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BIG WEST PREVIEW

A New Season Brings New Search for Respect

Santa Barbara's Williams says league teams have to start beating the elite.

November 18, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

College basketball observers have labeled the Big West as a coaches' conference in recent years.

There may be truth there. UC Santa Barbara's Bob Williams, Utah State's Stew Morrill, Pacific's Bob Thomason and Cal State Northridge's Bobby Braswell have taken their teams to the NCAA tournament. UC Irvine's Pat Douglass, UC Riverside's John Masi and Long Beach State's Larry Reynolds had great success at one time on the Division II level.

But that hasn't translated into great respect for the conference since the days when Nevada Las Vegas, Fresno State and New Mexico State were members. The Big West hasn't had two teams in the NCAA tournament since the 1992-93 season.

Utah State got a No. 15 seeding as its reward for winning the conference tournament last season.

At the league's recent media day, Santa Barbara's Williams said that meant the top teams in the conference have to play well against national powers -- and beat one once in a while -- to gain respect.

"Our league plays a lot of Pac-10 [teams] in the preseason," said Williams, 80-67 in five years with the Gauchos. "We're playing Kansas, we're playing UCLA. Being competitive in those games is a great sign but the next step that has to happen is, we have to win some of those games."

Santa Barbara begins the season as the favorite to win its second consecutive Big West regular-season title. The Gauchos have four starters and their top eight players returning from an 18-14 team, among them Branduinn Fullove, the Big West player of the year.

One of the starters, senior guard Nick Jones, will sit out eight games under an NCAA-mandated suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league in Mexico. Jones is expected back for conference play.

"I think there's a lot of potential for this to be the best team we've had since I've been here," said Fullove, who will miss the season opener against Hawaii because of an ankle injury.

Irvine has two regular-season championships and a second-place finish in the last three years but the Anteaters have been eliminated in the tournament semifinals in each. Senior center Adam Parada and sophomore point guard Jeff Gloger are the featured players on an experienced team picked by media and coaches to finish third.

"Usually the team that's picked to win the conference doesn't win [the tournament] so I'm glad it's not me," Douglass said.

Williams said Utah State could never be counted out, having won four tournament titles in the last five seasons. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo made it to the tournament final and has player-of-the-year candidate Varnie Dennis back.

"I see us winning the conference," said Dennis, who averaged 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds last season. "I don't expect anything less for us."

Northridge was riding high in 2000-01 after defeating UCLA, winning the Big Sky Conference tournament and advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in Division I.

The Matadors haven't found as much success in two seasons of Big West play. They finished in a third-place tie two seasons ago and in a sixth-place tie last spring, after logging sub-.500 records overall in both.

"No doubt about it, this year is the one we feel we want to make a dent," Braswell said.

New Cal State Fullerton Coach Bob Burton was beset by on- and off-court issues in his first few weeks on the job. Leading scorer Ralphy Holmes, a first-team All-Big West player last season, was convicted of misdemeanor auto theft and expelled from school for this school year. Forward Bron Groomes, a top reserve, severed a tendon in his right hand and will not play this season.

After Burton was hired in June, he lost forward Jamal Forcheney to academic ineligibility and guard Fedi Holm-Hadulla to a career-ending knee injury. Burton will have 6-foot-10 senior forward Pape Sow, who was suspended for 11 games last season.

"When the job opened up and people started talking about Cal State Fullerton, everybody said, 'They've got a lot of really good players coming back,' " said Burton, an assistant at Fresno State last season. "I didn't realize when I got the job that four guys who had starts would be gone and I would never really get a chance to coach them."

Riverside went 6-18 last season but will have junior forward Vili Morton, who red-shirted last season in anticipation of the Highlanders being eligible to compete in this year's conference tournament.

Long Beach State is young and rebuilding after finishing 5-22 last season, Reynolds' first with the team.

*

(Begin Text of Infobox)

Big West Standings

2002-2003 FINAL

*--*

Conference Overall W L Pct. W L Pct. UCSB 14 4 778 18 14 563 UC Irvine 13 5 722 20 9 690 Utah State 12 6 667 24 9 727 Cal Poly 10 8 556 16 14 533 Idaho 9 9 500 13 15 464 CS Fullerton 8 10 444 10 19 345 CS Northridge 8 10 444 14 15 483 Pacific 7 11 389 12 16 429 UC Riverside 5 13 278 6 18 250 Long Beach St. 4 14 222 5 22 185

*--*

UC SANTA BARBARA

* Coach: Bob Williams.

* 2002-03 record: 18-14, 14-4 (first).

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