCAA office is called to help figure out the mess and the tournament pairings are announced. Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine draw each other. Bill Mulligan, UC Irvine's coach, tries not to wince.
For the third straight season, Mulligan has seen that scenario unfold before his eyes. UC Irvine plays the Titans tonight at 7 in one of four opening-round games of the PCAA tournament at the Forum. The Anteaters have opened the tournament with Fullerton each of the last two seasons, and have been shown the exit to the Forum both times.
Mulligan proudly watched his team sweep its regular-season games against Nevada Las Vegas and finish second behind the Rebels in the PCAA standings last season. His reward was a first-round game against Fullerton, a team that the Anteaters had lost to on their home court, 78-68, just five days before. The Titans' 66-58 victory in the tournament was their sixth straight win over Irvine, and Mulligan was left to try to answer the question he had grown quite tired of being asked: "How come you can't beat Fullerton?"
The circumstances are quite different this time around. The Anteaters beat Fullerton twice this season, both times without senior guard Joe Buchanan, whose mysterious stomach aliment kept him out of 10 games. Irvine beat Fullerton in Titan Gym, 76-70, on Jan. 15, and won in overtime, 78-69, in the Bren Center on Feb. 14.
Of course, the Titans could point out that they were without Coach George McQuarn, bedridden with bronchial pneumonia, in the first game, and without junior forward Derek Jones, who was recovering from a dislocated shoulder, in the second.
"Maybe that's why we beat them," Mulligan said with a trace of sarcasm. "Maybe it was luck."
The Titans are working on the theory that it's hard to beat the same team three times in the same season, although they have disproved that the last two. They certainly didn't seem unhappy when they heard they would get an opportunity to play Irvine again.
"I've got some big thoughts about that," senior center Herman Webster said. "That's exactly what we wanted. It's not like we're out to prove ourselves, but we would like to get some revenge."
Mulligan scoffs at such talk, claiming too much has been made of the so-called rivalry between the Titans and Anteaters.
"Fullerton's not any more important to me than any other game, although some people seem to think it is," he said. "It's important because it's the tournament, and we have a chance to go on, but my whole life doesn't revolve around beating or losing to Fullerton."
Other first-round games:
Nevada Las Vegas (30-1) vs. Cal State Long Beach (12-18), 9 p.m.--For top-ranked UNLV, the PCAA tournament represents a chance to fine-tune its game before moving on to bigger and better things. The Rebels are in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens over the next three days, and they're the only team that can say that. Long Beach, making its first appearence in the tournament since 1984, went from a team of great promise in January to one in extreme disarray in March. The 49ers have lost seven straight and, in the past two weeks, have had two of their best players--guard Morlon Wiley and forward Andre Purry--suspended from the team, and Monday Coach Ron Palmer announced his resignation. Palmer will be on the Long Beach bench tonight for what could be his last game. On Wednesday, Athletic Director John Kasser accepted a job as associate executive director of the College Football Assn.
UC Santa Barbara (15-12) vs. Utah State (15-14), 4 p.m.--Santa Barbara had the look of a team that could challenge UNLV in this tournament, until the final week of the regular season. The Gauchos slipped past Utah State, 73-71, last Saturday at home, then lost their regular-season finale, 47-46, to last-place Fresno State on Monday night. Utah State had only one conference victory on the road this season.
San Jose State (14-13) vs. New Mexico State (15-14), 2 p.m.--The Spartans are one of two teams (along with Fullerton) to reach the conference tournament in all 11 years of its existence. New Mexico State reached the championship game last season, before losing to UNLV, 75-55.