COMMENTARY : Two Wrongs Make a Rite for Big West

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Big West got cheated.

Again.

It's becoming such a regular event, the conference ought to schedule it on its yearly calendar.

Nov. 15: Basketball media day.

Dec. 16: Conference season opens.

March 11: NCAA rip-off.

Last spring, New Mexico State was the Big West team left folded and swindled. Neil McCarthy's Aggies went 21-11, placed second behind Nevada Las Vegas, lost by six points to the Runnin' Rebels in the conference tournament final--and went nowhere.

This time around, Cal State Long Beach is the one pressing its nose against the NCAA's window, with nowhere to turn except the NIT.

The 49ers' credentials?

A 22-8 record.

A victory over Big 10 runner-up Purdue, which qualified for the NCAA field.

A road victory over Texas, which qualified for the NCAA field.

Two victories over New Mexico State, which finally qualified for the NCAA field but had to go 26-4 to do it.

An appearance in the Big West Conference final against Las Vegas, where Long Beach lost on Sunday, 92-74.

"It's hard for me to believe that there are 64 teams in the nation better than Long Beach," UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said.

At least no one can accuse the Big West of being paranoid anymore.

Judging from the comments emanating from Kansas City on Sunday, the NCAA is out to get them.

According to Jim Delany, chairman of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Selection Committee, there was "concern . . . about the lateness of the championship games, especially in the Big Eight, Southeast Conference and Big West. These late games are playing havoc with the selection process.

"The committee felt, 'Who should bear the burden?' Basically, we felt the Big West should bear the burden."

In other words: We don't like you playing tournament championship games on Sunday afternoon, so we're going to make you pay for it.

The NCAA's response was to make a decision about the Big West's third representative--Las Vegas and New Mexico State were already in--by not making a decision. Instead, the berth became an either/or proposition, tossed into the unsuspecting lap of Long Beach.

Either Long Beach upsets Las Vegas Sunday, or UC Santa Barbara goes as the Big West's third team.

"That's an easy cop-out," 49er Coach Joe Harrington said. "It comes down to us having to beat Las Vegas, a team that could very well win the national championship? That doesn't seem hardly fair. How about the other teams with worse records that made it?"

How about it?

Notre Dame (16-12) made it, but then Notre Dame has Digger and, in Delany's words, "two great wins over Syracuse and Missouri." Plus, a whopping 14 others.

The Big West? In the eyes and minds of the NCAA selection committee, it's still a big joke. Pac-10 Jr. Nevada Las Vegas and the nine dwarves.

That minor league outpost at the end of the college basketball world couldn't possibly have four teams worthy of consideration, could it?

The NCAA figures it must deserve some kind of humanitarian award for tossing three invitations the Big West's way.

Yet, ultimately, it did the Big West a disservice by dividing conference allegiance into two camps: Does Santa Barbara (20-8) deserve to go or does Long Beach?

Santa Barbara has three significant victories--one over UNLV and two very big ones over Long Beach--but it also lugs three significant defeats. The Gauchos lost at home to a 5-23 UC Irvine team and lost twice to a 15-14 Pacific team, including Friday night in the Big West tournament quarterfinals.

Long Beach, meanwhile, closed with nine victories in its last 10 games and upset regular-season conference champion New Mexico State in Saturday's semifinals.

"They didn't take care of business," Harrington said of Santa Barbara. "We did. They didn't win a game in the tournament. They lost to a lower seed. We won two games and beat the No. 1 seed. We took care of our business."

Now, the Big West must take care of business. Commissioner Jim Haney said Sunday the conference will have to rethink its expanded tournament format, which grew from four to five days this year to better accommodate the Big West women's field. Sunday, the women's final was held at Long Beach Arena, two hours before the 3 p.m. men's final.

The results were larger crowds for both games--and, the wrath of the NCAA.

"The message sent to us this day, just by wisdom and logic alone, makes us want to reassess where we are," Haney said.

"Again, I may be biased, but I clearly believed we had four teams that deserved to be in the NCAAs. Whether or not we played on Sunday afternoon shouldn't factor into it."

Of course, the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big East tournaments held their finals Sunday, too, and they weren't penalized. It's just those darn West Coast games. They always start so late.

That will read as Cal State Long Beach's 1989-90 epitaph. Punished for playing in the wrong time zone.

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