Northridge Takes Off in Big Sky


Exhilarating victories at home. Excruciating losses on the road.

Hitting rock bottom. Climbing back.

There goes the thrill-a-minute Cal State Northridge roller coaster.

Coach Bobby Braswell’s decision to stack the nonconference schedule with challenging opponents made for a dizzying ride, but it appears the Matadors (4-6) averted disaster and emerged stronger.

Northridge opened with losses at Arizona State and Oregon State, then after an impressive 15-point victory over Pepperdine at home, the Matadors fell at San Diego on a last-second shot.

A home rout of Loyola Marymount was followed by dispiriting defeats at Ohio State and Ohio. When the Matadors opened the Fresno State tournament last week with a lopsided loss to Long Island to drop their record to 2-6, they could sink no lower.


A two-hour, players-only meeting was convened immediately after the game. Profanity, which Braswell does not use and does not allow in his presence, flew recklessly around the room.

The coaches had their say the next day in a team meeting. Tears were shed, everyone took a deep breath and vowed to begin anew.

As fortune would have it, the next two opponents were Division II weaklings which Northridge pounded until confidence, rhythm, unselfishness and all else positive was restored.

Whether the pain results in gain will be determined during the upcoming Big Sky Conference season. The Matadors open at Portland State tonight on a trip that includes a game Monday at Eastern Washington.

Preseason polls have Northridge finishing anywhere from second to sixth in the eight-team conference. Don’t ask Braswell to narrow it down any further.

“The only Big Sky team I’ve seen on tape is Portland State, and we watched that [Tuesday],” he said. “All of our energy went into preparing for each nonconference opponent.”


Northridge was decidedly average last season, going 8-8 in conference play before heating up in the Big Sky Tournament. The Matadors upset Northern Arizona and Montana State, then fell to Montana in the last minute of the final.

Despite the win-one, lose-one season, the Matadors were rarely boring. Their up-tempo attack and pressure defense was like a cold splash of water in the face of the competition.

That shouldn’t change.

“Nobody in the conference plays the same style as us,” Braswell said.

Last season, Northridge led the conference in steals, turnovers and turnovers created. That might not change either.

The Matadors are deeper and more talented. Additions Jabari Simmons, Jeff Parris, Brian Heinle and Brian Hagens, combined with holdover Kevin Taylor, provide punch inside.

At guard, newcomers Mike O’Quinn, Greg Minor and Carl Holmes all shoot well from the perimeter and run the floor. Returners Trenton Cross and Lucky Grundy contribute assists and occasional points.

Those 10 play enough to break a sweat in every game. Braswell keeps everyone fresh and always has a bullet in his gun when he needs it.


No wonder the loss of senior guard Derrick Higgins, out for the season because of a stress fracture in his right foot, is serious but not devastating.

The downside is no one brings a complete package of offense, defense and ball-handling night after night. Chemistry has been slow to develop because of Braswell’s rapid-fire substitutions and the inconsistency that plagues the team.

The explosive yet erratic Matadors begin play in a conference where experience pervades. Nearly every Big Sky team returns three or more starters.

Favorite Northern Arizona (6-4) has made a dramatic turnaround in two years under Coach Ben Howland. The Lumberjacks took the regular-season title last season and return nine of their top 10 players, including All-Big Sky forward Andrew Mavis.

Montana State (8-3) is off to the best start among Big Sky teams and defeated Ohio and San Diego, teams that beat Northridge. Don’t count out Montana (6-6), which has at least 20 victories in six consecutive seasons and represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament last year.

Eastern Washington (6-4), Portland State (5-6) and Idaho State (4-6) have beaten good teams and seem to be improved. Weber State (2-8) has not handled a difficult nonconference schedule well and Cal State Sacramento (1-9) should bring up the rear.


“I believe we are ready,” Braswell said. “We’ve gone through tough times and learned a lot about ourselves in this preseason.”



* THE PROVEN: Thirteen of the 20 Big Sky players who had scoring averages in double figures return, including six all-conference selections. Damien Baskerville of Weber State led the conference with an 18.5 scoring average and might be the best defensive player in the conference. Montana State’s 6-foot-8, 255-pound center Nate Holmstadt was second in scoring at 17.6 and in rebounding at 7.7, and this season is averaging 15.7 points and is shooting 61.2%. Teammate Danny Sprinkle averaged 13.7 points before a head injury cut short his season. Northern Arizona 6-6 forward Andrew Mavis averaged 15.0 and made 78 three-pointers. Along with an 11.3 scoring average, Montana guard J.R. Camel averaged 4.6 assists, most of any returning conference player. Teammate Ryan Dick averaged 6.8 rebounds. Northern Arizona’s 7-foot sophomore center Dan McLintock led the conference with 1.5 blocked shots a game and with a 65.7% shooting percentage. Guard Trenton Cross of Cal State Northridge was the Big Sky Tournament most valuable player, but his playing time has decreased dramatically because the Matadors have so many talented guards.

* THE PROMISING: Portland State forward Jason Hartman, a junior transfer from Washington who played at Thousand Oaks High, is averaging 16 points in five games since becoming eligible. Hartman scored 24 points against Washington State on Dec. 20. Eastern Washington guard Shannon Taylor, a junior from Ventura College, averages 10.8 points. Montana State forward Damon Ollie, a senior from North Hollywood High, has bounced back from an ankle injury that kept him out of all but four conference games last season. Ollie is averaging 13.9 points and leads Big Sky players with a 10.0 rebounding average. Five Cal State Northridge newcomers are near the top in minutes: Forwards Jabari Simmons and Jeff Parris and guards Mike O’Quinn, Carl Holmes and Greg Minor.

* FAST FACT: Weber State is 2-8 and has not beaten a Division I team despite returning two All-Big Sky players.

* 1996-97 STANDINGS: 1. Northern Arizona (14-2 conference, 21-7 overall); 2. Montana (11-5, 21-11); 3. Montana State (10-6, 21-11); 4. Weber State (9-7, 15-13); 5. Idaho State (9-7, 14-13); 6. Northridge (8-8, 14-15); 7. Portland State (6-10, 7-19); 8. Eastern Washington (3-13, 7-19); 9. Sacramento State (2-14, 3-23).