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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / 1998-99 | BIG WEST CONFERENCE

There Might Not Be a Team That Compares to Cal Poly SLO

November 19, 1998|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Coach Jeff Schneider knows where he is these days--the Big West Conference.

Two years ago, he compared the Mustangs' arena situation--the 3,500-seat Mott Gymnasium--to Duke's.

"We have people camping out for tickets," Schneider said.

A thought: Maybe they were just camping?

Last year, he compared his program to Tulsa's.

"This is like the team Tubby [Smith] had in his third year."

Tulsa was 23-8 in Smith's third season. San Luis Obispo was 14-14 for Schneider, once a Smith assistant, in his third season.

This season, Schneider is making no such comparisons. With five starters back, the Mustangs are the pick to finish first in the Big West Conference's Western Division, which had only one team above .500 last season.

Yes, it's basketball season in the Big West. Where else do you have:

* Ongoing litigation by a coach trying to reclaim his job. Neil McCarthy, former New Mexico State coach, is suing the university and was ordered by the court to undergo a psychiatric examination.

* A coach already talking about being fired--and Long Beach State's Wayne Morgan has one of the conference's most talented rosters.

* A school camping on the doorstep of the Western Athletic Conference headquarters. Nevada is just itching to be asked in.

The only certainty is one Big West team will get an NCAA tournament spot, and more than likely a first-round loss--the conference's lone entrant has been hustled out of the tournament five consecutive years.

Just which team that will be is anyone's guess. After all, last season, Pacific had center Michael Olowokandi, the top pick in the NBA draft, and still couldn't win the conference tournament.

Schneider called his team the favorite moments after last season concluded. The Mustangs have experience, but no team can match Long Beach State's talent, which includes Syracuse transfer Ramel "Rock' Lloyd.

Meanwhile, Idaho has potentially the conference's best backcourt in Avery Curry and Gordon Scott, New Mexico State has four players who transferred from Northeastern Illinois, which dropped its athletic program, and Nevada Coach Pat Foster spent his summer vacation in Greece (Dimitrios Marmarinos, 6 feet 9), Brazil (Joao Santos, 6-9) and Canada (Marlon Miller, 6-9).

A look at the teams by division and in alphabetical order, excluding Western Division teams Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Irvine:

WESTERN DIVISION CAL POLY SLO

Coach: Jeff Schneider.

1997-98: 14-14, 7-9, second in the division.

Returning starters: Five.

Top players: Mike Wozniak (20.3 points), Chris Bjorklund (17.3 points).

Outlook: It's put-up or shut-up time for Schneider, as the Mustangs are eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time since jumping from Division II. Wozniak, a 6-2 guard, is a skilled shooter and intense competitor, but the Mustangs need a better inside game and a little tighter defense.

PACIFIC

Coach: Bob Thomason.

1997-98: 23-10, 14-2, first in the division, lost to Fresno State, 73-70, in NIT first round.

Returning starters: One.

Top players: Jason Williams (8.7 points), Tim Johnson (6-10 redshirt freshman).

Outlook: The last couple of seasons were fun with Olowokandi around--one NCAA tournament appearance, one NIT appearance. Best to look fondly on those memories for a while.

UC SANTA BARBARA

Coach: Bob Williams.

1997-98: 7-19, 4-12, sixth in the division.

Returning starters: Two.

Top players: B.J. Bunton (10.7 points, 6.2 rebounds), Brandon Payton (7.9 points).

Outlook: Things are better now that Williams, who won the Division II national title at UC Davis last season, is around. Look out for Adama Ndiaye, a 6-9 forward from Senegal.

EASTERN DIVISION BOISE STATE

Coach: Rod Jensen.

1997-98: 17-13, 9-7, tied for fourth in the division.

Returning starters: Five.

Top players: Roberto Bergersen (19.4 points), Gerry Washington (11.4 points).

Outlook: Bergersen makes the Broncos tough, and they could figure in the division title race. But a poor inside game could hurt them again.

IDAHO

Coach: Dave Farrar.

1997-98: 15-12, 9-7, tied for third in the division.

Returning starters: Four.

Top players: Avery Curry (19.7 points), Gordon Scott (transfer from Barton Community College).

Outlook: The trick will be dividing one basketball between Scott, a tremendous shooter, and let-it-fly Curry. If they coexist, the Vandals are on to something.

NEVADA

Coach: Pat Foster.

1997-98: 16-12, 11-5, second in the division.

Top players: Joao Santos (6-9 freshman from Brazil), Dimitrios Marmarinos (6-9 junior from Greece).

Returning starters: None.

Outlook: The Wolf Pack's motto of "give us your tired, your poor, your 6 foot 9," has made a bleak situation a lot brighter. It will fight for the title instead of missing the conference tournament, which would have been a bad thing for the conference since the tournament is in Reno.

NEW MEXICO STATE

Coach: Lou Henson.

1997-98: 18-12, 8-8, fifth in the division.

Returning starters: Two.

Top player: Charles Gosa (12.5 points, 8.1 rebounds).

Outlook: Forwards Daveeno Hines and Gerard Moore and guards William Keys and Brad Bestor followed assistant coach Thomas Trotter from Northeastern Illinois to Las Cruces, giving the Aggies a talent boost in their last season of NCAA sanctions.

UTAH STATE

Coach: Stew Morrill.

1997-98: 25-8, 13-3, first in division, lost to Maryland, 82-68, in NCAA first round.

Returning starters: Two.

Top players: Donnie Johnson (9.5 points), Pharoah Davis (8.8 points).

Outlook: The breakup of the Chicago Bulls had an effect on Utah State. When Iowa State's Tim Floyd was hired by the Bulls, Utah State's Larry Eustachy was snapped up by Iowa State. He didn't leave much behind.

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