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Almost Everyone Has a Chance at Title

November 19, 2002|Paul McLeod | Times Staff Writer

This season, you can call it the Big wide-open West Conference.

Reigning conference tournament champion UC Santa Barbara and regular-season co-champions Utah State and UC Irvine earned postseason bids last season and each again has high expectations. But Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has several key transfers to go with five seniors, Cal State Northridge got high marks from opposing coaches in a preseason poll and Pacific is tough at home in the Spanos Center, where visitors usually do not shoot well.

Fullerton is off NCAA probation for recruiting violations and should be improved, Long Beach has a new coach and can beat anyone on a given night, and Riverside and Idaho, the weakest links, think they're good enough to pull off a few surprises.

"Last year there wasn't an eyelash of a difference between the first seven teams," Coach Bob Williams of Santa Barbara said. "And there's not much difference this year, either."

Utah State Coach Stew Morrill points out that the Big West, which produced four teams with 20 or more victories last season, has become more competitive each of the last couple of seasons.

"Three years ago we won the regular season title without a loss [to a conference opponent]," Morrill said. "Two years ago, Irvine won it with one loss and we finished second with three losses. Last year, we shared the title with Irvine and each of us had five losses. I won't be surprised this year if the winner has more than 4-5 losses."

San Luis Obispo Coach Kevin Bromley and Cal State Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell agree.

"In conferences like the ACC or SEC, you have one or two teams you'll never catch and all the others play for position underneath them," Bromley said. "That's not the way it is here."

Said Braswell: "I don't think the conference champion will be decided until the last week of the season."

Santa Barbara has six experienced players, but none of them is taller than 6-7 in a conference loaded with size. The Gauchos, who lost to Arizona in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament, are expected to press, drive and launch three-pointers.

Utah State, which lost to Montana State in the opening round of the NIT last season, has restocked as it always does with junior college transfers to bolster a lineup that includes three returning starters.

Irvine, which lost to Brigham Young in the opening round of the NIT, has some problems at guard but has a deep front line that will be among the tallest in the nation.

Other wide-open factors in the title chase: Northridge, picked to finish fourth by Big West coaches, returns three players who were selected to the conference's all-freshmen team, including freshman of the year Ian Boylan, a guard.

Long Beach has high hopes under first-year Coach Larry Reynolds, who built a Division II powerhouse at Cal State San Bernardino. But injuries and eligibility problems threaten to keep as many as four 49ers off the floor and Reynolds says his new offense has been met with skepticism from players who liked the freewheeling approach of former Coach Wayne Morgan, who resigned after six turbulent seasons.

Riverside is redshirting one of the Big West's best players, forward Vili Morton, so he will have two years of eligibility remaining when the Highlanders become eligible for postseason play after moving up from Division II. But Coach John Masi has backed off the announcement he had earlier this fall that he would also hold back two other starters.

Then there is Cal State Fullerton, which found every which way to lose the last two seasons. The Titans shouldn't go quietly once powerful Senegalese center Pape Sow, a 6-10 junior, recovers from a sprained ankle. "Playing Fullerton scares everyone," Morrill said.

The Big West could do better in postseason play -- Utah State two years ago is the only conference team to advance past the first round of the NCAA tournament -- but with competition within the conference getting tougher each year that is only a matter of time, coaches say.

Meanwhile, Williams, the Santa Barbara coach, says forecasters might as well flip a coin when it comes to picking a winner this season. "Who is favored?" he said. "I don't think anybody knows."

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