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COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1996-97

Big Way Out West : Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Brings Quite a Different Flavor, Style to the Conference

November 21, 1996|LON EUBANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Business seems to be good at the Madonna Inn, just off U.S. 101, where visitors can spend the night in a room that might look like a cave, a jungle safari tent or something out of a sultan's palace.

It's not Caesars Palace, but if you're really interested, Hearst Castle is less than an hour away.

A farmers' market takes over San Luis Obispo's quaint downtown every Thursday night on Higuera Street. The cars are rolling in, and huge grills are loaded with chicken, beef and pork, producing some of the best barbecue this side of Memphis.

On the Cal Poly campus a few miles away, the gymnasium is newly decorated with a bright Big West Conference banner. Separate flags for each member school hang above the floor. The school's 37-year-old basketball coach, Jeff Schneider, has practice going at a fever pitch.

Welcome to life in one corner of the new Big West, the restructured conference about to emerge this season without the glitter of Nevada Las Vegas basketball for the first time since 1983.

Cal Poly is one of the conference's four new teams after UNLV left with the glamour of its 12 NCAA tournament trips, four appearances in the Final Four and 1990 national championship and moved to the Western Athletic Conference along with San Jose State.

The opportunity to play in the Big West is heady stuff here.

Only three years ago, the Mustangs were playing Division II basketball in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. And two years ago, in their first year in Division I, they won only once of 27 games and were outscored by an average of more than 25 points.

But last year, Cal Poly fans started getting a touch of basketball fever, thanks to the arrival of the energetic and gregarious Schneider. Cal Poly went 16-13, the second-best improvement in Division I under a first-year coach.

By the time the season ended, students were camping out to get tickets in 3,500-seat Mott Gym, and more of the same is expected this year.

"Two years ago we had 13 people who had season tickets," Schneider said. "This year we've sold 13 VIP corporate sideline boxes at $5,000 each. We may not have the biggest or the best building, but we want to have the best environment. The crowds will be really important for us. We want to have a Duke-type crowd."

John McCutcheon, in his fifth year as athletic director, remembers how it was in his early days as an assistant at Boston College. "We had a facility there much like ours here when the Big East was still a new conference," McCutcheon said. "But before long, when teams like St. John's and Georgetown came in, we were literally pushing kids back out of the restroom windows. It was exciting. I think we saw the tip of the iceberg here last year."

McCutcheon, however, is realistic about what it takes to turn students into fervent fans. "Students today are pretty sophisticated," he said. "They're not going to come just because their college team is playing. They can watch all kinds of sports events on television. You have to give them a reason to come to games."

Schneider says he's determined to do that.

"We play Rick Pitino-style basketball," Schneider said. "We press the whole game, and we want our players shooting the ball, not passing it."

On Schneider's office wall is a large, framed "3."

"People around here probably thought that stood for my I.Q. for a while," Schneider said, laughing.

Actually, Schneider and a booster came up with the idea of putting the enlarged No. 3 on the back of white T-shirts as a sort of unofficial symbol of the new playing style. A year ago, cheerleaders tossed them into the crowd three at a time whenever the Mustangs made a three-point shot.

Now, Schneider says, when students see him on campus, they'll sometimes throw both hands above their head and shout, "Three!" in the way of a greeting.

"That T-shirt has become the most popular one in San Luis Obispo," Schneider said. "Someone told me the other day they saw someone wearing one on television on the 'Price is Right.' "

Schneider feigns astonishment: "I mean, can you believe that? On the 'The Price is Right.' "

At the Firestone Grill, a downtown restaurant where Schneider likes to eat and talk basketball, a scoreboard is ready to keep a game-by-game count of this year's three-point baskets.

A year ago, the Mustangs launched 696 three-point shots, making 32% of them, and Schneider promises there will be more this year. In an exhibition game last week, Cal Poly put up 53, making 22. Both would have approached NCAA records had it been an official game.

Ben Larson, a sophomore guard from Elkhart, Ind., led the team in three-pointers with 94, but others are certain to be rivals for that honor this season.

Newcomer Rick Kinner made 125 for Western Nebraska Community College, and he'll be the guy wearing the real No. 3 on his back this year. Opponents shouldn't need a scouting report to figure out that one.

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