Respect for West teams still must be earned

Feb 23 2011 - 6:32pm

LOS ANGELES -- The top four teams in last week's Associated Press poll all lost, yet none dropped below No. 6 San Diego State or No. 7 Brigham Young, which didn't.

With scrambled eggs to pick from in their weekly assessments of the largely underwhelming regular season, poll voters did what comes naturally: They ushered Duke back to No. 1 with a police escort.

It mattered not that Duke lost to Florida State or got blown out at St. John's or plays in the shockingly (this year) unspectacular Atlantic Coast Conference, or most recently cleaned up against unranked Georgia Tech.

The thought of putting San Diego State at No. 1 would be as appalling as writing in Lady Gaga for president.

And so, San Diego State (27-1) and BYU (25-2) treadmilled at their same positions, pressed against the glass backboard ceiling.

"I could sit here and make the case for how we could be No. 1," San Diego State Coach Steve Fisher said at his Monday news conference. "From the standpoint of where we are, I'm not complaining about anything."

There's nothing "West of the Rockies" can do about this except do better. Reputations are what they are for a reason.

Since 1963, the only Pacific 10 Conference school other than Arizona or UCLA to make a Final Four was Stanford in 1998.

San Diego State is 0-6 in the NCAA tournament.

Basketball isn't make-believe, it's about making people believe.

Among non-Pac 10 teams in Southern California, the only team to win an NCAA game since 1990 was13th-seeded San Diego, which stunned No. 4 Connecticut in 2008.

Don't cry about the Big East possibly getting 11 schools in the tournament. Get better.

Basketball out West has definitely picked up this year, and here's proof: four worthwhile games this week within a long outlet pass from the Pacific Ocean:

Thursday

Gonzaga at St. Mary's: This was supposed to be the year Gonzaga's stranglehold on the West Coast Conference was over.

Not so fast. The Zags are making a late WCC push at the same time St. Mary's is giving ground. Gonzaga has won six straight to crawl back to 19-9 while losses to San Diego and Utah State have dropped St. Mary's (22-6) out of the polls and into NCAA bubble danger. Gonzaga, which lost at home to St. Mary's earlier this season, can pull into a first-place tie by avenging the earlier defeat in Moraga. Victory clinches the WCC regular season crown for the Gaels. But St. Mary's has lost three of its last seven.

"We just have to be a more consistent team," Coach Randy Bennett lamented after last weekend's home loss to Utah State.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo at Long Beach State: Dan Monson has done a nice job toughening his 49ers up for the Big West race by scheduling heavy in nonconference. Early crash-test-dummy losses against San Diego State, Clemson, Washington, St. Mary's, North Carolina and Utah State must have made conference play feel like a relief. The 49ers are 17-10 overall and 11-2 in the Big West and can clinch the regular-season crown with a win over Cal Poly at the Pyramid.

Saturday

Arizona at UCLA: Welcome back. Not having these two stalwarts in the NCAA tournament last year was a pride-and-perception killer.

"People associate the Pac-10 with those schools," Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said on Tuesday's Pac-10 coaches' teleconference. "I think people always look year in and year out to see how they're doing. If you look at the ACC, people will see how North Carolina and Duke are doing. If they're having down years, people can assume that maybe the ACC is down, and that isn't always necessarily the case."

Arizona (23-4) can clinch the title with a sweep of the L.A. schools. UCLA (19-8) can strengthen its portfolio with victory in Westwood. Sunday's loss at California cut into some of UCLA's momentum, but the Bruins still boast signature wins over BYU and St. John's and have officially rebounded from last year's 14-18 debacle.

BYU (25-2) at San Diego State (27-1): This is the biggest game in Mountain West Conference history since the teams met Jan. 26 in Provo. BYU handed San Diego State its lone loss that day. The Cougars' only defeats have come against UCLA and St. Mary's. And while the AP poll gave either team a bounce this week, the winner of Saturday's game would be in position to stalk a No.1 seeding in the NCAA tournament.

Imagine that.

"People are talking about the importance and magnitude of the game," Fisher said, "and it's nice to be talking about that in mid-to-late February."

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Rim shots

First-year St. John's Coach Steve Lavin is sure having fun with the 10 seniors he inherited. Last weekend's last-second win over Pittsburgh, on Dwight Hardy's baseline toe-dance, was another signature moment in a season when St. John's has also defeated Duke, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Georgetown. "To see that shot beat the No. 4 team in the country was surreal," Lavin said of Hardy's heroics. St. John's (17-9, 9-5), is off to its best Big East start since 1999-2000. Lap it all in, Lav. Next year is going to be tougher.

Lowly DePaul, up by three, had a chance to upset Villanova last weekend but elected not to foul to assure getting possession back with the lead. You know what happened. Villanova's Corey Fisher made a three-pointer to tie the game and the Wildcats won in overtime. The decision, foul or don't foul, is one of the toughest a coach has to make. But here's a vote for almost always doing it.

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