In college basketball, Pac-10 losses could be Big West’s gain


Pacific 10 Conference basketball has lived the good life for years, growing fat off future NBA talent, NCAA tournament riches and media attention. UCLA traditionally put on a lot of weight this way. USC gained some too.

But not this year. Come Selection Sunday, many experts are predicting that the Pac-10 will send only one team into the NCAA tournament — and it won’t be from Los Angeles. USC is already out for sure because of a self-imposed postseason ban. UCLA is 13-17 and is very much a longshot to win this week’s Pac-10 tournament, which would be the Bruins’ only way into a bracket.

For the Pac-10, which typically has sent five or six teams to the tournament in recent seasons, that’s a rare shutdown. Same with UCLA and USC, which last missed the tournament in the same season in 2004.

All of which makes for a great opportunity for the Big West Conference to steal some headlines.

“We’re kind of in the same boat as the Pac-10,” Cal State Fullerton Coach Bob Burton said. “We don’t have a real [standout] team.”

In the Big West, that’s known as business as usual. Almost every year its only NCAA tournament participant is the team that earns the league’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.

The difference this season is that team could very well be the only NCAA entrant from Southern California.

Long Beach State, Fullerton, Cal State Northridge, UC Riverside, UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara will be among the contenders in the Big West tournament, which begins Wednesday at the Anaheim Convention Center. That means a 66.7% chance of a Southland team advancing — Pacific, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and UC Davis are the other teams participating.

Santa Barbara (18-9) and Pacific (20-10) were the circuit’s top teams in the regular season, each finishing with a 12-4 conference record. Below those teams, however, parity reigned. No other team finished better than 8-8 in conference play, and the bottom dwellers, Riverside and Northridge, each had victories over the co-champions.

“It’s about as up in the air as it has ever been,” said Santa Barbara Coach Bob Williams, whose Gauchos are top-seeded in the tournament because of they won both games against Pacific.

The key, then, could be seeding. To win the title, the teams seeded Nos. 5-8 would have to win four games in four nights; those seeded No. 3 and No. 4 would need three wins in three nights; and Nos. 1 and 2 would need just two wins in two nights.

Since that format was adopted in 2004, only two teams seeded fifth through eighth have advanced to the title game — Northridge did it that year from the No. 6 seeding and Irvine did it in 2008 from the No. 5 spot. And for the last 13 years, the champion has been seeded 1, 2 or 3.

Santa Barbara comes in as the favorite, with conference player of the year Orlando Johnson and those two victories over Pacific. Johnson, a 6-foot-5 guard, averaged 18 points a game after sitting out last season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules after coming over from Loyola Marymount. He has scored in double digits in every game this season. “We know he’s going to bring the whole package every night,” Williams said.

If there is a sleeper, it might be Long Beach State, which finished 15-15 overall and 8-8 in conference but played one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the nation, with games against Kentucky, Duke, Texas, Clemson, West Virginia, Notre Dame and UCLA.

“I do think it prepared us,” Coach Dan Monson said.

No Big West team seems likely to advance beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament, but it’s still an opportune time for the conference. Next season, the tournament moves to the Honda Center and the league begins a five-year contract as the member host of the NCAA West Regional.

“The stars may be aligned,” Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell said.

For a year anyway.