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Crunch Time : Big West Tournament Holds Key to 49ers’ NCAA Bid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This could be the biggest week for men’s basketball at Cal State Long Beach in 13 years. That is how long it has been since the 49ers made it to the NCAA tournament.

The 49ers, who have a 20-7 won-loss record, would appear to have a chance to make the 64-team tournament if they do well in the Big West Conference tournament.

They play Utah State at 4 p.m. Friday in the Long Beach Arena. The 49ers have defeated Utah State twice during the regular season, 79-78 and 82-74.

If they win again, they would likely play top-seeded New Mexico State in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Saturday. That game could attract a crowd of more than 10,000. Only twice--in 1973 and 1979--have 49er teams played before crowds that big in the arena.

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“There are a lot of reasons why we would be a good pick (for the NCAA tournament) right now,” Long Beach Coach Joe Harrington said.

The 49ers have won seven consecutive games. They have an 8-1 nonconference record that includes victories over 10th-ranked Purdue and highly regarded Texas. They also have defeated 23rd-ranked New Mexico State.

“I think we have a strong enough team to get in,” Harrington said. “We’ve played a strong enough schedule. I think we deserve it.”

Twenty victories, however, never guarantee an NCAA berth--18 teams that won 20 or more games last season were not selected.

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The University of Nevada-Las Vegas (26-5) and New Mexico State (25-3), who tied for first place in the Big West with 16-2 conference records, will certainly be selected, and third-place UC Santa Barbara (20-7, 13-5), which defeated fourth-place Long Beach twice, is also a strong possibility.

But Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian said he did not think four teams from the Big West Conference would be selected.

“I doubt whether there are 64 teams in the country better than Long Beach,” Tarkanian said. “I don’t think they give our league the credit it deserves.”

The only sure way for the 49ers, who are 11-0 in games that have been decided by six or fewer points, to get into the tournament is by winning the Big West tournament. The winner automatically qualifies.

“This team is just now doing the things that the team (17-12) I had the first year here did, such as making the extra pass to get the good shot,” Harrington said.

Harrington, who has been obsessed most of the season with the NCAA tournament possibility, said he will be satisfied even if the 49ers don’t get in. If they don’t, it is likely they would go to the National Invitational Tournament.

“I consider the season a success right now,” Harrington said.

Here is a look at how the 49er players have performed this season:

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Tyrone Mitchell: The senior point guard has won praise from coaches, including Indiana’s Bobby Knight and University of the Pacific’s Bob Thomason. “I don’t see how they will replace him (next season),” Thomason said.

Mitchell, who likes to drive down the right side of the foul lane, has averaged 32 minutes, 10 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds a game. He also is the team’s best defensive player.

He is not a threat to shoot from outside and has been unable to master free throws (50%). Yet he made two in the final seconds to defeat San Jose State.

Lucious Harris: The best freshman in the Big West, he leads the 49ers in scoring with a 13-point average. He has scored in double figures 21 times and has scored his career high of 18 five times.

Harris got the 49ers started toward a big season when he made a steal in the last seconds that led to a layup by Kenny Jarvis to defeat Purdue early in December.

Athletic talent enables Harris to make what coaches call big-time moves, but he sometimes misses easy baskets at the end of those moves. He has shot only 40% from the field.

Kevin Cutler: The 6-foot-8 forward/center had a slump midway through the season but has come on strong in the last few weeks, including a 28-point, 14-rebound performance against San Jose State. He stuffed himself with candy before that game.

Cutler, the most intimidating 49er, is the team’s leading rebounder with about seven a game and leads in blocked shots with 32. He likes to charge to the basket to tip in a teammate’s shot. He has a tendency to miss easy shots but has been in a groove lately at the free throw line.

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Troy Joseph: He was in a horrible slump for a long time, but also has recovered. His game is driving to the basket for dunks. He did a great defensive job against Cal State Fullerton star Cedric Ceballos. Joseph is one of many poor free-throw shooters (61%) on a team that has shot 63% from the line.

Rudy Harvey: The senior forward started the season as a reserve but became a starter seven games ago, and the 49ers have not lost since. Harvey, who is shooting 64% from the field, made a 360-degree dunk to spark a recent victory over San Jose State. He can be counted on to get a big rebound.

Frankie Edwards: Playing his first year of college basketball, Edwards has steadily improved after a shaky start. He has come off the bench recently to make big contributions.

His strength makes him a fierce rebounder--he averages four rebounds despite playing only 16 minutes a game. He likes to shoot a base line hook, but rarely even hits the rim with it.

Mike Masucci: He scored 76 points during one five-game stretch, but in the last eight games has lost his starting job and has averaged only six points. He made four turnovers in 10 minutes last week against Fresno State. He and Edwards are the only 49ers shooting better than 70% from the foul line. A free spirit, he plays with a grin on his face that opposing fans interpret as a smirk.

Kenny Jarvis: He is shooting only 38% from the field and has missed the last two games because of an ankle injury. He has had his moments, though, scoring in double figures eight times. He had 18 points against Nevada Las Vegas.

Darrell Faulkner: A senior guard whose specialty is three-point shooting, Faulkner has been one of several key reserves. Last week at Fresno he made three shots from long range and also converted his own steal into a layup to ignite a comeback.

Ronnie Winbush: A 6-foot-8 sophomore who likes to shoot three-pointers, Winbush has overcome the jitters that plagued him early in the season. He scored 14 points recently against Utah State. He has made all 10 of his free throws.

Bobby Sears: Mitchell’s backup most of the season, he is averaging 11 minutes and three points a game. He sometimes loses the ball when pressed.

Kevin Williams: He has played only six minutes a game, but rarely plays in big games. He scored 13 points against Hofstra.

BIG WEST TOURNAMENT Here is the schedule for the Big West Conference men’s basketball tournament at the Long Beach Arena:

Friday--1:30 p.m.--New Mexico State vs. winner of Wednesday night’s San Jose State-Fresno State game.

4 p.m.--Cal State Long Beach vs. Utah State.

7 p.m.--UC Santa Barbara vs. University of the Pacific.

9 p.m.--Nevada Las Vegas vs. winner of Wednesday night’s UC Irvine-Cal State Fullerton game.

Saturday--Semifinal games will be at 7 and 9 p.m.

Sunday--Championship game, 3 p.m.

The Big West Conference women’s basketball tournament schedule at the arena:

Today--1 p.m.--Cal State Fullerton vs. Fresno State.

3 p.m.--Hawaii vs. winner of Wednesday’s UC Irvine-University of the Pacific game.

7 p.m.--Nevada Las Vegas vs. winner of Wednesday’s San Jose State-San Diego State game.

9 p.m.--Cal State Long Beach vs. UC Santa Barbara.

Saturday--Semifinals at 1 and 3 p.m.

Sunday--Championship game, noon.

The Cal State Long Beach women’s team, 22-7 and ranked 14th in the country, is seeded third behind Nevada Las Vegas and Hawaii.

Tickets are $18 and $12.


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