Welcome to another edition of the Big West Conference post-season basketball tournament, where the league's 10 teams gather together annually like one big happy family to conclude another soap opera of a season.
Did we say soap opera? Let's see, Fullerton's head coach, George McQuarn, quit just before the start of the season for personal reasons.That was nothing. A couple of months later 10 San Jose State players quit theteam, charging Coach Bill Berry with cruelty. Berry proceded to assemble a team of football players and walk-ons that wasn't half bad.
Meanwhile, New Mexico State got in an automobile accident, proving that life on the road really is tough and inhospitable.
Just ask Jerry Tarkanian. He took his Nevada-Las Vegas team to Logan, where USU coach Kohn Smith, suffering from a brief lapse of sanity, calmly ripped the Rebel program, questioning its integrity. This was the hoops equivalent of tugging on Christopher Reeve's cape. A few hours later Vegas crushed the Aggies. Afterward, Tarkanian told Smith their friendship was over, and he later refused a telephoned apology from Smith.
See, just one big happy family.
Things were a little more predictable on the court. The Rebels won their seventh championship in as many years, despite being "the skinniest team in the country," according to Tark, and totally inept at the foul line, which star StaceyAugmon blamed on the media.
This week the Big West gets down to the business of tournament play at the Long Beach Sports Arena. The first round, involving only the bottom four teams in the standings, began Wednesday; the second round will be Thursday.
Favorites? The Rebels, of course, but last year they actually failed to win the tournament. The championship went to Utah State, which, given its current state of affairs, isn't likely to repeat. Some observers like New Mexico State, which lost to UNLV by two last weekend after missing 14 free throws. Others like Long Beach State, with its home-court advantage, although Coach Joe Harrington isn't buying it.
"That's ridiculous," says Harrington. "We have no bigger advantage here than anyone else. We've played two games here (this season)." Still, a lot of people are betting 49er fans will manage to find the place.
And what of Utah's entry, the Aggies? They open tournament play at 3 p.m. MST Thursday against Fullerton State, a team they lost to 96-87 on Jan. 21 in Fullerton and defeated 90-80 on Feb. 4 in Logan. The Aggies certainly are capable of beating the Titans, but their record in Big West tournament play has been poor. In 10 years, they've been eliminated five times in the first round. They've posted a 7-9 tourney record - and that includes three wins last year.
The Aggies, picked to finish second in the league this season, finished in a three-way tie with Long Beach State and Fullerton State for fourth, with a record of 10-8 (12-15 overall). Under the tiebreaker rules, the seeding was determined by the teams' records against the league's top teams. Fullerton State was given the fourth seed because it defeated UNLV; USU was awarded the fifth seed because it swept runner-up New Mexico State.
It was a trying season for USU's first-year coach, Kohn Smith, who, from the start, never shared the optimism of fans and peers.
"We've had a lot of things happen to us," says Smith, who used 10 different starting lineups this year. "We had the absence of an experienced point guard early in the year and had to play two freshmen (Kendall Youngblood and Albert Chappell) at that position. We felt like we were getting there, and then one of them goes down with injury (Chappell). We had two kids with bad backs (seniors Greg Houskeeper and Nathan Grant), which has also hurt us. And Dan Conway has not had the kind of year he had a year ago."
Speaking of his own frustration and alluding to his Vegas comments, Smith said Monday, "I got to thinking about things I shouldn't have been thinking about. I made some comments and got myself in trouble. I learned to forget all that stuff and coach my team the best I can."
To beat the Titans again, Smith will need a good game from Reid Newey, who averaged 19.3 points a game this season. "He's been the backbone of the team," says Smith.
Along with Newey, Smith probably will start Greg Houskeeper at center (although reserve Stan Pepek has been superb late in the year), Youngblood at guard, and Grant and Darrel White at forward.
As for the Aggies' first opponent, the Titans, they finished with a record of 15-12 under new coach John Sneed - this after surviving a seven-game losing streak.