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BIG WEST MEN'S TOURNAMENT

Double byes give 49ers, Mustangs time to relax

March 07, 2007|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

If recent history is any indication, it's advantage Long Beach State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the Big West Conference tournament, which begins today at the Anaheim Convention Center.

That's because the 49ers and the Mustangs are seeded first and second, meaning they don't play until Friday and need only two victories to win the conference tournament and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

That's an advantage over teams seeded fifth through eighth, who need four victories in four nights, or teams seeded third and fourth, who need three in three.

UC Irvine (13-17) plays UC Riverside (7-23) at 6 and Cal State Northridge (14-16) meets Pacific (11-18) at about 8:30 in tonight's openers.

The conference switched to the current format in 2004 to reward regular-season play. Since then, no team seeded lower than second has won the tournament.

"It's crucial," Long Beach State Coach Larry Reynolds said of his team's double bye.

He would know. Last year, Long Beach was seeded No. 3 and won close games against Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine before falling to Pacific, 78-70, in the final.

"Late in the Pacific game, we kind of lost our legs and didn't defend as well," Reynolds said. "Playing three straight nights took a toll on us."

The 49ers (22-7, 12-2) took care of that by winning their first regular-season conference title since 1996. They won their final eight conference games, including consecutive road victories against Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara -- the teams that finished second, third and fourth.

It was a turnaround for a team not so far removed from 5-22 and 6-21 seasons from 2002 to '04. Long Beach hasn't won the conference tournament since 1995.

"We have guys that were here through the down years," said 49ers guard Aaron Nixon, a senior who is averaging 18.4 points and was the conference's player of the year. "What more could you want for those guys in their last year?"

Even though the 49ers are the team to beat, Cal Poly might be the team to watch based on its seven-game winning streak.

Noticeably absent from the list of favorites is Pacific, which is rebuilding after winning three consecutive regular-season conference titles and two of the last three conference tournament titles.

The Tigers are seeded seventh, so other teams are licking their chops at the prospect of a wide-open tournament. Well, sort of wide open.

"It's a stretch to think you're going to come out of the bottom half and win this," UC Santa Barbara Coach Bob Williams said. "I think Long Beach State and Cal Poly are the only ones licking their chops right now."

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peter.yoon@latimes.com

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