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COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1996-97 | BIG WEST CONFERENCE PREVIEW

Change Remains Only Constant for 12 in Reconfigured League

November 21, 1996|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No stranger to change, the Big West Conference underwent yet another major face lift after the final buzzer sounded last season.

Gone is conference bully/icon Nevada Las Vegas, which left for the brighter lights--i.e., better competition, exposure, money--of the Western Athletic Conference. UNLV kept the neighborhood in line and in the national spotlight.

San Jose State joined the Rebels on the fastbreak to the WAC, but not before grabbing the Big West tournament title on its way out. This from the team seeded last in a six-team field.

With the Spartans' tournament championship also came the Big West's automatic NCAA tournament berth, meaning a sub.-500 team carried the conference flag. And Long Beach State, the conference regular-season champion, is still waiting for a call from the National Invitation Tournament selection committee.

Via expansion, Boise State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Idaho and North Texas enter the mix. Only Long Beach State, Pacific and UC Santa Barbara remain from the conference's charter group of seven in 1969.

The conference now features two divisions, Western and Eastern, and the top four teams in each qualify for the Big West tournament.

A look at the teams in the Big West other than Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Irvine:

WESTERN DIVISION

Fullerton, Long Beach and Irvine are in this division.

CAL POLY SAN LUIS OBISPO

* 1995-96 record: 16-13 overall, 5-1 in American West.

* Conference finish: first.

The Mustangs like the pace quick, and they pulled it off last season because of their solid backcourt. Point guard Ben Larson starred as a freshman, and Shanta Cotright and Colin Bryant are good shooters and scorers.

Cal Poly spent its first two Division I seasons in the now-defunct American West, and although some growing pains will probably accompany its move up, there seems to be enough talent for a respectable season.

PACIFIC

* 1995-96 record: 15-12, 11-7.

* Conference finish: tied, second.

Nothing causes Big West coaches more fear than watching guard Adam Jacobsen shoot uncontested three-point baskets. And center Michael Olowokandi may be the Big West's best pro prospect.

If Long Beach State slips, the division title banner might wind up in Stockton.

UC SANTA BARBARA

* 1995-96 record: 11-15, 8-10.

* Conference finish: tied, seventh.

Forward Kealon Wallace, expected to be out two more weeks because of a broken bone in his left hand, had 10 double-figure games in scoring and rebounding last season.

Coach Jerry Pimm led the Gauchos to five postseason appearances--including two in the NCAA tournament--in six seasons from 1988 to '93. After two sub-.500 seasons, Pimm's team could return to prominence.

EASTERN DIVISION

BOISE STATE

* 1995-96 record: 15-13, 10-4 in Big Sky.

* Conference finish: tied, second.

With four starters and eight lettermen back, the Broncos certainly are experienced.

Guard Joe Wyatt, who averaged 11.6 points, is the best of the holdovers. Guard Roberto Bergersen and forward Kejuan Woods are newcomers.

IDAHO

* 1995-96 record: 12-16, 5-9 in Big Sky.

* Conference finish: sixth.

Coach Kermit Davis begins his second stint in Moscow, Idaho, in a new conference, and he has some talent to work with. His guards will keep things exciting.

Reggie Rose finishes well on drives to the basket, although he often plays out of control. Eddie Turner has a nice shooting touch.

NEVADA

* 1995-96 record: 16-13, 9-9.

* Conference finish: tied, fifth.

Faron "Meatball" Hand is back, meaning the Wolf Pack's front line starts as one of the conference's best. Injuries forced the burly forward to redshirt last season.

Jimmy Carroll, a swingman, is eligible after transferring from Utah. David Morgan knows how to rebound.

NORTH TEXAS

* 1995-96 record: 15-13, 12-6 in Southland.

* Conference finish: tied, second.

Four starters return, and the front line has size and depth. Center Sean Riley and forward David Miller took big steps forward last season.

The Eagles might have enough to sneak into the Big West tournament.

NEW MEXICO STATE

* 1995-96 records: 11-15, 8-10.

* Conference finish: tied, seventh.

Enoch Davis is one of the conference's best scorers, averaging 15.8 points last season. Tobias Lampkin showed major improvement at guard last season and forward Charles Gosa was the conference's top freshman. Point guard Antoine Hubbard and forward Louis Richardson are promising transfers. The Aggies, who are on three-year NCAA probation, should rebound from their first losing season in 11 years.

UTAH STATE

* 1995-96 record: 18-15, 10-8.

* Conference finish: fourth.

Guards Justin Jones and Duane Rogers emerged as the most reliable players from last season's team. Their late-season improvement helped Utah State win five of its last seven games. They should be even better this time around and will be joined by junior college All-American guard Marcus Saxson. Along the front line, big things are expected from 6-8 senior Antwan Smith.

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