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Floor Show

Matadors, Who Open Today, Are Favored to Win Big Sky Title, Which Could Lead to Problems Over Home Court

November 19, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but. . . .

Cal State Northridge is predicted to finish first in the Big Sky Conference. And the Matadors do have the smallest arena of any team in the nine-member Big Sky.

So, what happens if Northridge finishes first, consequently earning the right to host the six-team Big Sky tournament in March?

Will the Matadome, with a capacity of about 1,600, be able to accommodate the masses? Or will Northridge, in an anticlimactic finish to its five-year membership in the Big Sky, be forced to surrender its home-court advantage and shop for another venue?

But hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Too many questions right now for Coach Bobby Braswell and the Matadors, concerned only with their opener today in the cozy confines of the Matadome against far from impressive Howard (1-27 last season) at 5 p.m.

The Matadors will face a more formidable challenge, as well as a live television audience, Tuesday night when they play UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.

Northridge, 20-10 last season, is being touted like never before and rightfully so.

Unimpressive as it may sound, this appears to be the best Northridge team ever, as evidenced by a unanimous vote of Big Sky coaches and an unprecedented three votes in the Associated Press preseason Top-25 poll.

Northridge came within seconds of advancing to its first NCAA tournament last season and has more returning players than any team in the conference.

Moreover, the Matadors have steadily improved in four seasons under Braswell, whose stock in the coaching trade continues to rise.

Among four returning starters are senior center Brian Heinle, the Big Sky's preseason player of the year, and junior guard Markus Carr, arguably the Big Sky's best point guard.

Both were All-Big Sky selections last season.

"People talk about pressure," Braswell said. "But I don't believe in putting pressure on ourselves. I challenge our players and I challenge myself."

Talk of packing fans in seats five months from now is the furthest thing from the mind of Braswell and Co., focused solely on the task at hand.

When the subject turns to predictions, titles and accolades, players and coaches spew the usual take-'em-one-game-at-a-time mumbo-jumbo.

"We're just playing basketball," Heinle said. "We just want to take things as they come."

Of course, the time may come when the dilemma becomes a reality for Athletic Director Dick Dull. While the issue may not be pressing, Dull said he already is exploring options.

Remember, now. We're talking "What if?"

"We don't want to give anybody any bulletin board material," Dull said. "Anything can happen in a conference race. We will cross that bridge if we do happen to be the No. 1 seed.

"But we'd certainly love to host the tournament."

At issue not only is whether Northridge can offer enough seats but whether the school can generate enough revenue. Big Sky bylaws require the conference champion to guarantee payment of between $200,000 and $240,000 to be dispersed among the conference's other eight schools and to help fund travel expenses for the five visiting teams in the tournament.

In turn, the host school subsidizes expenses through gate receipts.

That means selling tickets.

Attendance figures for Big Sky basketball is at its highest since the conference expanded to nine teams in 1996.

Montana played host to the men's and women's Big Sky tournaments last season and crowds exceeded 3,000 for most games. A semifinal between Northridge and Montana drew 5,038.

The Matadome has room for additional seats. But it is dwarfed by Montana's Adams Center and Northern Arizona's Walkup Skydome.

At this point, Dull isn't looking elsewhere.

"Despite the size of thegym, we can host," Dull said. "I would prefer to keep it in our gym. With the small gym that we have, we need to find other ways to do it.

"Right now, I would think we would try to get help through corporate sponsorship. Now, if we could find someplace and we could sell the tickets, we'd move it there."

Doug Fullerton, Big Sky commissioner, said the conference will not prevent Northridge from hosting the tournament in its gym, provided the school meets requirements.

Fullerton said he intends to press Northridge for a postseason plan in writing after the Big Sky season begins in January.

"We would not demand that they move the tournament because of the size of their gym," Fullerton said.

"If it goes somewhere else--a different city--they're still the No. 1 seed. It wouldn't be the best situation, but we wouldn't stop it."

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