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Analysis : CSUN Battles to Maintain Course for Move to Division I Basketball

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

They have little reason to fear Cal State Northridge, but still they hesitate to schedule basketball games against the school.

Despite the efforts of Coach Pete Cassidy, CSUN failed to play a Division I opponent during the past season.

The Matadors were hardly demanding too much. Northridge was ready and willing to travel for a modest guarantee--even to get trounced, which is what happened twice on its torturous 1987 tour of Kansas.

The stumbling block is that Division I teams gain little by beating up on lower-division squads. A determining factor in gaining an NCAA postseason tournament bid is strength of schedule, and a victory over a Division II opponent does not score well regardless of the final tally.

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This will become a moot point at Northridge in less than two years. CSUN has announced its intent to compete in Division I in all sports but football beginning in the fall of 1990.

Scheduling upper-division teams already has become easier; road games against Utah State, Weber State, Southern Utah State and Cal State Fullerton are penciled in for next season.

Games against Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Cal State Long Beach are likely for the following season, when Northridge’s move to Division I becomes official.

“Most teams are waiting until we actually go (Division I) before they’ll play us. Then they’ll be looking forward to it,” Cassidy said with a smile. “They’ll probably be standing in line.”

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And with good reason. Northridge likely will be a Division I basketball program in name more than anything else.

Bob Hiegert, CSUN’s athletic director, says that the school is “right on track” in its progression toward Division I.

Apparently, few people yet realize how far off the destination lies.

A year after announcing that upgrading its men’s basketball team would be its top priority, Northridge finished fifth in the eight-team, California Collegiate Athletic Assn. Third-place Chapman, a private school with one-tenth CSUN’s enrollment, also is considering a change--to Division III.

“I’m disappointed,” said Cassidy, whose team finished with a 16-11 record. “I had great aspirations for this team that we were unable to obtain.”

There are those who would say--and who did so publicly to reporters after a couple of games--that Cassidy greatly contributed to his team’s demise.

“Somebody, probably a wise man, once said, ‘Coaches lose and players win,’ ” Cassidy said. “The hell with the critics. They don’t walk in my moccasins.”

Truth be told, few coaches would want to be in Cassidy’s shoes. Northridge has historically been at the bottom rung among CCAA basketball teams in terms of financial support.

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The Division II scholarship maximum is 12. Cassidy estimates that three conference schools have reached that number and that three others are extremely close. Northridge, he says, will award between eight and 10 next season. The Division I maximum is 15.

And the number of scholarships Northridge has at its disposal is deceiving. CSUN might be able to afford 10 scholarships but only if all the players are from California. To recruit out of state would take more money. Bakersfield, for example, spent more on its starting lineup--three players from Oklahoma and two from Arizona--than CSUN did for its whole team.

Because tuition rates at state universities are higher for out-of-state students, Northridge has never recruited a basketball player outside California.

“It would be marvelous to go out of state,” Cassidy said. “California looks awfully good to a lot of kids. But you have to have the wherewithal to go out and recruit them.”

Cassidy declined to comment on specific elements that limit Northridge. “I don’t want to cry about things like scholarships,” he said.

Even if financial-aid resources were increased, the program might still be left wanting. CSUN coaches will need time off from classroom responsibilities during key recruiting periods and a budget large enough for extensive scouting.

“Everything goes together to be competitive in Division I,” Cassidy said. “We need the staffing, the budget, the whole gamut, to have what we need.

“We’re on an ice-breaking mission right now. We’re going to be moving a little bit at a time. There’s no windfall coming.”

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The athletics department could choose to immediately fund basketball at the maximum level, Hiegert said, but only at the expense of other programs.

“In the philosophy of Division II, that’s not what we should be doing,” Hiegert said. “Some of our sister schools have put all of their eggs in one basket.”

Hiegert contends that Northridge could provide maximums in scholarships and other support during its early years in Division I and still wind up with a mediocre record.

“The thing that is critical to success in basketball is an arena,” he said. “Until we get a facility, I think the program is going to suffer a little bit. If everyone has the same dollar amount and claims to have a good coaching staff, the next thing down a recruit’s list are location and where you’re playing. Our location is OK, but our arena is certainly smaller than most.”

Northridge officials have proposed construction of an on-campus arena, but funding and a site remain sticking points. Cassidy must push on nevertheless.

“You can’t go in saying that it’s not going to work,” Cassidy said. “Hell, if that’s your attitude, it will probably never work.”


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