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Santa Barbara Still Can Meet Its Goals

March 10, 2004|Mike Terry | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to consider 23-6 a down year, but UC Santa Barbara didn't have quite the season it had envisioned in November, when there were hopes of breaking into the national top 10.

"Our kids are little disappointed this year, not meeting some of our goals," said Gaucho Coach Mark French. "But we have other goals that are still in front of us. So even if we're not as happy as we've been in past years, I think there is some pressure taken off by not being ranked. We're under the radar again."

That's of little solace to the rest of the Big West Conference, which is looking for some way to keep the Gauchos from winning the conference tournament -- which starts at noon today at the Anaheim Convention Center -- for the eighth consecutive time.

The winner gets the conference's automatic NCAA tournament bid, but there is additional motivation for the Gauchos. Santa Barbara will be one of the host sites for first- and second-round NCAA tournament games. The Gauchos in all probability would play at home if they won the Big West tournament.

"We've tried to be consistent about controlling what we can do right now, so I don't think our players are too worried about hosting," French said. "Besides, they have final exams to prepare for and that takes precedence.

"I am more worried about it because the school had made a financial commitment, and how embarrassing would it be if we are not here?"

The top-seeded Gauchos don't have to play until Friday. The conference changed the tournament format this year and the top two finishers -- Santa Barbara and Idaho (21-6) -- won't play until the semifinals.

Santa Barbara's only loss in 14 conference games was at Idaho, and the Gauchos have won 12 consecutive Big West games since then. Overall, they've won 14 of the last 15.

Today's first-round games feature fifth-seeded Long Beach State (12-15) against eighth-seeded Utah State, and sixth-seeded Cal State Fullerton (8-19) against seventh-seeded UC Riverside (7-20).

The 49ers have reached at least the semifinals the last five years. But to continue that streak, they have to get past not only Utah State -- which has qualified for the tournament in its first Big West season -- but either Pacific (13-5) or Cal Poly SLO (10-8) in the quarterfinals.

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