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BIG WEST BASKETBALL / MEN'S TOURNAMENT : This NCAA Berth Is Up for Grabs

March 10, 1994|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — The basketball question of the week in this town might be: Who will represent the Big West in the NCAA tournament?

Or perhaps: it's: Is this parity or parody?

Dennis Farrell, Big West commissioner, says every conference team has a new life going into the tournament. That used to mean they all had an equal opportunity to lose to Nevada Las Vegas. This season, even at home in the Thomas & Mack Center, the Rebels appear to be just another team in a mediocre league.

"Shake 'em up and see what happens," Long Beach State Coach Seth Greenberg said. "The league has been so wacky. Look at all the upsets. Who knows who has an advantage?

"I mean people who thought before the season that San Jose State would have a chance to beat UNLV for a third time in one year are the same people who think I'll be growing hair on my head again."

Even New Mexico State, the conference's closest thing to a dominating team, is vulnerable. The Aggies, 20-7 overall and Big West champions with a 12-6 record, have lost four of the last five and might need to win the tournament to ensure a berth in the NCAA field of 64.

"I don't make those decisions, but that's more than a remote possibility," Aggie Coach Neil McCarthy said.

The games will begin today at 1 p.m. when 10th-seeded UC Irvine meets No. 7 UC Santa Barbara. Eighth-seeded Cal State Fullerton plays No. 9 Nevada at 3. p.m.

On Friday, No. 2 Utah State plays the winner of the Irvine-Santa Barbara game at 1 p.m., and No. 3 Long Beach State meets No. 6 Pacific at 3. No. 1 New Mexico State plays the winner of the Fullerton-Nevada game at 7 and No. 4 San Jose State plays No. 5 UNLV at 9.

Who's favored? Long Beach State, Utah State and San Jose State--who finished in a three-way tie for second with 11-7 records--enter the tournament with momentum.

Long Beach won seven of its last nine games, Utah State seven of eight. And San Jose, the conference's only team with a winning road record (6-3), has won three in a row, including a final weekend of upset victories at Las Vegas and Las Cruces, N.M.

New Mexico State's major problem appears to be free-throw shooting--the Aggies missed 22 of 29 in the second half against San Jose on Saturday.

"We may suspend practice and do nothing but shoot free throws," McCarthy said. Monday.

The Rebels have the talent, and if they starting winning, the home crowd could become a factor.

But really, when coaches say "anybody could win," they actually mean it.

"I think the guys at the top might be pretty concerned with who comes out of (today's) games," said Rod Baker, UC Irvine coach. "Eight, nine and 10 have done pretty well against one and two."

Consider the Big West's bottom four.

UC Santa Barbara swept Long Beach and Utah State and split with New Mexico State; Fullerton beat the Rebels at in Las Vegas. Nevada has victories over defeated UNLV, New Mexico State and Utah State, and last-place Irvine upset New Mexico State and Utah State.

It gets more bizarre. UNLV swept Long Beach. Long Beach swept San Jose State. San Jose swept UNLV. Pacific swept San Jose. And Utah State swept Pacific.

"Some teams have other teams' number," San Jose Coach Stan Morrison said. "I think it has less to do with coaching and more do to with the psychological makeup of players.

"There will be some really intriguing games that will be played."

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