Utah State and Pacific got some support, but most Big West Conference coaches voted with USU coach Larry Eustachy in making tournament host Nevada the favorite to win the three-day event in the Lawlor Events Center starting Friday. The winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
The Eastern Division champion Aggies (22-7, 13-3) and West champ Pacific (21-8, 14-2), which takes a 14-game winning streak into the tourney and is the defending tourney champion, both have better records than the Wolf Pack (15-11, 11-5).But Nevada hasn't lost a league game at Lawlor in more than two seasons, and the seven coaches whose teams won't be playing at home on Friday pretty much tossed the ball to coach Pat Foster's team when it came to picking favorites in Monday's coaches-and-media teleconference.
That got Foster agitated.
He called voting the home team the favorite "a cheap psychological ploy." Nevada has hosted the tourney twice before and didn't win either time.
"It's the same every year. They're just trying to take the heat off themselves," Foster said, sounding indignant. "They ought to be thanking Reno because of the financial package they put forward for this league. It's been a tremendous financial success here.
"I can understand the coaches not wanting to go to any home site, but they shouldn't hold it against a team," Foster said.
The other coaches, including Eustachy, said they realize that dollars make a difference to the league, and the tourney makes money thanks to the Reno package. "Money is an issue," Eustachy said. "I understand."
"Reno does a fantastic job of putting the tournament on. It's fan-friendly," said Boise State coach Rod Jensen, adding Boise also hosts tourneys well (it's again an NCAA first- and second-round site).
But Jensen said what the others probably felt: "I tell you what. I wish we were playing at home."
New Irvine coach Pat Douglass, who often hosted league tourneys when he coached Cal-Bakersfield for 10 years, says everybody's just got to accept it all. "They have an opportunity to do well as long as the tournament remains in Reno," he said, but he admitted there's more pressure for the home team to win, too. "You do feel pressure, especially the first game," he said. At Bakersfield, his team had to make it out of the first round, or the tourney would lose money.
The Aggies also have an added burden. USU was supposed to play at 6 p.m. Friday, but its game was switched to 1 p.m. MST Friday so that the home team, Nevada, could play its first-round game against Irvine (9-16, 6-10) in the evening when a bigger crowd could be expected. Some Aggie fans are upset because they made travel plans for an evening game, but Eustachy was unfazed. "It makes sense trying to draw as many people as possible," he said. USU opens against 10-18, 5-11 Long Beach State.
USU hasn't done well when it played the opening game of the tourney in the last eight years or so, but this is a better team than the Ags have sent in most cases, and a first-round win means time to scout the other teams and time to rest - important when it takes three games in three days to win the tourney. Pacific took that first-game route to the tourney championship last season.
TOURNEY MATCHUPS: 1 p.m. MST - Eastern No. 1 Utah State (22-7, 13-3) vs. Western No. 4 Long Beach State (10-18, 5-11). 3:30 p.m. MST - Western No. 2 Cal State Fullerton (11-15, 6-10) vs. Eastern No. 3 Boise State (17-12, 9-7). 7 p.m. MST - Western No. 1 Pacific (21-8, 14-2) vs. Eastern No. 4 Idaho (15-11, 9-7). 9:30 p.m. MST - Eastern No. 2 Nevada (15-11, 11-5) vs. Western No. 3 Cal Irvine (9-17, 6-10). Semifinals - Saturday, 6 and 8:30 p.m. MST. Championship - Sunday, 1 p.m. MST, ESPN-TV.
ALL-NABC: Aggie point guard Marcus Saxon was named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches' District 14 second team. Pacific 7-footer Michael Olowokandi was named to the first team, and 7-1 Andrew Betts of Long Beach was named to the District 15 second team.