Bottom Feeders

Times Staff Writer

And now, introducing the 2003 Southland version of the RPI -- the Really Pathetic Index.

There are 327 college basketball teams in Division I, but were it not for UC Irvine at No. 98, there wouldn't be a team from the Los Angeles area in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index, the formula used to assist in selecting at-large teams for the NCAA tournament.

So here's to you, Anteaters, a basin turns its lonely eyes to you.

Not that 18-8 Irvine -- a school that has never played an NCAA tournament game -- has a chance of making it as an at-large team. That typically requires an RPI in the 40s or perhaps 50s.

That doesn't help UC Santa Barbara either. Despite being in first place in the Big West Conference, Santa Barbara (16-12) has a No. 124 RPI after starting 4-8.

That means the last hoops hope for the Southland to avoid being shut out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1984 is for some team -- any team -- to win one of the three area conference tournaments and the automatic NCAA bid that goes with it.

No. 130 Pepperdine (15-12) and No. 225 Loyola Marymount (10-19) will try in the West Coast Conference tournament that begins today in San Diego. (Gonzaga is the favorite.)

In this bleak season, the local basketball hasn't been at the top of the standings, but at the bottom.

In the Pacific 10 Conference, No. 121 USC (10-16) and No. 162 UCLA (8-18) have been reduced to battling the Washington schools -- imagine, the Washingtons! -- on the final day of the regular season just to qualify for the eight-team Pac-10 tournament next week at Staples Center.

In the Big West, staging its own eight-team tournament next week at the Anaheim Convention Center, the battle for the bottom has been quite entertaining, with close games and upsets left and right.

In the end, No. 235 Cal State Northridge (13-14) and No. 274 Cal State Fullerton (9-18) clinched precious spots ahead of No. 309 Long Beach State (5-21), a team that started the season 1-11, worst in school history.

(No. 288 UC Riverside [6-17] is ineligible for the Big West tournament as part of its transition to Division I, and its record is partly the result of strategic redshirting.)

Even annexing San Diego doesn't help much. San Diego State (15-11) is No. 74. And recall the University of San Diego, one of the first teams to expose UCLA? The Toreros are No. 99 at 16-11.

But let's be frank: The only reason any of this is a phenomenon is because of UCLA.

The Bruins have played in the NCAA tournament every season except five since the end of the John Wooden era in 1974-75, carrying the banner alone plenty of times.

But the Bruins have gone bust.

If you had told some of these other coaches they'd win more games this season than UCLA....

"Oh, God, I'd have taken that to the bank," Fullerton Coach Donny Daniels said.

"There's only one really strange thing, and that's UCLA. It's no different than when Mike Krzyzewski stepped down because of his back at Duke -- and they had Steve Wojciechowski and Cherokee Parks. Right now, it's North Carolina that's struggling.... "

In other words, in all likelihood, a temporary blip on the landscape.

UCLA will return to prominence, USC will drop in regularly, along with Pepperdine and perhaps Santa Barbara. Long Beach and Loyola Marymount will make the occasional appearance and Fullerton and Northridge will capture lightning in a bottle again sometime.

Fullerton made its only trip in 1978 and reached the Elite Eight before Arkansas stopped the Titans a step shy of the Final Four. Northridge, then in the Big Sky Conference, made the field in 2001.

Riverside is too new to have been, and the Anteaters -- imagine the darlings they would be with that nickname -- have flirted with the tournament in recent years and need only to win the conference tournament to finally break through.

So what is it with this season?

Southern California, land of skateboards, taco stands and lousy basketball?

"I think it's probably just what you'd call a kind of aberration," said UCLA Coach Steve Lavin, no longer someone with much of a vested interest. "I don't think it's really indicative of any pattern, other than just happenstance or coincidence that at one time you have so many programs that may not make the NCAA tournament."

Has there been a talent exodus?

