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Bottom Feeders

With no local school in line for an NCAA at-large berth, most Southland Division I teams have been relegated to roles of ...

March 07, 2003|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

And now, introducing the 2003 Southland version of the RPI -- the Really Pathetic Index.

There are 327 college basketball teams in Division I, but were it not for UC Irvine at No. 98, there wouldn't be a team from the Los Angeles area in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index, the formula used to assist in selecting at-large teams for the NCAA tournament.

So here's to you, Anteaters, a basin turns its lonely eyes to you.

Not that 18-8 Irvine -- a school that has never played an NCAA tournament game -- has a chance of making it as an at-large team. That typically requires an RPI in the 40s or perhaps 50s.

That doesn't help UC Santa Barbara either. Despite being in first place in the Big West Conference, Santa Barbara (16-12) has a No. 124 RPI after starting 4-8.

That means the last hoops hope for the Southland to avoid being shut out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1984 is for some team -- any team -- to win one of the three area conference tournaments and the automatic NCAA bid that goes with it.

No. 130 Pepperdine (15-12) and No. 225 Loyola Marymount (10-19) will try in the West Coast Conference tournament that begins today in San Diego. (Gonzaga is the favorite.)

In this bleak season, the local basketball hasn't been at the top of the standings, but at the bottom.

In the Pacific 10 Conference, No. 121 USC (10-16) and No. 162 UCLA (8-18) have been reduced to battling the Washington schools -- imagine, the Washingtons! -- on the final day of the regular season just to qualify for the eight-team Pac-10 tournament next week at Staples Center.

In the Big West, staging its own eight-team tournament next week at the Anaheim Convention Center, the battle for the bottom has been quite entertaining, with close games and upsets left and right.

In the end, No. 235 Cal State Northridge (13-14) and No. 274 Cal State Fullerton (9-18) clinched precious spots ahead of No. 309 Long Beach State (5-21), a team that started the season 1-11, worst in school history.

(No. 288 UC Riverside [6-17] is ineligible for the Big West tournament as part of its transition to Division I, and its record is partly the result of strategic redshirting.)

Even annexing San Diego doesn't help much. San Diego State (15-11) is No. 74. And recall the University of San Diego, one of the first teams to expose UCLA? The Toreros are No. 99 at 16-11.

But let's be frank: The only reason any of this is a phenomenon is because of UCLA.

The Bruins have played in the NCAA tournament every season except five since the end of the John Wooden era in 1974-75, carrying the banner alone plenty of times.

But the Bruins have gone bust.

If you had told some of these other coaches they'd win more games this season than UCLA....

"Oh, God, I'd have taken that to the bank," Fullerton Coach Donny Daniels said.

"There's only one really strange thing, and that's UCLA. It's no different than when Mike Krzyzewski stepped down because of his back at Duke -- and they had Steve Wojciechowski and Cherokee Parks. Right now, it's North Carolina that's struggling.... "

In other words, in all likelihood, a temporary blip on the landscape.

UCLA will return to prominence, USC will drop in regularly, along with Pepperdine and perhaps Santa Barbara. Long Beach and Loyola Marymount will make the occasional appearance and Fullerton and Northridge will capture lightning in a bottle again sometime.

Fullerton made its only trip in 1978 and reached the Elite Eight before Arkansas stopped the Titans a step shy of the Final Four. Northridge, then in the Big Sky Conference, made the field in 2001.

Riverside is too new to have been, and the Anteaters -- imagine the darlings they would be with that nickname -- have flirted with the tournament in recent years and need only to win the conference tournament to finally break through.

So what is it with this season?

Southern California, land of skateboards, taco stands and lousy basketball?

"I think it's probably just what you'd call a kind of aberration," said UCLA Coach Steve Lavin, no longer someone with much of a vested interest. "I don't think it's really indicative of any pattern, other than just happenstance or coincidence that at one time you have so many programs that may not make the NCAA tournament."

Has there been a talent exodus?

"There was a time, probably, in the early '80s through the mid-'80s, where we were losing a lot of players to the Big East or the ACC. But I'd say the last 15, going on 20 years, you can build a case West Coast basketball has been as strong as any other region in the country," Lavin said. "You look at Arizona's Final Fours, Stanford's Final Four, UCLA's national championship.... This just happens to be kind of an unusual year. But I don't think it's any pattern or decline of West Coast basketball."

The only discernible pattern is ... coincidence.

"Looking at what's gone on in Southern California, a lot of it comes down to either young point guards or guys breaking in at point guard," Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said.

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