If you, like most other discriminating college basketball fans, found yourself wishing over the past few seasons that the pantywaist, hoops-poor West would simply break loose from the North American continent and float away to become a mid-Pacific island of ongoing three-on-three tournaments, where spectators play Trivial Pursuit (UCLA '60s edition) over wine coolers and avocado canapès, well, you just might reconsider.
At the very least, you might spare the Mountain West. Take a look at Provo, Tucson and Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Boise and El Paso, not to mention the AP and UPI polls, and you'll see why this oft-neglected region is acting a bit chesty these days. With no help from the Pac-10's Pac-thetic 9, the West, at the end of last week, was home to four Top 20 teams: consensus No. 1 Arizona, undefeated Brigham Young, 19-1 Nevada-Las Vegas and 17-4 Texas-El Paso. New Mexico and Boise State are having terrific seasons. Computer whiz Jeff Sagarin's ranking of all 291 Division I teams has Arizona, UNLV and BYU among the top eight, with the mighty Lions of Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles a comer at No. 19.
This unrest in the West is largely due to the resurgent Western Athletic Conference. Wyoming started the season with a Top 10 spot in most polls. New Mexico is the only team so far to beat Arizona. And BYU (see box, page 40) swept consecutive road games against Wyoming, New Mexico and UTEP. That famous utterance of Brigham Young himself—"This is the place!"—has taken on new meaning in the Rockies.
Most telling, the WAC's ranked teams weren't summarily banished to the poll purgatory of "Others receiving votes" just because of a loss or two. Indeed, Wyoming's gifted but enigmatic Cowboys, who are still trying to dope out new coach Benny Dees's ways, had to lose four games before being dropped from several Top 20s. That's because the pollsters have taken into account the fact that the Cowboys' WAC vanquishers (New Mexico, UTEP, BYU and Colorado State) are a combined 59-15.
Can these guys play? As they say out West about almost everything, you bet. Only the Big East has as many as five teams with at least 13 wins each, and at a recent Wyoming-UTEP game, there were no fewer than 14 pro scouts looking on. The WAC has 12 of its top 15 scorers back from last season, and its best crop of NBA prospects since 1981, when Charles Bradley, Danny Vranes and Tom Chambers all went in the first round. When bids to the NCAA tournament go out on March 13, the WAC should get four, perhaps even five. "In '81 we had strong people," says New Mexico coach Gary Colson. "This year we have strong teams."
Think of the WAC as a sort of posse in high tops, vigilantes pushing through the saloon doors, determined to get their Top 20 recognition without benefit of gaudy TV exposure. You think you've got a fast team? The WAC will sic Utah on you to play walk-it-up—and watch out for high-scoring power forward Watkins Singletary. Or maybe Colorado State will come after you, under the baton of coach Boyd (Tiny) Grant, and keep the score in the 40's, guaran-dang-teed. Prefer to pound away under the boards? Try taking it to Wyoming's front line of Eric Leckner, Fennis Dembo and Jon Sommers or UTEP's tough Tim Hardaway and Chris Sandle.
Like to play on the road? Check into the Pit, the below-ground arena in Albuquerque, where the elevation (5,200 feet above sea level, then 86 feet down into the earth) is posted in the visitors' locker room, and the crowd is so crazy that Colson has to use t'ai chi to calm down his team to a functional emotional level. Better yet, take the WAC's warm-port swing to supposedly weak San Diego State and Hawaii. New Mexico, giddy from beating Wyoming and Air Force in the Pit, in addition to braising Arizona, did, and lost twice. So intently had UTEP coach Don Haskins prepared before his team's five-point win in Honolulu, he said, "I had an oceanfront hotel room and never pulled back the drapes."
And if you're considered the best team in the land, the WAC wants you to meet Brigham Young. "I think BYU is better than Arizona," says Colson. "Not because they're from the WAC, but because its game is inside-oriented and Arizona is a perimeter team. I'm not sure anyone in the country could beat BYU on a neutral floor."
If the Pac-10, with the exception of Arizona, weren't so mediocre, you could even make the case that the West is best. Consider the following:
•Big Sky front-runner Boise State was 16-2 at week's end and playing defense that was not only hurting other teams, but also the local economy. The Wendy's outlets in Boise offer a free Big Classic burger and a Frosty to spectators at home victories in which the Broncos hold their opponents to fewer than 50 points. Coach Bobby Dye's charges have fired up the grill six times, putting Wendy's in hock for a potential 51,140 patties, or roughly one for every two people in town.
