BIG WEST PREVIEW : Transfer of Power Goes to New Mexico St.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

New Mexico State Coach Neil McCarthy has replaced former Nevada Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian on the Big West throne and has taken over the act as well.

Cue the organ for a dirge. Get Lou Holtz to write the script.

"I don't know why we would be picked to finish first," McCarthy says, shaking his head. "We have less experience than any team in the conference."

He forgot to say, "And more talent than any team in the conference."

Sure, McCarthy will point to the four top scorers from last season who are now gone. And he's quick to note that the eight junior college transfers he recruited are untested on this level.

Untested, but clearly not unheralded. Basketball Weekly rated McCarthy's junior college recruiting class ninth-best in the nation.

"I've seen these guys play and I think this (New Mexico State) team will rival some of the best UNLV teams in their glory years," UC Irvine Coach Rod Baker said.

It's not just the talent, though. Everyone seems to agree that McCarthy has an uncanny knack for bringing out the best in a team. And the emphasis here is on team.

"Neil goes out and gets the players, yeah, but it's much more than that," San Jose State Coach Stan Morrison said. "Whatever it is he does, they always play like they've been together for 10 years.

"I'd pay money to see them practice."

All but one of the Big West coaches--guess who?--picked the Aggies to win the title again. McCarthy's vote went to UNLV, which is also in a reloading mode after failing to win the conference title for the first time in 11 years and losing three first-team all-conference players, one of them All-American J.R. Rider.

Here's a look at the Big West, excluding Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Irvine:

NEVADA

1992-93 record: 9-17, 4-14.

Conference finish: Eighth.

First-year Coach Pat Foster, who led Houston to three NCAA berths and three NIT appearances in the last seven years, is finding that "it's not easy to come into a program with no players and try to find a direction." So he's looking up. The Wolf Pack's front line will feature 6-10 senior Kirk Davidson, 6-9 junior Scott Saber and 7-0 junior college transfer Angel Castibianque, from Madrid. Returning sophomore point guard Shawn Pughsley will be a backcourt key.

NEVADA LAS VEGAS

1992-93 record: 21-8, 13-5.

Conference finish: Second.

The players who run the Runnin' Rebels are back: Honorable mention All-American Dedan Thomas was second in the nation in assists last season, junior Reggie Manuel was one of the conference's best defensive players and senior Ken Gibson was the Big West's most accurate three-point shooter. Junior college All-American forwards Clayton Johnson of College of Southern Idaho, and Patrick Savoy, of Mississippi Gulf Coast, averaged a combined 39 points and 21 rebounds last season.

NEW MEXICO STATE

1992-93 record: 26-8, 15-3.

Conference finish: First.

Sam Crawford is gone, but the Aggies are still loaded at guard, thanks to junior college transfers Dwain Bradberry of Mt. San Jacinto and Rodney Walker of Glen Oaks in Centreville, Mich., who averaged 28.4 and 21 points last season. The only returning starter is 6-8 forward James Dockery. Transfer Johnny Selvie, who led the nation's junior colleges in field-goal percentage the last two years at College of Eastern Utah, will provide inside depth. D.J. Jackson is a returning swingman with a sweet three-point shot.

PACIFIC

1992-93 record: 16-11, 12-6.

Conference finish: Third.

The Tigers have six players back--three starters and three top reserves--from their best team in 14 years. Senior Charles Terrell, a dominant force at guard, and senior forward Glenn Griffin earned All-Big West honorable mention acclaim last season. There are also seven freshmen on the roster, including 6-9 center Rayne Mahaffey, the "best big kid we've had here," says Coach Bob Thomason.

SAN JOSE STATE

1992-93 record: 7-19, 4-14.

Conference finish: Eighth.

The Spartans' strength is also at guard, where they have six returners, including four seniors. Also back at guard is senior Terry Cannon, who led the team in scoring in '90-91 and '91-92 before redshirting last season because of a knee injury. Freshmen Marmet Williams, from Santa Ana Mater Dei, and Ross Miller, the USA Today player of the year in Texas, figure to get some serious playing time.

UC SANTA BARBARA

1992-93 record: 18-11, 10-8.

Conference finish: Fifth.

The Gauchos have nine players back, but the top four scorers from last season are gone. Santa Barbara's strength will be up front. Doug Muse, a 6-10 junior forward and the only returning starter, hobbled on sore knees last season, but appears to be strong. Senior forward Duane Carter, 6-8, and Kyle Milling, 6-8, the Big West freshman of the year, also return. Junior college transfers Wayne Butts of Central Florida and Clayton Madden of Canada Community College will be asked to provide the outside scoring.

UTAH STATE

1992-93 record: 10-17, 7-11.

Conference finish: Seventh.

First-year Coach Larry Eustachy, who was 61-33 during three seasons at Idaho, says he took the Aggie job because he likes the idea of building a program. Watch out what you wish for, Larry. Eustachy picked his team to finish last on media day, but his top returner, 7-0 Nathan Wickizer, had just quit the team. Wickizer has since changed his mind. "I may seem like an idiot, but . . . " Wickizer said. Senior guard Trent Rose is the only other returnee who averaged more than seven points.

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