Cal State Northridge remembers its four glorious days last March as if they had come last week.
The Matadors, a disappointment for much of the last men's basketball season, suddenly came of age in the Big West Conference tournament, where they recorded three upsets in consecutive days before coming within a questionable foul call of reaching the NCAA tournament.
The glow may have dimmed over time, but the starting lineup from that night in the Anaheim Convention Center is back, making this the most anticipated season at Northridge since its run to the Big Sky Conference championship four years ago.
"It's to be expected," said ninth-year Coach Bobby Braswell, whose Matadors open Saturday at Oklahoma. "You can't have the run like we had at the end of the season, have five returning starters and not have expectations. We expect that."
The question will be whether Northridge is ready for success over five months instead of a few days. Braswell had similar aspirations a year ago when he believed his team was ready to make its first big impact in its new conference.
But before it came this close to being the only team from Southern California in the NCAA tournament, Northridge had a season's worth of issues to sort through, starting with the academic ineligibility of forward Eto Onyenegecha and including the long suspensions of Joseph Frazier and Chris Davis during conference play.
There was also the specter of an NCAA investigation, which culminated with the Matadors being put on three years' probation. The penalty does not affect the postseason.
"The thing is, I'm excited about [the season] because I know that this team didn't fulfill the goals that we had for last season," Braswell said. "It's the same goals that we have for every season and I know that it left a bitter taste in everyone's mouths."
Northridge will lean on swingman Ian Boylan as it tries to challenge Pacific and Utah State for the Big West title. Boylan, a 6-foot-6 senior, led the team in scoring for the second consecutive season -- and took a star turn in the conference tournament, where he nearly carried the underdog Matadors to college basketball nirvana.
Losing in the final seconds to Pacific and watching the Tigers go on to upset Providence in an NCAA first-round game has further motivated Boylan.
"We know that having five returning starters doesn't guarantee anything," Boylan said. "This summer we worked hard. At practice, we have a new focus to make sure everything goes smoothly to make sure what happened last year doesn't happen again."
Northridge isn't the only area team that is poised for a breakthrough in 2004-05. Another wildly inconsistent team, Pepperdine, brings back all of its starters as it looks to unseat four-time champion Gonzaga in the beefed-up West Coast Conference.
The Waves, who open today against East Carolina at the BCA Invitational in Raleigh, N.C., arguably have the conference's best frontcourt tandem in senior forwards Glen McGowan and Yakhouba Diawara, along with athletic junior guard Alex Acker.
Diawara, an All-WCC selection and the team's leading scorer, is the key. The Waves were 6-11 in the 17 games the native from France sat out awaiting clearance from the NCAA -- but won nine of the 14 games he played in.
Loyola Marymount has nine regulars returning from a team that posted the school's best record -- 15-14 -- since 1995-96. Still, WCC coaches picked the resurgent Lions to finish only seventh.
"You can respond in either of two ways," Coach Steve Aggers said. "The people that don't have faith in you, you can accept their opinion as fact and live whatever small life they make of you or you can rededicate yourself into proving them wrong.
"We refuse to accept the label that others have put on us."
In the Big West, Pacific assumes the role of conference favorite while longtime conference power Utah State tries to end its 26-year run as a member with another title before it leaves for the Western Athletic Conference.
UC Santa Barbara returns to its familiar position as an upstart after struggling with the target on its back last season. UC Irvine tries to rebound from its worst season since 1998-99, Pat Douglass' second as coach. UC Riverside, still relatively new to Division I competition, qualified for the conference tournament and won a first-round game.
After three consecutive 20-win seasons, Irvine slipped to 11-17 and didn't qualify for the Big West tournament for the first time in five years.
"This is kind of a new role for us," Douglass said. "But it's also very challenging to gain our respect again and gain a little bit of an identity. I think our kids are a little hungrier."
Expectations are on a different scale at Long Beach State, where the 49er faithful are hoping for some signs of life in the moribund program. Coach Larry Reynolds, in the third year of a five-year contract after 5-22 and 6-21 seasons, has assembled better talent but knows it needs to start producing.
"I don't know if it's pivotal," Reynolds said of the season. "I know the school hired me to help rectify the program."
At Northridge, the mood is decidedly different. With a well-stocked roster, Braswell scheduled games at Oklahoma, Vanderbilt and Arizona State with the idea of testing his team and, hopefully, making some noise locally and nationally.
"We're going to have to be good and we have to be solid," he said. "People are going to expect things from us so we have to be prepared."