"There was a time, probably, in the early '80s through the mid-'80s, where we were losing a lot of players to the Big East or the ACC. But I'd say the last 15, going on 20 years, you can build a case West Coast basketball has been as strong as any other region in the country," Lavin said. "You look at Arizona's Final Fours, Stanford's Final Four, UCLA's national championship.... This just happens to be kind of an unusual year. But I don't think it's any pattern or decline of West Coast basketball."

The only discernible pattern is ... coincidence.

"Looking at what's gone on in Southern California, a lot of it comes down to either young point guards or guys breaking in at point guard," Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell said.

"We've been playing with Curtis Slaughter, a 6-7 guy, running the point after losing Markus Carr. I see the Cravens [sophomore twins Errick and Derrick] at USC. Look at UCLA's point guard problems, and Pepperdine losing its point guard to injury. I just think point guard is such an integral position."

Some of the changes are part of the cycle of college basketball.

USC lost a class of players as talented as Sam Clancy, Brandon Granville and David Bluthenthal, and it was reasonable for the Trojans to take a step back -- just not this big of a step back.

Then there is plain old bad luck.

Pepperdine, considered a fringe top-25 team at the beginning of the season, lost three starters. Center Will Kimble's career might be over because of a serious heart condition, forward Glen McGowan had rib surgery, and point guard Devin Montgomery required thumb surgery.

Truthfully? The Waves have done pretty well.

"People always look back at the games you lost that maybe you could have won, but never look back at the games we won and wonder how we won," Coach Paul Westphal said. "We've got a chance [in the WCC tournament]. We're not favored, but we've got a chance."

Fullerton, emerging from probation after going 5-22 last season, was a bit snake-bitten as well, losing forward Brandon Campbell and center Babacar Camara to ankle injuries and guard Derick Andrew to an eye condition. In addition, center Pape Sow was suspended for more than a month because of a petty-theft conviction after taking a cap from the student store, prompting Irvine students to hold up a giant "Get Out of Jail Free" card when he returned.

Most obviously, as has often been noted, there has been a decline in the Big West since Nevada Las Vegas was a member of the conference in its heyday, when teams regularly appeared on ESPN's "Big Monday."

The Big West in those days was sometimes a two-bid or even three-bid conference -- in 1988 and '90. It will be a one-bid conference for the 10th consecutive season this year.

"Having a great team in the conference raises the bar," said UC Riverside Athletic Director Stan Morrison, who coached teams from Pacific, USC and San Jose State to the NCAA tournament. "A great team in a league attracts players to the other teams.... We, as a conference, aspire to get multiple teams in again."

There are other factors at work.

"There's a trickle-down with kids going pro," Irvine's Pat Douglass said. "How many bona-fide pros are there in the Pac-10? How many were there 10 years ago?"

That means even fewer for the Big West, which besides the UNLV stars produced such players as Brian Shaw of UC Santa Barbara, Bruce Bowen and Cedric Ceballos of Fullerton, and Lucious Harris and Bryon Russell of Long Beach State, to name a few. (In addition, Michael Olowokandi of Pacific was the No. 1 pick overall in 1998, two years after UNLV left the conference.)

These days, the best prospects in the conference are the coaches. Douglass won three NCAA Division II titles at Cal State Bakersfield and is mentioned in the UCLA derby because Bruin Athletic Director Dan Guerrero hired him at Irvine. Santa Barbara's Bob Williams won a Division II title at UC Davis, and first-year Long Beach Coach Larry Reynolds advanced to the Division II Elite Eight twice at Cal State San Bernardino.

Daniels -- whose three consecutive overtime victories in January with Fullerton were little short of miraculous -- was an assistant to Rick Majerus on the Utah team that played Kentucky for the 1998 NCAA title. Braswell is another excellent coach.

A run through a conference tournament could make any of them a star, the savior of Southern California.

Odds are better that Pepperdine or one of the Big West teams will break through than that any upstart will sneak through the Pac-10 past Arizona.

Better to buy your tickets for the NCAA West Regional at the Arrowhead Pond March 27 and 29, and pick a team.

Southern California just might have to adopt one.

