March 14, 2011

UC Santa Barbara has chance to put Big West back on the map

March 14, 2011

By Chris Foster
Los Angeles Times

March 13, 2011, 6:50 p.m.

Cal State Fullerton once came within a basket of reaching the NCAA Final Four ... just ask any aging Titans fan.

Long Beach State once scared the bejesus out of UCLA in a regional final ... a John Wooden-coached UCLA team.

And Nevada Las Vegas once won a national title ... a generation ago.

The Big West Conference's best days are becoming a once-upon-a-time tale, something that UC Santa Barbara players know as they prepare to play 12th-ranked Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament Thursday in Tampa.

Since the UNLV Empire crumbled in 1992, the Big West has won six NCAA tournament games, and three of those were later vacated by the NCAA. The Gauchos are seeded 15th this season, as they were in 2010. It is the third consecutive year that the Big West's lone team has to play a second-seeded team.

"We won't take this personally," Santa Barbara's Orlando Johnson said about representing the Big West. "We want to put us all on the map."

The "Road to the Final Four" has had the Big West as little more than a brief stop, a place to stretch the legs, since Jerry Tarkanian hung up his towel.

The conference has not had a team go past the second round since New Mexico State in 1993 -- two victories that were later vacated by the NCAA.

The massive turnover in conference since Las Vegas ended its headline act has left the Big West with more vacated NCAA victories (nine) in its history than the current configuration has won (eight).

Meanwhile, the West Coast Conference thrived. It has had marquee tournament victories, such as Santa Clara defeating Arizona in 1993, and deep runs, with Gonzaga getting to a regional final in 1999.

The selection committee has noted the Big West's retreat. The conference has had a team seeded higher than 12th only once since 1993, when Pacific was seeded eighth in 2005.

Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell attributes the struggles to the loss of UNLV, saying, "Vegas was a horse that we were able to drive."

UNLV was seeded fourth or higher eight times from 1983-91, and occasionally pulled other teams along. The conference sent three teams to the NCAA tournament in 1988.

"Other programs were able to recruit against [UNLV] in the conference," Farrell said. "Every year there would be Vegas and there would be another one or two teams that would rise up."

He said, "The challenge has been to find that next horse."

Jerry Pimm, Santa Barbara's coach from 1983-98, said that the conference's devotion to football helped devalue basketball. The Big West played Division I football until 2000.

"The presidents and athletic directors chose to be a patsy for major college football conferences," Pimm said. "It's a shame because it's a mid-major [basketball] conference that is forever going to get a 14th, 15th and 16th seed."

The causes have had an effect. The Big West has been placed in the one-per-customer line by the selection committee.

"I think there are a lot of financial hardships in this conference that all our coaches have to overcome," Santa Barbara Coach Bob Williams said. "You have to fundraise a ton. You don't have academic support people like other places do."

Williams said that "when it comes to building a program to the next level, look at everything the West Coast Conference has done in terms of facilities. Gonzaga raised the bar there."

But Williams' team can help in one area ... perception. Pacific won first-round games in 2004 and 2005. A year later, two Big West teams made the tournament.

"It sends a statement," Farrell said about winning in the tournament. " ... You get to the Sweet 16, that takes you to another level. It captures the imagination of the rest of the country."

chris.foster@latimes.com