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Big West seems a little top-heavy

It was a maritime week at the Big West tournament as teams located near salt water created most of the waves.

Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara advanced to the finals in both the men’s and women’s brackets.

It’s the first time that has happened since 1990, when both programs from Long Beach and Nevada Las Vegas advanced to the finals.

It was a good week, in general, for the plucky, cost-conscious Big West, especially when compared with the cross-county carnage at the Pac-12 tournament.

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While the No. 1 and No. 3 schools from the Big West advanced to the title game, the Pac-12 saw its top three seeded teams — Washington, California, Oregon — eliminated before Saturday.

The Pac-12, which can’t wait to set its basketball clocks forward, was left with a title game of Arizona versus Colorado.

That sounds more like a vacation decision than a championship.

The Big West men produced Long Beach and Santa Barbara squaring off in the championship game for the third consecutive season — the first time that’s happened.

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The Big West is never going to be the Pac-12 in terms of money and prestige, but it is holding its own against the local major powers.

This marks the sixth straight year the Big West will advance a Los Angeles-area team to the NCAA tournament. Long Beach State made the field in 2007, followed by Cal State Fullerton in 2008, Cal State Northridge in 2009 and UC Santa Barbara the last two seasons.

Neither the Pac-12 nor West Coast conferences can make that claim. In fact, this is the second time since 2009 that Los Angeles-based Pac-12 schools have been shut out of the NCAA tournament. That’s quite a statement considering UCLA’s storied history in the event.

Consider: Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara have a combined Ratings Percentage Index average of 77, compared with a stunning 197.5 RPI average for UCLA and USC.

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The WCC, which features locals Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, has been dominated of late by Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.

The Big West is assured of sending multiple teams to postseason tournaments.

First-year UC Davis Coach Jim Les didn’t quite know what to expect when he entered the Big West this season. Les had great success as a player and coach at Bradley, where in 2006 he led the No. 13 Braves to the Sweet 16 with victories against Kansas and Pittsburgh. It was Bradley’s first trip to the round of 16 in 50 years.

“This is a really good basketball league that I think is only going to get better,” Les, whose team finished 5-26, said this week.

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The Big West’s big problem, of course, is depth.

Long Beach and Santa Barbara are, um, carrying all the water.

Cal State Fullerton has a moderately respectable RPI of 155, but then things fall off a cliff: Cal Poly (218), UC Riverside (253), Irvine (254), Pacific (287), Northridge (323) and UC Davis (338).

“Long Beach and Santa Barbara have kind of carried the torch the last couple of years in terms of national notoriety,” Les said. “It’s up to us, the rest of the league, to elevate our programs, so we can top to bottom be a formidable league.”

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The Big West ranks No. 21 in the latest Sagarin Ratings, sandwiched between the Metro Atlantic and Ohio Valley conferences.

This year’s tournament offered glimmers of promise. Irvine upset No. 2 Fullerton in the opening round and led Long Beach in the second half Friday before falling to the tournament favorites.

Fullerton stumbled out in Round 1, but Bob Burton’s team finished with 20-plus wins only a year a 20-loss campaign.

Irvine ended 12-20 but received a standing ovation Friday night from its fans after its inspired performance against Long Beach.

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Led by second-year Coach Russell Turner, Irvine does not have a senior on the roster and will have all five five starters return next year.

The conference has not had a team advance to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since former member New Mexico State made the Sweet 16 in 1992.

The Big West, though, might not be that far from becoming a big deal.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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