*

We're No. 1(62)

The Rating Percentage Index (RPI) has been used by the NCAA since 1981 to supplement the selection of at-large teams and the seeding of all teams for the NCAA basketball tournament. Barring a local team winning its conference tournament, the Southland will not have a school in the NCAA tournament for this first time since 1984.

1. Arizona

2. Kentucky

3. Texas

4. Oklahoma

5. Florida

6. Georgia

7. Marquette

8. Kansas

9. Syracuse

10. Notre Dame

11. Wake Forest

12. Louisville

13. Duke

14. Utah

15. Oklahoma St.

16. Stanford

17. Missouri

18. Pittsburgh

19. BYU

20. Xavier

21. Dayton

22. Illinois

23. Maryland

24. Cincinnati

25. Mississippi St.

26. Wisconsin

27. St. Joseph's

28. Memphis

29. California

30. Alabama

31. Creighton

32. Purdue

33. Seton Hall

34. Indiana

35. Arizona St.

36. Michigan St.

37. Auburn

38. Southern Illinois

39. Texas Tech

40. Butler

41. Connecticut

42. Gonzaga

43. Nevada Las Vegas

44. Louisiana St.

45. Weber St.

46. Boston College

47. Colorado

48. Oregon

49. Saint Louis

50. Michigan

51. Minnesota

52. Wyoming

53. Tennessee

54. DePaul

55. Pennsylvania

56. North Carolina

57. Wisc.-Milwaukee

58. Central Michigan

59. Villanova

60. Texas A&M;

61. NC Wilmington

62. Fresno St.

63. Ohio St.

64. Holy Cross

65. Western Kentucky

66. La. Lafayette

67. Manhattan

68. North Carolina St.

69. Charleston

70. South Carolina

71. Illinois Chicago

72. Providence

73. Clemson

74. San Diego St.

75. Georgia Tech

76. Charlotte

77. Virginia

78. Richmond

79. Florida St.

80. Arkansas

81. Troy St.

82. Valparaiso

83. Tulsa

84. Western Michigan

85. Hawaii

86. West Virginia

87. Austin Peay

88. Rhode Island

89. Kent St.

90. St. John's

91. Mississippi

92. Iowa St.

93. Vanderbilt

94. Fairfield

95. Drexel

96. Rice

97. Baylor

98. UC Irvine

99. San Diego

100. Iowa

101. Mercer

102. Miami Ohio

103. Temple

104. George Mason

105. Georgetown

106. Chattanooga

107. Utah St.

108. Ala. Birmingham

109. Siena

110. Boston

111. Wagner

112. Rutgers

113. Nevada

114. Ball St.

115. Northern Illinois

116. Nebraska

117. E. Washington

118. Stephen F. Austin

119. So. Methodist

120. V. Commonwlth.

121. USC

122. New Mexico St.

123. South Florida

124. UCSB

125. Sam Houston St.

126. Kansas St.

127. Detroit

128. Morehead St.

129. San Francisco

130. Pepperdine

131. Colorado St.

132. Wichita St.

133. SW Missouri St.

134. Davidson

135. Niagara

136. Belmont

137. St. Bonaventure

138. East Carolina

139. Evansville

140. Princeton

141. Washington

142. South Alabama

143. Tulane

144. Tennessee Tech

145. So. Mississippi

146. Iona

147. Murray St.

148. New Mexico

149. Ark. Little Rock

150. Central Florida

151. Loyola Chicago

152. La Salle

153. St. Mary's

154. Oregon St.

155. Oral Roberts

156. Air Force

157. Akron

158. Appalachian St.

159. Delaware

160. Louisiana Tech

161. New Orleans

162. UCLA

163. Brown

164. E. Tennessee St.

165. Geo. Washington

166. Ohio

167. Northwestern

168. Middle Tenn.

169. Hartford

170. Vermont

171. Miami

172. Winthrop

173. Jacksonville St.

174. Virginia Tech

175. Eastern Illinois

176. Bowling Green

177. IUPUI

178. Texas Arlington

179. Yale

180. Boise St.

181. American

