michael mullady

O’ how the mighty hath fallen. University of the Pacific and Cal State Fullerton were the consensus pre-season picks to top of the Big West, but early conference upsets have thrown the standings into upheaval.

Cal Poly (4-10, 2-2) and UC Riverside (2-12, 2-2) entered Big West play as the proverbial long shots to win the conference championship. But not so fast, both schools scored huge upsets in the opening week of Big West play.

First came Cal Poly’s victory against the pre-season favorite, Fullerton (8-5, 2-2). The Mustangs kept it close at halftime, trailing 35-30 and found a familiar friend in many modern day upsets, the three-point shot. Cal Poly connected on 8 of 13 three-point shots and posted a 53-spot in the second half to pull away from the Titans.

Next, UC Riverside followed up a road trip to the Central Coast, beating UC Santa Barbara (6-8, 1-3) 81-78 for its first win of the season, by defeating highly touted Pacific (10-5, 1-1). Riverside’s Rickey Porter was the story, scoring 40 points on 13 for 19 shooting, including seven-for-seven from three-point range.

That’s right, the same Riverside that lost to Div. III Puget Sound 115-111 earlier this season.

Despite his team’s non-conference struggles, Riverside coach David Spencer said in a Big West conference call Wednesday that every team must be considered a contender.

“It would appear to me that (the conference) is wide open,” Spencer said. “The only team that has a chance to go undefeated at this point is Irvine.”

Irvine (6-8, 2-0) stands alone atop the Big West after narrowly escaping Mott Gym with a 69-67 final-minute win and earning another close victory over UC Santa Barbara.

Add it all up and the answer seems quite simple: The Big West is weak this season. Even if Pacific or Fullerton runs the table into March, neither has the non-conference wins necessary to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Coaches across the league were quick to point out the conference isn’t as weak as it appears on paper.

Cal Poly coach Kevin Bromley said scheduling is an issue for teams throughout the Big West.

“You ask any coach in this conference and they can’t get the mid to high major schools to come in and play them at home so you can’t get your team’s RPI up unless you go on the road,” Bromley said during Wednesday’s conference call. “I know Stanford’s down, but is anybody in the Big West supposed to go up and beat Stanford on a regular basis?”

Stanford was 1-2 against Big West teams if you include UC Davis. The Aggies are transitioning from Div. II to Div. I and will enter the Big West for the 2007-08 basketball season.

All three games were played at Stanford.

“Our conference gets beat up a lot in the non-conference because we have to go on the road,” Bromley said. “Then we beat up on each other in the conference and they think we’re not any good, but I disagree.”

Looking at Bromley’s assessment, this year should be no different in the eyes of people unfamiliar with the Big West.

Though upsets have dominated the headlines thus far, UCSB coach Bob Williams said there are two teams who stand above the rest.

“When all is said and done, I look for UOP and Fullerton to be at the top – and then the jockeying begins,” Williams said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a big difference between the number three and the number eight teams.”

Early as it is, March Madness is on the horizon and the post-season picture becomes clearer every week. And while his Tigers crashed the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team last year, a rare multi-team appearance from the Big West, Pacific coach Bob Thomason said the winner of the conference tournament will likely be flying solo.

“I don’t think there’s any team as good as we were last year,” Thomason said. “We had an unbelievable year – but you have to have (a year like we did last year) to get two teams.”

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