At the beginning of the season, coaches and media praised the Big West for its parity, stressing that nearly every team possessed enough talent to be competitive at the end of the season.
Despite its even playing field, the Big West may have miscalculated its talent level at the beginning of the season. A tier of mediocrity has taken hold of middle-of-the-road teams, afflicting all but the conference leaders, Utah State University and the University of the Pacific.
Currently, the University of Idaho (12-13 overall, 8-7 in the Big West) leads this group. After a miserable preseason, the Vandals fought off a disastrous 3-9 start and the label of this year’s conference bottom-dwellers to win eight of their last nine contests. Idaho Head Coach Leonard Perry still has a date with Utah State on his schedule, and the Gauchos (13-10, 7-7 and in fourth place) have played one less game with a seemingly painless stretch remaining in the regular season. Yet Santa Barbara has lost four of its last five games, including losses in the last few minutes to the Aggies, Tigers and Matadors. Arguably the most talented team in the conference, UCSB has been unable to make much progress because of plaguing inconsistency. Just as senior guards Nick Jones and Jacoby Atako begin to step up offensively, sixth-year senior Bray Skultety, the most consistently energized Gaucho, re-tore his anterior cruciate ligament and will miss the rest of the season. Santa Barbara has kept its turnovers slightly down lately, but second-half offensive dry spells and horrid free throw shooting have been the catalysts recently.
“You look at the Lakers; they can turn it on when the playoffs come,” UCSB Assistant Coach Marty Wilson said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting until then. We have to use these next four games as a springboard in going into league tournament in order to play well and build upon it when we get to the tournament.”
Northridge has found some light lately, beating UCSB on Saturday for the first time ever in Big West play. Key role players have emerged for the Matadors (11-12, 7-8 and in fifth place), making them competitive for an upset in the conference tournament. CSUN has won three-straight road games and four of six contests, yet the Matadors are not tournament-tested. The same can be said for last-year’s Cal Poly squad, though, which knocked off the top-seeded Gauchos in the semifinals.
UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside all sit at 5-9 in the standings and are tied for sixth place. Santa Barbara has scheduled dates with each team on its schedule, including a regular-season finale against struggling Long Beach State at the Thunderdome on March 6. The Gauchos are certainly capable of running the table and reclaiming the third seed in the tournament, but Santa Barbara set lofty goals of making it to the NCAA Tournament at the beginning of the year. Utah State (22-2, 14-1), currently ranked #24 in the nation by the Associated Press and #23 by ESPN/USA Today, will battle Pacific (19-7, 14-1) for the regular season title. Despite their incredible record, the Aggies may be playing second fiddle to the Tigers who beat USU at the Alex G. Spanos Center on Feb. 14. Either team will be difficult to dethrone in a conference tournament setting, but the Aggies probably hold a slight advantage there. The Aggies won the Big West Tournament Championship last year and were a game away from the Big Dance in 2001-02. LBSU (6-17, 4-10) and Cal Poly (8-14, 3-11) are in danger of being eliminated from the eight-team conference tournament.
February is coming to a close and the winds of March Mayhem are slowing churning throughout all the NCAA Division I conferences.