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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / BIG WEST MEN'S TOURNAMENT

Anteaters Know That Every Game Counts

Men: Top-seeded UC Irvine faces likelihood that nothing less than three victories this week will result in NCAA berth.

March 08, 2001|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Late Saturday night, in Idaho's Kibbie Arena, the men's basketball team from UC Irvine finally realized what time of year it is.

Trailing last-place Idaho by seven points in overtime, the Anteaters rallied for an 84-80 Big West Conference victory. Afterward, they soberly assessed just how close they came to blowing their most extraordinary season out the window.

"Obviously, a loss [Saturday] would have hurt our NCAA chances," senior swingman Sean Jackson said. "It would have ruined it."

March Madness is here and Irvine--not accustomed to this kind of thing--can't afford to slip up.

Despite a school record for victories in a season and their first regular-season conference title, the top-seeded Anteaters (24-3), who meet Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (9-18) at 6 tonight in the first round of the Big West Conference tournament, are well aware that to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time, they will most likely have to sweep three opponents in the next three days at the Anaheim Convention Center and earn the conference's automatic playoff berth.

That's the plight of conferences that have become known as the mid-majors--lesser-known conferences that have competitive teams but don't rank high enough on the national power index to warrant placing more than one team in the 65-team NCAA tournament.

Only seven times in the last 30 years has the Big West had two teams chosen for the NCAA tournament. The last time was in 1993, when Long Beach State and New Mexico State, which is no longer in the Big West, advanced.

If Big West teams need another reminder, they have only to look at Santa Clara's upset of Pepperdine in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament Sunday. Once considered a shoe-in for an NCAA berth, the Waves (21-8) are now awaiting a berth into the NIT.

"We know the committee is probably looking at only one team from our conference," Irvine's Jackson said.

Second-seeded Utah State (24-5), the defending tournament champion, plays Cal State Fullerton (5-22) at 2:30 today. The Aggies may have a slightly better chance of receiving a postseason berth without winning the tournament because their schedule is considered to have been tougher than the one played by Irvine.

Irvine's 7-foot center, Adam Parada, chosen to the Big West all-freshman team along with teammate Stanislav Zuzak, said any loss at this time of the year would be "a step backward" for any team.

"It would be bad as far as the NCAA committee is concerned," he said.

Conference coaches keep stumping for their cause, as they did Monday during a Big West teleconference.

"I'm new to this game," said Pat Douglass, in his fourth year as coach at Irvine. He previously coached at Division II Cal State Bakersfield.

"But the only thing I can say is that we have been consistent all this year. I think we have the second-best won-loss record in the country. I don't know all the particulars, but it would be disheartening if we did not get to go."

Douglass said he feels Irvine, which has won seven in a row, is in a good position heading into the conference tournament. Although the Anteaters have not posted a double-digit victory over a conference opponent since they beat San Luis Obispo, 75-63, on Jan. 27, they are on the opposite side of the eight-team bracket from the three schools Douglass is concerned about most: Long Beach State, Boise State and Utah State.

"I think the pressure on us is off," he said. "The last three games were tough for us. The teams we played did not have great records and it was time for us to have a letdown. I feel more confident. The regular season is over now and we can set our goals about the tournament and at the same time play relaxed."

But not too relaxed.

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