A New Season Brings New Search for Respect

Times Staff Writer

College basketball observers have labeled the Big West as a coaches' conference in recent years.

There may be truth there. UC Santa Barbara's Bob Williams, Utah State's Stew Morrill, Pacific's Bob Thomason and Cal State Northridge's Bobby Braswell have taken their teams to the NCAA tournament. UC Irvine's Pat Douglass, UC Riverside's John Masi and Long Beach State's Larry Reynolds had great success at one time on the Division II level.

But that hasn't translated into great respect for the conference since the days when Nevada Las Vegas, Fresno State and New Mexico State were members. The Big West hasn't had two teams in the NCAA tournament since the 1992-93 season.

Utah State got a No. 15 seeding as its reward for winning the conference tournament last season.

At the league's recent media day, Santa Barbara's Williams said that meant the top teams in the conference have to play well against national powers -- and beat one once in a while -- to gain respect.

"Our league plays a lot of Pac-10 [teams] in the preseason," said Williams, 80-67 in five years with the Gauchos. "We're playing Kansas, we're playing UCLA. Being competitive in those games is a great sign but the next step that has to happen is, we have to win some of those games."

Santa Barbara begins the season as the favorite to win its second consecutive Big West regular-season title. The Gauchos have four starters and their top eight players returning from an 18-14 team, among them Branduinn Fullove, the Big West player of the year.

One of the starters, senior guard Nick Jones, will sit out eight games under an NCAA-mandated suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league in Mexico. Jones is expected back for conference play.

"I think there's a lot of potential for this to be the best team we've had since I've been here," said Fullove, who will miss the season opener against Hawaii because of an ankle injury.

Irvine has two regular-season championships and a second-place finish in the last three years but the Anteaters have been eliminated in the tournament semifinals in each. Senior center Adam Parada and sophomore point guard Jeff Gloger are the featured players on an experienced team picked by media and coaches to finish third.

"Usually the team that's picked to win the conference doesn't win [the tournament] so I'm glad it's not me," Douglass said.

Williams said Utah State could never be counted out, having won four tournament titles in the last five seasons. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo made it to the tournament final and has player-of-the-year candidate Varnie Dennis back.

"I see us winning the conference," said Dennis, who averaged 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds last season. "I don't expect anything less for us."

Northridge was riding high in 2000-01 after defeating UCLA, winning the Big Sky Conference tournament and advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in Division I.

The Matadors haven't found as much success in two seasons of Big West play. They finished in a third-place tie two seasons ago and in a sixth-place tie last spring, after logging sub-.500 records overall in both.

"No doubt about it, this year is the one we feel we want to make a dent," Braswell said.

New Cal State Fullerton Coach Bob Burton was beset by on- and off-court issues in his first few weeks on the job. Leading scorer Ralphy Holmes, a first-team All-Big West player last season, was convicted of misdemeanor auto theft and expelled from school for this school year. Forward Bron Groomes, a top reserve, severed a tendon in his right hand and will not play this season.

After Burton was hired in June, he lost forward Jamal Forcheney to academic ineligibility and guard Fedi Holm-Hadulla to a career-ending knee injury. Burton will have 6-foot-10 senior forward Pape Sow, who was suspended for 11 games last season.

"When the job opened up and people started talking about Cal State Fullerton, everybody said, 'They've got a lot of really good players coming back,' " said Burton, an assistant at Fresno State last season. "I didn't realize when I got the job that four guys who had starts would be gone and I would never really get a chance to coach them."

Riverside went 6-18 last season but will have junior forward Vili Morton, who red-shirted last season in anticipation of the Highlanders being eligible to compete in this year's conference tournament.

Long Beach State is young and rebuilding after finishing 5-22 last season, Reynolds' first with the team.

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Big West Standings

2002-2003 FINAL

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Conference Overall W L Pct. W L Pct. UCSB 14 4 778 18 14 563 UC Irvine 13 5 722 20 9 690 Utah State 12 6 667 24 9 727 Cal Poly 10 8 556 16 14 533 Idaho 9 9 500 13 15 464 CS Fullerton 8 10 444 10 19 345 CS Northridge 8 10 444 14 15 483 Pacific 7 11 389 12 16 429 UC Riverside 5 13 278 6 18 250 Long Beach St. 4 14 222 5 22 185

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UC SANTA BARBARA

* Coach: Bob Williams.

* 2002-03 record: 18-14, 14-4 (first).

* Top players: Branduinn Fullove, Sr., 14.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg; Nick Jones, Sr., 12.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg; Jacoby Atako, Sr., 4.7 ppg, 3.2 apg, 38 steals.

* Outlook: The Gauchos remain the heavy favorite to win the league title, but the loss of Jones and Fullove will hurt during a tough nonconference schedule. Williams has put the program in position to supplant Utah State as the league's powerhouse.

