It seemed like any other practice day. But for the Cal State Dominguez Hills men’s basketball team, Thursday’s workout might have been time spent going nowhere, remembering what could have been, and what got the 19-9 Toros to a point where they were preparing for an unknown opponent in a game they may never get a chance to play.
Once considered a shoo-in for an NCAA Division II postseason tournament berth, Dominguez Hills caused itself to become a pawn in a national guessing game that ends this afternoon at 1 when playoff pairings are released in a press conference from Springfield, Mass.
The Toros, proud holders of a school-record nine-game winning streak, fell flat on their horns, lost three of their last four games and were eliminated from the CCAA tournament in the first round March 4. As a result, Dominguez Hills did not receive one of the top 15 invitations handed out last Tuesday by an eight-man national selection committee.
So they practiced all last week with the hope that today would bring better news. The team is expected to gather at the Hawthorne home of sophomore guard Robert Barksdale and get the news from a satellite 23,000 miles in space.
With 17 openings remaining, the Toros’ chances now rest with Athletic Director Al Mathews of Cal State Hayward, the Division II western representative. Mathews is not sure he can win enough votes despite his belief that “Dominguez Hills is one of the best teams in the West.”
“Quite frankly,” Mathews said earlier in the week, “it would be easier to sell Dominguez Hills if it hadn’t lost three of its last four.”
In its season, Dominguez Hills upset two top-ranked teams and finished second in the CCAA, a conference that has already placed two teams in the tournament: conference champion UC Riverside and surprising Cal State Bakersfield, which tied for third. Both teams will play in the western regional, which, not so ironically, will be hosted by Bakersfield in its new on-campus facility.
Officials at Dominguez Hills were stunned last Tuesday when Bakersfield, which finished behind the Toros, was selected. But, realistically, the tournament sponsors would like to turn a profit, something they have not always done. The thinking goes that if the tournament is held in Bakersfield, it will have a better chance of selling out if the host team is playing.
Others reasoned that Bakersfield (20-8) had more wins than the Toros, including a preseason victory over a highly regarded eastern team, and that swayed the voters.
Dominguez Hills cannot count its season-opening win over a team from Canada, according to NCAA rules, and that hurt its overall record.
But that is all water under the bridge now, according to the players, who just want to play. For seniors like center Anthony Blackmon and guard Derrick Clark, whose careers hang in the balance, the waiting has been tough.
Said Clark: “If we do go on, it will certainly be an inspiration to me.”
Thursday afternoon in the Toro Gym, Blackmon, the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. player of the year, shot free throws at a secluded basket. His teammates were having a shoot-around on the main floor, oblivious to the plotting going on in a tiny block-wall office next to the gym.
Politics, perhaps more than the team’s ability, will play a major role in whether the Toros get another chance. East Coast schools don’t always give the West enough credit, says Coach Dave Yanai. Few even know where Bakersfield and Carson are.
“That’s why we can leave no stone unturned,” said Toro Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who was holed up in the office of sports information director Thomas Neff with associate athletic director Greg Bistline.
As the Toros practiced, the three were completing five days of strategy. Neff spent most of the week on the phone, putting together the records of every possible team in the country that might bump the Toros out of a playoff spot. Guerrero made dozens of phone calls lobbying voters across the country.
It was a scene that was probably carried out at every school on what Mathews calls “the bubble,” the gray zone between being in the action or watching it from home.
“By doing this, at least you know you haven’t deprived your players of (any chance of) going to the playoffs,” Guerrero said.
On Thursday, Neff put together the phone numbers of the other seven voters. Later he would fax information about Dominguez Hills’ season to each.
“This is just to make sure we don’t miss anything,” he said. “You don’t want to downplay anyone; you just show them your strong points.”
Back in the gym, Yanai was putting the Toros through some rugged paces.
“He’s not letting up,” said sophomore guard Bryan Dell’Amico, watching from the sideline with a bone chip in his thumb. “He’s addressing the little things like this was the first week of practice.”
Yanai, looking tired and agitated, kept the Toros moving.
“The coach has shown that he’s angry with us,” junior forward Kenyatta Kalisana said before practice began. “He’s been nit-picking more than he usually does. I guess you could say that this week is an atonement.”
Other players agreed.
“This week we’ve had two of the hardest practices since I don’t know when,” said freshman forward Segaro Bozart.
Several of the players had explanations for their late-season failures.
Said Clark, who missed the front ends of two one-and-one free-throw opportunities in the final minute of a 67-62 overtime loss to Chapman College in the CCAA tournament: “It all came down to crunch time, and we didn’t answer the call.”
If Dominguez Hills gets a berth, Mathews said, the school most likely will be sent to the western regional at Bakersfield.
That would be just fine, the players said, because they have a score to settle. The Toros blew a 10-point lead against the Roadrunners the last time the teams met, then lost on a last-second basket. Then, at the conference tournament, a Bakersfield player had words with Toro freshman guard Michael Bell in the parking lot at Riverside City College.
Barksdale summed up the players’ attitude: “If we play up to our capacity, we can beat anyone from our conference. It’s just a matter of are we going to come to play on a certain night.”
Focusing on that attitude was difficult during last week’s practices.
“It’s hard to get emotional when you don’t know if you’ll be playing,” Bell said.
Added Bozart: “We’ve got to keep focus. It wouldn’t be worth it doing nothing and then getting in the tournament.”
But junior forward Kevin Shaw admitted that it was tough for him.
“It’s difficult to work hard every day if you don’t know if you will be in the NCAA tournament or not.”
As for Yanai, he says his team’s chances are remote. But he’s expected to be at Barksdale’s house this afternoon anyway.
Explained Guerrero: “It all comes down to Sunday in front of that (satellite) dish.”
First-round pairings for the Division II men’s basketball tournament will not be shown on television, but for the first time, the selection announcement ceremony will be available to those with satellite dishes free of charge. The event, scheduled for 1 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, will be available over Westar 5, transponder 24 with audio of 6.8 and 6.2. A live audio feed is also available by calling (913) 661-0800. Long-distance charges will apply.
The Division I pairings, which will include information about Loyola Marymount, will follow live to most of the nation at 2:30 p.m. on CBS (including KFMB Channel 8 in San Diego, which can be received in some locations in San Pedro, Palos Verdes Peninsula and Catalina). It will be tape-delayed in Los Angeles an hour later on KCBS Channel 2.