The anomaly that was the 2004-05 season will not repeat itself this year – lose and the season is over, because the winner of the Big West tournament will receive the lone conferrence bid to March Madness.
Four months of intense competition and all that matters is a win on March 11 at the Anaheim Convention Center Arena. Just like last year, Pacific will be the favorite to earn the Big West automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but this time there is less room for error.
Pacific’s success this year didn’t come without doubters. Following the program’s best season in school history, including a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament, Pacific was picked to finish second by both the coaches and media pre-season polls. Yet, despite losing six of its top seven scorers to graduation, one of which was 2004-05 Big West Player of the Year David Doubley, the Tigers are still on top of the Big West.
“Our guys have carried over a tradition,” Pacific coach Bob Thomason said. “I told people at the media day we should be on top, we’ve done it the last two years. You should pick the top dog until they’ve been knocked off.”
Thomason, the Big West Coach of the Year for a third consecutive season, has no reason to keep a modest tongue about his program’s success. The Tigers have become the Big West mainstay in March Madness, receiving two of the conference’s last three automatic berths and an at-large bid last season.
The Tigers (22-7, 12-2) are led this season by a pair of first team all-conference players. Senior forward Christian Maraker, the 2005-06 Big West Player of the Year, was second in the conference in scoring while averaging 17.2 points per game and leading the conference in rebounds with nine per game. Teammate and senior guard Johnny Gray also had a breakout season with averages of 14.5 points per game and three assists per game.
Talent and coaching aside, the Tigers also have momentum in their favor. Pacific has won 10 straight Big West games and 11 of their last 12.
“There’s no doubt UOP is playing the best right now of everyone in the tournament,” UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Williams said.
Williams’ feelings were often repeated during the Big West conference call on Monday.
Last year, the Tigers were the favorites to win the tournament after navigating conference play unscathed at 18-0. However, Utah State upended the Tigers in the tournament championship. Pacific had to sit through “Selection Sunday” knowing its fate rested in someone else’s hands. They wound up with an at-large bid, giving the Big West a rare two-team representation in the tournament.
What if the Tigers lose this year? Do they stand a chance of another at-large berth?
“Those are always fun things to talk about,” Thomason said. “We don’t get mentioned at all, we haven’t all year. We understand we need to win the tournament to go to the NCAAs.”
The ESPN.com “Bubble Watch” lists a pair of teams the Tigers beat, but not Pacific. Texas A&M (20-7, 10-6) is in the “Should be in” category, while Western Kentucky (22-6, 14-2) shows up in the “Work left to do” section.
Irvine coach Pat Douglass said Pacific should be considered a bubble team and that the Big West is underrated.
“I’ve watched a lot of tape on the Missouri Valley Conference, we played Drake, and they’re over-hyped,” Douglass said. “There’s not a huge difference between the top of their league and the top of ours.”
Based solely on the Ratings-Percentage-Index, the MVC is notably better than the Big West this season with six teams in the top 50. Pacific, the top-rated school in the Big West, sits at 104.
Experts predict anywhere from four to six teams from the Missouri Valley Conference could qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Multiple bids for mid-major conferences are an increasing trend. Several others have a legitimate shot at sending more than one to the NCAA tournament.
Both Hofstra and George Mason are tournament worthy from the Colonial Athletic Association while the University of North Carolina Wilmington won the conference tournament and an automatic bid. Conference USA also has a good shot to send two teams with Memphis a lock and University of Alabama-Birmingham recently entering the equation.
The rest of the Big West field
While every coach pointed to Pacific as the favorite, unexpected outcomes are a trend in March.
“If you can win a couple games and get on a roll, it’s tough for those other teams to beat you,” Cal Poly coach Kevin Bromley said.
Bromley’s Mustangs (9-18, 7-7) were 2-8 heading into Big West play with wins against a pair of Division II teams. However, a .500 conference record netted Cal Poly a No. 4 seed in the Big West tournament and a first round bye.
Will the bye be enough for the Mustangs, though? Probably not, as Cal Poly has failed to win more than back-to-back games all season – and that’s with more than a day’s rest in-between. To punch a ticket into the NCAA tournament, the Mustangs will need three wins in three nights.
Still, Cal Poly does have several big wins and close calls worth mentioning. The Mustangs went on the road to beat Cal State Fullerton in their Big West opener and had a win stolen by Irvine when an off-balanced Aaron Fitzgerald three-pointer with under 10 seconds remaining sank the Mustangs. Cal Poly also played Pacific tightly, dropping a 64-62 decision in a game that came down to the final possession.
Many coaches pointed to Long Beach State as a potential upset bid. The 49ers perhaps take even more momentum into the post-season than Pacific following a 20-point drubbing of UC Irvine (By the way, the Anteaters led the game 31-10 at one point).
The 49ers are no strangers to double-digit comebacks this year. Long Beach State trailed Cal Poly by 14 at The Walter Pyramid and put 46 on the board in the second half to win.
“I think we have some very intense competitors on our team and when they feel a sense of urgency that they might lose, they turn it up a notch,” 49ers coach Larry Reynolds said.
Another “dark horse” could be Cal State Fullerton (15-12, 5-9), although coach Bob Burton was quick to downplay his team’s recent surge. The Titans came into the season picked first in the conference in both the pre-season coaches and media polls.
“I don’t think the talent is as good as everybody thought it was,” Burton said. “I’m not just saying that because we underachieved, but I think the expectations put on this team were ridiculous.”
Often overlooked is the loss of Ralphy Holmes, the Titans’ leading scorer and rebounder, and Yaphett King to graduation, Burton said.
The Titans have won five of their last seven games and finally appear to be living up to the pre-season hype. With the No. 6 seed, though, comes the daunting task of winning four games in as many nights.
“I don’t know if we’re playing consistent enough to win four games,” Burton said. “We can play with anybody and we can lose to anybody.”
And then there’s Irvine. The Anteaters (16-12, 10-4), despite earning the No. 2 seed, weren’t even mentioned in coaches’ picks to win the conference tournament. Don’t forget, Irvine swept through the first half of Big West play and won three of its last four games.
The Anteaters certainly aren’t the most talented nor the most athletic team in the conference, but wins over Pacific and Long Beach State shouldn’t be ignored.
The reason the Anteaters are a threat to win the conference boils down to simple mathematics: Two is less than four. Irvine needs just two wins to claim the championship, and that in itself is reason enough to believe in the Anteaters.
Seven teams are about to be sent packing and the question is: Can anybody top Pacific?