* Schedule: Friday at Hawaii, 9 p.m.; Nov. 29 Montana in Montana Holiday Classic at Missoula, Mont., 6:30 p.m.; Nov. 30 Montana Holiday Classic, TBA; Dec. 3 Pepperdine, 7 p.m.; Dec. 10 Westmont, 7 p.m.; Dec. 13 San Diego, 7 p.m.; Dec. 17 at UCLA, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 20 Kansas in Wolf Pack Classic at Reno, 5 p.m.; Dec. 21 Alabama State in Wolf Pack Classic, 5 p.m.; Jan. 3 at Long Beach State, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 5 at UC Irvine, 7 p.m.; Jan. 8 Utah State, 7 p.m.; Jan. 10 Idaho, 7 p.m.; Jan. 17 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Jan. 22 Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Jan. 24 at Pacific, 3 p.m.; Jan. 29 UC Riverside, 7 p.m.; Jan. 31 Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Feb. 5 at Idaho, 7 p.m.; Feb. 7 at Utah State, 3 p.m.; Feb. 14 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Feb. 19 Pacific, 7 p.m.; Feb. 21 at Cal State Northridge, 3 p.m.; Feb. 26 at Cal St. Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Feb. 28 at UC Riverside, 7:10 p.m.; Mar. 4 UC Irvine, 7 p.m.; Mar. 6 Long Beach State, 7 p.m.; Mar. 10-13 Big West Tournament at Anaheim.

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UC IRVINE

* Coach: Pat Douglass.

* 2002-03 record: 20-9, 13-5 (second).

* Top players: Adam Parada, Sr., 12.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 28 blocks; Jeff Gloger, Soph., 8.2 ppg, 75 steals; Stanislav Zuzak, Sr., 7.9 ppg.

* Outlook: Can the Anteaters finally win the conference tournament and get that elusive first NCAA appearance? Irvine will find out if replacing graduated seniors Jordan Harris and Mike Hood is tougher than it looks.

* Schedule: Nov. 25 Stanford, 7 p.m.; Dec. 3 at California, 7 p.m.; Dec. 5 Princeton in McCaffrey Classic at Fresno; Dec. 6 Arkansas Monticello TBA; Dec. 18 Pepperdine, 7 p.m.; Dec. 20 at Sacramento State, 8 p.m.; Jan. 3 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Jan. 5 UC Santa Barbara, 7 p.m.; Jan. 8 at Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Jan. 10 at Pacific, 7 p.m.; Jan. 15 UC Riverside, 7 p.m.; Jan. 17 Cal State Fullerton, 1 p.m.; Jan. 24 at Long Beach State, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 29 at Utah State, 6 p.m.; Jan. 31 at Idaho, 7 p.m.; Feb. 5 Pacific, 7 p.m.; Feb. 7 Cal State Northridge, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 12 at Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Feb. 14 at UC Riverside, 3 p.m.; Feb. 18 Long Beach State, 7 p.m.; Feb. 21 at Bracket Buster; Feb. 26 Idaho, 7 p.m.; Feb. 28 Utah State, 8 p.m.; Mar. 4 at UC Santa Barbara, 7p.m.; Mar. 6 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Mar. 10-13 Big West Tournament at Anaheim.

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CAL STATE FULLERTON

* Coach: Bob Burton.

* 2002-03 record: 10-19, 8-10 (tie for sixth).

* Top players: Pape Sow, Sr., 13.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg; Anthony Bolton, Sr., 10.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg; Derick Andrew, Sr., 9.6 ppg, 48.7% FG; Zakee Smith, Sr., 4.2 ppg, 4.7 apg.

* Outlook: Originally bleak after leading scorer Ralphy Holmes was expelled as a result of a theft conviction, but Sow looked dominant in an exhibition victory over the EA Sports All-Stars. Burton plans to get Fullerton back to an up-tempo style and turn his athletes loose.

* Schedule: Friday at Northern Arizona, 6 p.m.; Monday at Arizona State, 6 p.m.; Nov. 29 Sacramento State, 7 p.m.; Dec. 1 at Pepperdine, 7 p.m.; Dec. 6 Northern Arizona, 7 p.m.; Dec. 9 at USC, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 13 Eastern Washington, 7 p.m.; Dec. 20 Occidental, 7 p.m.; Dec. 30 Loyola Marymount, 7 p.m.; Jan. 3 Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Jan. 5 Pacific, 7 p.m.; Jan. 10 at UC Riverside, 7:10 p.m.; Jan. 15 at Long Beach State, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 17 at UC Irvine, 1 p.m.; Jan. 22 Utah State, 7 p.m.; Jan. 24 Idaho, 7 p.m.; Jan. 29 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Jan. 31 at UC Santa Barbara, 7 p.m.; Feb. 7 UC Riverside, 7 p.m.; Feb. 12 UC Irvine, 7 p.m.; Feb. 14 Long Beach State, 7 p.m.; Feb. 19 at Idaho, 7 p.m.; Feb. 21 at Utah State, 6 p.m.; Feb. 26 UC Santa Barbara, 7 p.m.; Feb. 28 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Mar. 4 at Pacific, 7 p.m.; Mar. 6 at Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Mar. 10-13 Big West Tournament at Anaheim.

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CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE

* Coach: Bobby Braswell.

* 2002-03 record: 14-15, 8-10 (tie for sixth).

