Huge West Coast hoops showdown doesn’t involve the teams or conference you think

Posted: 01/13/2012 in college basketball
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The biggest West Coast showdown of the college basketball season arrives Saturday.

The No. 12 team in the nation visits the No. 22 team in the nation, and the lower-ranked program seldom loses on its homecourt.

Both teams have won seven straight games and the lower-ranked team has won eight of the last nine meetings between the two teams.

Hope you’re not guessing this much-anticipated contest involves two Pac-12 teams. And no, Gonzaga isn’t part of the equation either.

Former power UNLV is back in a big-time fashion and the No. 12 Rebels (16-2) are clicking on all cylinders as they invade No. 22 San Diego State (14-2) in a Mountain West Conference showdown inside the raucous on-court arena that has become one of the toughest venues in the country.

I can recall covering games in the splendid arena during the early part of coach Steve Fisher’s stint when you could count how many students were in attendance and later questioned whether the announced attendance of 4,000 was padded.

It’s a different scene at San Diego State now and the Aztecs have a better record than people expected this season after losing four starters off a 34-3 team. Forward Kawhi Leonard – the second best player in school history after Michael Cage – moved on to the NBA after his sophomore season but the wins have continued to come.

Perhaps more impressive is how well the Rebels have played under first-year coach Dave Rice. The Rebels were loaded with talent to begin with but sophomore forward Mike Moser – a transfer from UCLA – exploded on to the scene and UNLV will certainly be playing during the second week of the NCAA tournament. Yeah, that means Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight good and possibly playing for a Final Four spot.

The biggest question I have is why in the heck was Lon Kruger in such a hurry to beat it out of town and go live in Oklahoma with the cupboard full and a 30-win season awaiting? Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

By the way, UNLV’s leading scorer is forward Chace Stanback. Guess where he started his college career before heading to Las Vegas: Yep – UCLA.

How good would UCLA be if coach Ben Howland wasn’t intent on being the Benito Mussolini of Basketball and knew how to relate to all the star players he successfully recruits?

Moser and Stanback are at UNLV and there’s also Drew Gordon serving as a double-double machine at New Mexico and guard Matt Carlino is BYU’s second-leading scorer. Not-so-gentle Ben booted star Nelson Reeves off this season’s squad and now the Bruins are just one of many ragged, underachieving teams in the Pac-12.

The abysmal shape of the Pac-12 is the Mountain West’s gain. The conference is seldom in the national spotlight due to being overshadowed by the Pac-12 and also because of having a weak television contract.

Instead of being on CBS like last season’s huge showdown between the Aztecs and Jimmer Fredette-led BYU, Saturday’s game is on something called NBC College Sports. I have no clue where on my cable system you find that channel.

A channel you have to search for is hardly the place on the dial for the top West Coast matchup of the season to be found. But I have equally bad news – February’s return engagement in Las Vegas is also slated for the same broadcast entity.

Not having a relationship with ESPN has killed the Mountain West’s basketball programs in recent years and is also a huge reason so why so many schools have been happy to skip out of the league for greener pastures.

But no matter how few people are able to watch the game nationally, that doesn’t take away from this fact: Aztecs vs. Rebels on Saturday is the top game on the West Coast thus far this season.

That is something that has never once been uttered before. You can thank the Pac-12 for helping ensure it.

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