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 the question, and there are no easy answers.
The final ball is bounced, a PCAA official is called to help unravel the mess, and the tournament pairings are announced. Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine, teams with 9-9 conference records, draw each other. Bill Mulligan, UCI's coach, tries not to wince.
For the third straight season, Mulligan has seen that scenario unfold before his Irish eyes, and it's safe to say he's not smiling. UCI (14-13) will play Fullerton (16-11) tonight at 7 in one of four opening-round games of the PCAA tournament in the Forum. In each of the last two seasons, the Anteaters lost to Fullerton in the tournament opener after losing both regular-season games to the Titans.
Last season, the Anteaters swept their regular-season games against Nevada Las Vegas and finished second behind the Runnin' Rebels. Their reward was a first-round game against the Titans, who beat the Anteaters at home, 78-68, five days earlier. The Titans' 66-58 tournament victory was their sixth straight triumph over Irvine, and Mulligan was left to try to answer the question he had grown tired of being asked: "How come you can't beat Fullerton?"
The circumstance, however, is different this season. Irvine beat Fullerton twice this season, both times without Joe Buchanan, a senior guard whose stomach ailment caused him to be hospitalized and to miss 10 games. Irvine beat Fullerton in Titan Gym, 76-70, on Jan. 15, then won in overtime, 78-69, in the Bren Center on Feb. 14.
Of course, the Titans could counter that they were without Coach George McQuarn--who was bedridden with bronchial pneumonia--in the first game and without Derek Jones--a junior forward who was recovering from a dislocated shoulder--in the second.
The Titans are operating under the theory that it's difficult to beat an opponent three times in a season, although they did it in the last two. They certainly didn't seem unhappy over the tournament draw.
"I've got some big thoughts about that," said Herman Webster, a senior center. "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, saying that too much has been made of the so-called rivalry between the teams.
"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 (17-0, 30-1) vs. Cal State Long Beach (7-11, 12-18), 9 p.m.--The PCAA tournament gives top-ranked UNLV a chance to fine-tune its game before it moves on to bigger and better things. The Runnin' Rebels will be in the NCAA tournament regardless of the outcome over the next three days, and they are the conference's only team that can say that. Long Beach, making its first tournament appearance 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. Also, they learned Monday that Coach Ron Palmer had announced his resignation. Palmer will be on the Long Beach bench tonight for what could be his last game.
UC Santa Barbara (10-7, 15-12,) vs. Utah State (8-10, 15-15), 4 p.m.--Until the final week of the regular season, Santa Barbara looked like it could challenge UNLV. The Gauchos slipped past Utah State, 73-71, on Saturday at Goleta, then lost the regular-season finale, 47-46, to last-place Fresno Monday night. Junior forward Brian Vaughns, the Gauchos' leading scorer and rebounder, suffered a hyperextended knee Monday and is doubtful for the tournament. Utah State won only one conference road game this season.
San Jose State (10-8, 14-13 vs. New Mexico State (9-9, 15-14), 2 p.m.--The Spartans are one of two teams (along with Fullerton) to reach the conference tournament in the 11 years of its existence. New Mexico State advanced to the championship game last season before losing to UNLV, 75-55.