* Top players: Ian Boylan, Jr., 15.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 61 steals; Chris Davis, Jr., 8.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg; Joseph Frazier, Jr., 6.8 ppg, 63 steals.

* Outlook: Northridge has yet to make serious impact in the Big West after great success in the Big Sky Conference. Matadors' frenetic style confounds opponents, but erratic offensive play makes them wildly inconsistent.

* Schedule: Friday Menlo, 7 p.m.; Nov. 25 at Loyola Marymount, 7 p.m.; Nov. 30 at USC, noon; Dec. 3 Montana, 7 p.m.; Dec. 6 at San Jose State, 2 p.m.; Dec. 19 at Utah, 6 p.m.; Dec. 22 Portland State, 7 p.m.; Dec. 27 at Montana, 6:30 p.m.; Dec. 30 Lafayette, 7 p.m.; Jan. 3 at Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Jan. 5 at UC Riverside, 7:10 p.m.; Jan. 8 UC Irvine, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 10 Long Beach State, 7 p.m.; Jan. 15 at Idaho, 7 p.m.; Jan. 17 at Utah State, 6 p.m.; Jan. 22 at UC Santa Barbara, 7 p.m.; Jan. 24 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Jan. 31 Pacific, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 5 at Long Beach State, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 7 at UC Irvine, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 12 Utah State, 7 p.m.; Feb. 14 Idaho, 7 p.m.; Feb. 19 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Feb. 21 UC Santa Barbara, 3 p.m.; Feb. 28 at Pacific, 7 p.m.; Mar. 4 UC Riverside, 7 p.m.; Mar. 6 Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Mar. 10-13 Big West Tournament at Anaheim.

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UC RIVERSIDE

* Coach: John Masi.

* 2002-03 record: 6-18, 5-13 (ninth).

* Top players: Nate Carter, Soph., 16.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 49.1% FG; Vili Morton, Jr., 9.3 ppg, 10.9 rpg in 2001-02; Ted Bell, Sr., 9.5 ppg, 50 three-pointers; Kevin Butler, Sr., 8.5 ppg, 2.8 apg.

* Outlook: Dynamite one-two punch in Carter and Morton but question marks nearly everywhere else. Not making the conference tournament would be a major disappointment.

* Schedule: Friday at Loyola Marymount, 7 p.m.; Monday at Washington, 7 p.m.; Nov. 29 at Arizona State, noon; Dec. 3 at UCLA, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 15 Northern Arizona, 7 p.m.; Dec. 20 Southern Oregon, 7 p.m.; Dec. 22 St. Mary's, 7 p.m.; Dec. 29 at Sacramento State, 7 p.m.; Jan. 3 Pacific, 7 p.m.; Jan. 5 Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Jan. 10 Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Jan. 15 at UC Irvine, 7 p.m.; Jan. 17 at Long Beach State, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 22 Idaho, 7 p.m.; Jan. 24 Utah State, 7 p.m.; Jan. 29 at UC Santa Barbara, 7 p.m.; Jan. 31 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Feb. 7 at Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Feb. 12 Long Beach State, 7 p.m.; Feb. 14 UC Irvine, 3 p.m.; Feb. 19 at Utah State, 6 p.m.; Feb. 21 at Idaho, 7 p.m.; Feb. 26 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Feb. 28 UC Santa Barbara, 7p.m.; Mar. 4 at Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Mar. 6 at Pacific, 7 p.m.; Mar. 10-13 Big West Tournament at Anaheim.

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LONG BEACH STATE

* Coach: Larry Reynolds.

* 2002-03 record: 5-22, 4-14 (10th).

* Top players: Kevin Roberts, Sr., 12.3 ppg, 6 rpg; Jibril Hodges, Soph., 6 ppg; 36 three-pointers; Anthony Coleman, Jr., played at Xavier in 2001-02.

* Outlook: Overdue rebuilding period began last season, and it was the first time the 49ers didn't qualify for the conference tournament in 17 years. Reynolds is just starting to get his players into the program.

* Schedule: Friday at San Diego State, 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 29 at Portland, 7 p.m.; Dec. 3 Cal State Stanislaus, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 6 at Pepperdine, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 9 at Minnesota, 5 p.m.; Dec. 20 Southern Utah, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 23 Loyola Marymount, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 27 at Sacramento State, 7 p.m.; Dec. 30 Colgate, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 3 UC Santa Barbara, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 5 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 8 at Pacific, 7 p.m.; Jan. 10 at Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Jan. 15 Cal State Fullerton, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 17 UC Riverside, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 24 UC Irvine, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 29 at Idaho, 7 p.m.; Jan. 31 at Utah State, 6 p.m.; Feb. 5 Cal State Northridge, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 7 Pacific, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 12 at UC Riverside, 7 p.m.; Feb. 14 at Cal State Fullerton, 7 p.m.; Feb. 18 at UC Irvine, 7 p.m.; Feb. 26 Utah State, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 28 Idaho, 5 p.m.; Mar. 4 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 7 p.m.; Mar. 6 at UC Santa Barbara, 7 p.m.; Mar. 10-13 Big West Tournament at Anaheim.

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