For Once, the NCAA Has Good News for Aztecs and Rebels

Times Staff Writer

When the NCAA makes a decision involving San Diego State and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, it usually isn't about something the athletic departments would announce at a press conference.

Having one's basketball team put on probation isn't usually news that players and coaches sit around waiting to hear on network television.

Sunday afternoon was a different story.

In a staged announcement broadcast live from Kansas City, Mo., CBS broadcaster Gary Bender announced that the Aztecs and Rebels would meet in a first-round NCAA Western Regional game on Thursday at 6:07 (PST) in the Special Events Center at Salt Lake City.

San Diego State (23-7) completed its most successful Division 1 season ever with an 87-81 win over Texas El Paso in the championship game of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament in El Paso on Saturday afternoon. The Aztecs finished second to UTEP during the regular season.

UNLV (27-3) qualified for the tournament by defeating Cal State Fullerton, 79-61, in Saturday's championship game of the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. Tournament at the Forum in Inglewood.

The Rebels beat Pacific, 89-58, and squeaked by San Jose State, 60-59, to reach the championship game. The Rebels also finished first in the PCAA during the regular season with a 17-1 mark.

"The game should be great for spectators because it will be like a tennis match," Aztec Coach Smokey Gaines said when asked about the matchup involving the two run-and-gun teams. "It's a good matchup for us because we play good against teams on the uptake.

"Man for man, I think UNLV has an edge, but I think we can beat them if we play like we did in the WAC Tournament. . . . I'd prefer playing them to a team that plays a slowdown game."

There will be no shot clock during the NCAA Tournament. During the regular season and the WAC tournament, the Aztecs played with a 45-second clock.

The PCAA also uses a 45-second clock, but the Rebels didn't run it down past the 20-second mark too often. Once the Rebels start running, the other team is involved in a track meet.

As of late, the Rebels have been running, and running well. UNLV has won nine straight and 26 of its last 27 games. The lone loss was at Fresno State, 63-52.

"I was concerned about a lot of things at the start of the season," Rebel Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "We had a lot of new kids and my backcourt needed more experience. But since the Georgetown game (an 82-46 loss in the third game of the season), we've played fairly well."

Tarkanian was more hesitant to praise his club than he was to praise the Aztecs and to criticize the NCAA selection committee.

"I was very impressed with them (Aztecs) when I saw them in December," Tarkanian said. "They are an outstanding team with good size, and both their guards were outstanding."

Tarkanian speaks about his opponent with the savvy of a coach who has taken his clubs to nine NCAA Tournaments. He has gone with Rebels five times and with Cal State Long Beach four times.

Last season, the Rebels beat Princeton and UTEP in the Western Regionals in Salt Lake City, before losing to Georgetown, 62-48 in Los Angeles.

This season, Tarkanian thinks his team should have been ranked higher.

"I kind of thought we might be seeded third, and I think Fresno State should have gotten a bid," he said, "but I'm not going to get upset about it."

The Aztecs are seeded 13th and the Rebels are seeded fourth among the 16 teams in the Western Regional.

UTEP, the other WAC team to receive an NCAA Tournament bid, was surprisingly seeded 11th, two notches above the Aztecs. SDSU beat the Miners in two of their three games this season. However, the Miners have won three straight WAC titles and have a better national reputation than the Aztecs.

"UTEP's seeding doesn't bother me," Gaines said. "The most important thing is we're going to the tournament and we got the money."

The Aztecs are assured $77,000 for playing in the first round, and $154,000 if they advance to the second. If the Aztecs beat UNLV, they will play the winner of the Washington-Kentucky game on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

Pacific 10 co-champion USC was assigned to the Midwest Regional, where it will meet Illinois State Thursday night at Tulsa. If the Trojans (19-9) beat Illinois State (21-7), they'll most likely encounter Oklahoma (28-5), which is ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, by the Associated Press and United Press International.

Four Pac-10 teams were invited to the tournament: co-champion Washington, Oregon State and Arizona. The Huskies and the Wildcats will play in the West Regional while the Beavers are in the Southeast, meeting Notre Dame on its home court.

Pepperdine (23-8), champion of the West Coast Athletic Conference, was sent to the Midwest along with USC. The Waves will play Duke (22-7) Friday night at Houston.

If USC had won the Pac-10 title outright, it most likely would have stayed in the West. But the Trojans forfeited that opportunity by losing to Oregon State, 60-58, in overtime Saturday afternoon at the Sports Arena.

Asked if he was disappointed that his team couldn't stay closer to home in the West Regional, USC Coach Stan Morrison said, "I didn't expect that all. I felt there was no way we would be kept in the West. I thought we might be sent to the East. The fact we're not playing Georgetown in Puerto Rico is comforting."

Georgetown, the defending NCAA champion, St. John's, Michigan and Oklahoma are the top-seeded teams in the four regions.

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