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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT | NIT

UC Irvine and Pepperdine Will Have to Hit the Road

March 12, 2001|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They came, the few faithful, and grimaced their way through the NCAA tournament selection television show Sunday afternoon at a local bar a stone's throw from Crawford Hall.

Well, this is UC Irvine, so the library figured to be more full than a pub.

Decision-making for the best-of-the-rest postseason basketball tournament went into the early evening Sunday before it was announced that only two West Coast teams had been selected by the NIT committee and that both had been thrown right into the fire with first-round games Wednesday.

Irvine (25-4), upset in the semifinals of the Big West Conference tournament Friday by Pacific, was rewarded for having the best overall record on the West Coast with an opening-round NIT game at Tulsa (21-11).

Pepperdine (21-8), upset by Santa Clara in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, was sent packing to Wyoming (20-9).

These are definitely two of the toughest first-round games, if for no other reason than travel.

"An NIT game on the road is more difficult to win than an NCAA game on a neutral site," UC Irvine Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said.

Many thought Pepperdine and Irvine would play each other in the opening round of the NIT because, in past seasons, the tournament has tried to regionalize opening rounds for cost containment.

The pairings sent both coaching staffs scrambling to fill scouting reports late Sunday night. They'll find plenty to worry about.

Tulsa (21-11) was a step away from its sixth NCAA tournament berth since 1994 when it was upset by Hawaii in overtime at the Western Athletic Conference tournament final. The Golden Hurricanes are 13-3 at home.

Wyoming (20-9), which lost to eventual champion Brigham Young in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament, lost only one game at home--its first home loss in nearly two years. The Cowboys' 7,220-foot Arena-Auditorium is known locally as the "Dome of Doom."

Pepperdine players seem more resigned to the fact that they got the best they could get. It's the Waves' third consecutive postseason appearance and their sixth time in the NIT.

"We had a dismal season," Wave guard Derrick Anderson said. "We didn't do what we were expected to do, so we have to suffer the consequences of that. But we played at Gonzaga before and I've never seen anything worse than that, so this can't be that bad."

Irvine is making only its third postseason appearance--all of them in the NIT. Irvine's last trip was in 1986, when the Anteaters were bounced out of the second round at BYU. Irvine also lost in the second round against Oklahoma in 1982.

Anteater officials felt that their overall record was good enough to host a first-round NIT game, so they put in a bid with the committee several weeks ago. But you can't squeeze many more than 5,000 spectators into the Bren Center and Guerrero acknowledged that the bid was a longshot.

It didn't help, either, that the Anteaters dragged their season to a close with several close games that they should have won handily before getting blown out by Pacific, 74-58.

"We just wore down at the end of the season," Irvine Coach Pat Douglass said. "I don't think we could have done much more than we did this year."

The Anteaters set school records with 13 consecutive wins, most wins in a season and they won their first regular-season title in the Big West Conference. It was the first time the team had a winning record since the 1995-96 season.

So, given Irvine's less-than-stellar past, any postseason accomplishment has to be counted as a plus, Guerrero said.

"This is a real positive for our program," he said. "Our goal is to be as competitive as possible.

"We had a 14-14 record last season, and this year we wanted to build on that by taking a team to the postseason."

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