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Losing Face

Southland men's basketball teams will be no-shows again at NCAA tournament

March 15, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Sirens sounding a year ago were largely ignored, like a car alarm wailing in a crowded parking lot.

No Southland team made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1984.

What, us worry?

It was thought to be an aberration, a confluence of odd factors that would wash away along with the oily residue from Steve Lavin's hair.

Yet, here we are again. In California, only one team south of Santa Barbara had a winning record and the RPIs of the 13 teams from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border are in triple figures.

The sorry state of local hoops can be expressed several ways. Let's try the Harper's Index method. And remember, RPI is the power rating, in order, of the 326 Division I teams:

Years since there were consecutive seasons without a Southland team in the NCAA tournament: 55.

Fewest losses this season by any of the 13 teams from San Luis Obispo south: 12 (UC Santa Barbara).

Lowest RPI: 112 (USC).

Average RPI: 197.

Highest RPI: 300 (Long Beach State).

Teams advancing to the final of their conference tournaments: 1 (Cal State Northridge).

Win-loss record of the 13 Southern California teams: 152-220.

Number of snowballs a New York City man sold on the street one day last December: 10.

Profits he reaped: $9.50.

Like the last two items, we are irrelevant in (caution: redundancy ahead) hoops circles. We are as New Hampshire is to baseball, as Mississippi is to hockey.

Few will notice our absence from this year's Big Dance. Willing partners abound, from Spokane, Wash., to Salt Lake City, from Seattle to Stockton. In fact, teams from those locales are the ones beating us senseless.

We could dismiss the 1984 reference, especially considering the last time the NCAA tournament was without a Southland team two years in a row was in 1948 and 1949, an almost prehistoric period when the NCAA tournament consisted of only eight teams.

But 1984 continues to resonate because explanations for our second-rate status take on an Orwellian essence.

* Strength is weakness: The hotbed of high school talent in the Southland invites poachers. Recruiting experts say many top local players in recent years became wary of UCLA and USC, yet instead of gravitating to nearby alternatives in the West Coast and Big West conferences, they left for schools outside the area.

So California products from the last three recruiting classes are all over the map -- and NCAA bracket sheets.

Stanford junior Josh Childress, from Lakewood Mayfair High, is the Pacific 10 Conference player of the year. Arizona sophomore Hassan Adams, from Westchester, is a human highlight reel. Maryland freshmen Ekene Ibekwe, from Carson, and D.J. Strawberry, from Santa Ana Mater Dei, are prominent role players with bright futures.

"I see guys from high schools around here, Childress at Stanford and Bobby Jones [from Long Beach Poly] at Washington," Pepperdine Coach Paul Westphal said. "Those guys would look good in local uniforms."

* Big Brother might be watching, but nobody else is: The only school in Southern California able to draw a decent crowd is UCLA.

"When you recruit kids, they like to see packed houses and play on TV," said Brian Quinn, the Cal State Fullerton athletic director. "We're our own worst enemies. Southern California fans, by and large, they're not going to basketball games anymore."

USC has long lamented playing at the Sports Arena, and Long Beach State, UC Irvine and San Diego State are the only other teams whose venues can be called arenas. Everybody else plays in half-full gymnasiums.

No wonder so many players choose remote outposts where everyone in town goes to the game. Even if that means doing without smog and freeway traffic.

* What happened to Big Brother, anyway: UCLA is supposed be the Supreme Ruler of Southern California hoops, gobbling up top prospects and leaving the crumbs. This is acceptable because that eerie Bruin blue glow brightens the entire neighborhood.

"I think it's a real good thing when UCLA recruits well because all the schools are affected by what UCLA does," Westphal said. "Even if UCLA skims the best players, it would be nice to get the next guys. If L.A. kids think pastures are greener somewhere else, we don't get any of them."

UCLA is supposed to remind the nation that tradition, excellence and deep NCAA tournament runs are part of this city's heritage. Watch the Bruins and You See L.A.

Lately, though, all anyone sees is one sorry excuse for a dynasty. Lavin's house of cards tumbled last season and Ben Howland found the rebuilding a tad tougher than anticipated.

Result: A two-year, 21-36 nightmare, the first Bruin consecutive losing seasons since 1941 and 1942.

If a turnaround begins with recruiting, Howland appears on the right path. He signed four Southland players, including two ranked among the nation's top 30 prospects -- Jordan Farmar of Woodland Hills Taft and Arron Afflalo of Compton Centennial.

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