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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / 2000-2001 PREVIEW

Northridge Looking at Bright Skies Ahead

November 16, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Big Sky Conference has added to March Madness the last two seasons, with Northern Arizona and Weber State making impressive first-round showings in the NCAA tournament.

This season, it figures to be Cal State Northridge's turn.

Northridge is predicted to win the Big Sky in its final season in the conference before moving to the Big West. The Big Sky champion is granted an automatic berth in the 64-team tournament, although few give the Big Sky representative much of a chance. That won't likely continue.

Last season, 15th-seeded Northern Arizona came within 10.9 seconds of a West Regional first-round upset of St. John's before falling, 61-56. In 1999, Weber State pulled off a first-round shocker with a 76-74 victory over North Carolina behind a 36-point performance by Big Sky MVP Harold Arceneaux.

"I think the Big Sky Conference is the most underrated conference," Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said. "It will be really tough and we know we'll have our work cut out for us."

Northridge, its roster filled with returning players, was a unanimous choice among Big Sky coaches to finish first. Several teams have lost key players, leaving the conference race a difficult one to predict.

Eastern Washington, the league's surprise team last season, is picked to finish second. But the Eagles have a new coach and must replace two-time all-conference point guard Deon Williams.

A look at the teams, excluding Cal State Northridge.

CAL STATE SACRAMENTO

* Coach: Jerome Jenkins.

* 1999-2000: 9-18, 3-13.

* Returning starters: Four.

* Top players: Forward Pablo Gonzales (11.5 points, 3.9 rebounds), guard Rene Jacques (6.4), Arinze Anoruo (5.9).

* Outlook: Nowhere to go but up, as former assistant Jenkins replaces Tom Abatemarco, who was 13-66 in three seasons. Sacramento lost 12 of its last 13 games, including the final seven in a row.

EASTERN WASHINGTON

* Coach: Ray Giacoletti.

* 1999-2000: 15-12, 12-4 in Big Sky.

* Returning starters: Three.

* Top players: Chris White (9.8 points, 6.3 rebounds), Aaron Olson (10.3, 2.5 rebounds).

* Outlook: The Eagles' balance and strong frontcourt should keep them among the Big Sky's top teams. White led the conference in blocked shots, averaging 1.25 a game.

IDAHO STATE

* Coach: Doug Oliver.

* 1999-2000: 8-19, 3-13.

* Returning starters: One.

* Top players: Center Doug Silva (9.6 points), guard Tim Erickson (9.1).

* Outlook: Of 15 players, 10 are new. At 6-11, Silva is among the Big Sky's most formidable big men, but the supporting cast is thin.

MONTANA

* Coach: Don Holst.

* 1999-2000: 17-11, 12-4.

* Returning starters: Two.

* Top players: Shane Christensen (10.5 points, 4.9 assists), Jared Buckmaster (9.2).

* Outlook: Holst refers to the Grizzlies as "a doughnut team." They don't have a center. Christensen will lead an undersized offense that might struggle against several improved teams. The Grizzlies need to replace two players who averaged better than 19 points.

MONTANA STATE

* Coach: Mick Durham.

* 1999-2000: 12-17, 4-12.

* Returning starters: Two.

* Top players: Swingman Justin Brown (14.8 points), forward Aaron Rich (5.9 rebounds), John Lazosky (7.1).

* Outlook: Injuries contributed to a collapse last season. But five of the team's six top scorers are back and the Bobcats should rebound as a conference power. Brown, who made six of six three-point shots against Oklahoma, is among the Big Sky's best players.

NORTHERN ARIZONA

* Coach: Mike Adras.

* 1999-2000: 20-11, 11-5.

* Returning starters: Two.

* Top players: Corey Schwab (9.7 points), guards Adam Lopez (8.8) and Commander King (1.6), forward Ryan McDade (5.2 rebounds).

* Outlook: The Lumberjacks will be hard-pressed to repeat as Big Sky champion without conference MVP Ross Land, the NCAA's all-time leader in three-point shooting. Seven-foot center Dan McClintock also has graduated, leaving Casey Grundham, who averaged 1.6 rebounds, the team's best big man.

PORTLAND STATE

* Coach: Joel Sobotka.

* 1999-2000: 15-14, 7-9.

* Returning starters: One.

* Top players: Anthony Lackey (12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds), Luke Dean (3.4), Kevin Briggs (3.8).

* Outlook: The Vikings' roster is dominated by underclassmen, many of them new. Lackey will be forced to increase his output with the departure of all-conference selections Ime Udoka and Derek Nesland.

WEBER STATE

* Coach: Joe Cravens.

* 1999-2000: 18-10, 10-6.

* Returning starters: Two.

* Top players: Stephan Bachmann (10.8 points), Ivan Gatto (7.5), Quynn Tebbs (4.9).

* Outlook: Weber State has lost Harold Arceneaux and Eddie "The Thrill" Gill, the conference's best scoring tandem. Eight freshmen and three returning seniors could add up to a rebuilding year for the Wildcats, who won the Big Sky title in 1999.

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