•Until now the Pacific Coast Athletic Association has served only to provide pre-NCAA tournament amusement for UNLV. Now four PCAA teams, including the Runnin' Rebels, are stronger than 9-10 UCLA, according to Sagarin's calculations: 12-6 Utah State, 12-6 Long Beach State and 14-4 UC Santa Barbara, whose coach, Jerry Pimm, while sunning himself on the deck of the 50-foot yacht on which he lives, mulls over installing a closed-circuit TV system in the Gauchos' old gym for fans turned away from the sold-out home games.
•The West Coast Athletic Conference is the Pac-thetic 9's foreign legion, four of its top five scorers being expatriates from the big-time league: Loyola Mary-mount's Corey Games (a transfer from UCLA), Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers (from Southern Cal), and Pepperdine's Tom Lewis (also a former Trojan). Loyola, aside from being the best college team in Los Angeles, leads the nation with a scoring average of 108.2 points per game.
Of course the West's complete return to health awaits the restoration of the Pac-10, through which Arizona may indeed strut undefeated, having already beaten the teams it has played by an average of 29 points per game. More specifically, UCLA and 4-13 Southern Cal, from which much was expected this season, will have to right themselves. But above all, the league must address the fundamental problems that have left it lagging far behind the Big East, Big Ten, SEC and ACC—problems that are tied up with demographics and recruiting, but start with television.
The Pac-10 has two primary pools of talent from which to draw: Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Yet when the best high schoolers in those two regions get home from school, they flick on ESPN and see nothing but live excitement from places like Kentucky's Rupp Arena and Syracuse's Carrier Dome. More important, they hear delirium emanating from the stands—sounds that contrast with the funereal pall surrounding too many Pac-10 tussles.
If a schoolboy likes playing to an audience, and most do, he'll go East. And if he doesn't want to stray too far from home, he'll often choose a school in the WAC, one of only four leagues to draw more than 1.3 million fans last season. "Where we are, geography is an ally," says Dees of Wyoming. "Not a damn thing to do but go to a basketball game."
"What makes me think the WAC is really back is we're stealing kids from California," says Colson. "It's the California apathy thing. There you can walk off the street and get a front-row seat." WAC commissioner Joe Kearney believes that "of all the major conferences, we must lead in per capita attendance."
The WAC operates under many of the same conditions, geographic and demographic, as the Pac-10, yet those fannies in the seats set the WAC apart. And a battery of fine coaches—Haskins, Grant, Colson, BYU's Ladell Andersen and San Diego State's Jim Brandenburg among them—seem not only able to orchestrate exciting basketball, but also to turn overlooked players like Dembo and BYU's Jeff Chatman into All-Americas.
Meanwhile the flow of talent eastward, out of the Pac-10's backyard, continues apace. Of California's top 10 current high school seniors (according to Off the Glass magazine), only three have signed with Pac-10 schools, and most of the best are again heading to Kentucky (Chris Mills), Syracuse (Richard Manning), Louisville (Cornelius Holden), Iowa (James Moses) and probably Georgia Tech (Don MacLean).
The entire league suffers from the media's UCLA fixation. Three of the Bruins last 11 losses have been to WAC schools—not including the loss of center Greg Foster, who announced two weeks ago he'll transfer to UTEP. Yet who's on TV all the time, usually getting whupped, as coach Walt Hazzard looks on dolefully? Complains former Bruin star Steve Patterson, now coach at underexposed Arizona State: "UCLA is a by-product of the past and certainly isn't representative of where the conference is going and how good it is."
Patterson is half right: UCLA, alas, is better than most of its conference brethren. Talent-rich USC, whose preseason slogan was "Excitement guaranteed," has been an even bigger disappointment. Up in Berkeley, there's a scoring drought; three times the Golden Bears have failed to exceed 13 points in a half. And though it's no disgrace to be beaten by Eastern schools, the Pac-10 can't very well hold its head high so long as members go around losing to North Carolina-Asheville, Richmond and Boston U. Says Arizona coach Lute Olson, "I'm not responsible for the rest of the Pac-10."
Yet in spite of the Pac-thetics, the West is flourishing anew. Could the top seed in the NCAA West Regional actually be a Western team for only the second time in seven seasons? Could the second-best team in the West end up seizing a No. 1 seed in another region? Could Arizona, Las Vegas and BYU still be playing when the snow begins to melt in the Rockies?