182. SW Texas St.

183. Eastern Michigan

184. Toledo

185. Marist

186. Oakland

187. Denver

188. Idaho St.

189. Hampton

190. Cal Poly SLO

191. Birmingham-So.

192. Old Dominion

193. Pacific

194. Bradley

195. Florida A&M;

196. Harvard

197. Monmouth

198. Montana

199. Quinnipiac

200. Washington St.

201. Santa Clara

202. Rider

203. Penn St.

204. Texas Christian

205. Massachusetts

206. Marshall

207. McNeese St.

208. Samford

209. Charleston So.

210. Northern Arizona

211. Central Conn. St.

212. Delaware St.

213. Houston

214. Wisc. Green Bay

215. Prairie View

216. NC Asheville

217. Maine

218. Northern Iowa

219. Furman

220. Binghamton

221. Wofford

222. Lehigh

223. Georgia Southern

224. So. Carolina St.

225. LMU

226. Tennessee Martin

227. Portland

228. James Madison

229. St. Francis (Pa.)

230. Wright St.

231. Arkansas St.

232. Mississippi Valley

233. Canisius

234. Colgate

235. CS Northridge

236. Jacksonville

237. Northeastern

238. St. Peter's

239. Elon

240. Montana St.

241. Lamar

242. Duquesne

243. Georgia St.

244. Illinois St.

245. Drake

246. Idaho

247. Farl. Dickinson

248. Central Carolina

249. Bucknell

250. Coppin St.

251. North Texas

252. William & Mary

253. Alabama St.

254. SE Louisiana

255. Howard

256. Liberty

257. St. Francis (N.Y.)

258. Tex. San Antonio

259. Sacramento St.

260. Louisiana Monroe

261. Texas Southern

262. Texas A&M-CC;

263. Stony Brook

264. Indiana St.

265. Lafayette

266. Cleveland St.

267. Hofstra

268. SE Missouri

269. Alcorn St.

270. Centenary

271. Fordham

272. Long Island

273. Eastern Kentucky

274. CS Fullerton

275. IUPU-Ft. Wayne

276. San Jose St.

277. Missouri KC

278. Fla. International

279. Mount St. Mary's

280. Navy

281. Jackson St.

282. Southern Utah

283. Norfolk St.

284. NC Greensboro

285. Dartmouth

286. Robert Morris

287. Youngstown St.

288. UC Riverside

289. Western Carolina

290. Florida Atlantic

291. Grambling St.

292. Albany

293. Portland St.

294. Stetson

295. Cornell

296. Sacred Heart

297. Virg. Military Inst.

298. Radford

299. Gardner Webb

300. Texas El Paso

301. The Citadel

302. Md. Balt. County

303. Western Illinois

304. Northwestern St.

305. Loyola Maryland

306. High Point

307. Buffalo

308. New Hampshire

309. Long Beach St.

310. Beth. Cookman

311. Tx. Pan American

312. Alabama A&M;

313. Towson

314. Chicago St.

315. Campbell

316. Ark. Pine Bluff.

317. Morgan St.

318. Nicholls St.

319. Army

320. Lipscomb

321. Savannah St.

322. Tennessee St.

323. Morris Brown

324. Md. East. Shore

325. Columbia

326. Southern

327. N. Carolina A&T;

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Looking Like a Shutout

*--* The Southland doesn't figure to have a representative in the NCAA men's basketball tournament this year for the first time since 1984. The NCAA Division I tournament appearances by each school and the year of its last appearance: School NCAA App Last App UCLA 38 2002 PEPPERDINE 13 2002 USC 12 2002 LONG BEACH STATE 7 1995 LOYOLA MARYMOUNT 5 1990 UC SANTA BARBARA 3 2002 CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE 1 2001 CAL STATE FULLERTON 1 1978 UC IRVINE 0 None UC RIVERSIDE 0 None

*--*

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