A couple of weeks into the season, Long Beach State looks like the class of the LA teams.
In Philadelphia they have the Big 5: five college basketball teams from the City of Brotherly Love that face off against each other every year for a semi-official city championship. Since 1955 (with a hiatus in the 90s), Temple, Saint Joseph's, LaSalle, Penn and Villanova have played each other for bragging rights as the best basketball team in Philly this side of the Sixers.
There's no such tradition in Los Angeles. Partly because since the days when a certain Wizard roamed Westwood, there's rarely been any question regarding the best team in LA - most years, even during down years, the best team has been UCLA. Even when Paul Westphal was balling for USC, the Trojans had to settle for being the second best team in the city - and probably the second best team in the country.
But there are other basketball teams in Los Angeles, with traditions and aspirations of their own. In order to track those teams and foster excitement in local college basketball, today marks the debut of a weekly series here ranking the eight Division I basketball programs in LA and Orange County. Admittedly, inclusion in the LA Eight is a tad arbitrary, but a line has to be drawn somewhere, and I drew it at counties. So sorry 909-dwellers, no Riverside Highlanders; apologies Santa Barbarians, no Gauchos. Eight shall be the number of the counting and the number of the counting shall be eight. San Diego teams are right out.
All of the teams in the LA Eight share a conference with at least one other local team: the newly-expanded Pac-12 (I'm actually old enough to remember when it was the Pac-8) is the power conference of course, and boasts UCLA and USC. Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount belong to the WCC, which also underwent expansion this season as BYU joined, making it arguably the strongest basketball league outside of the six majors. For their part Long Beach State, Northridge, Fullerton and Irvine make up a big chunk of the Big West. Of course these conference rivals all play each other during league play; additionally, many of these teams feature a non-conference meeting or two against a local rival. These non-conference games give us a chance to measure the relative strength of the leagues against other.
Before any games were played, the 2011-2012 season looked much like so many that came before - everyone assumed UCLA would be the best team in LA. It didn't take long for that assumption to be turned on its head, as LMU stormed into the Bruins' temporary home in the Sports Arena and dominated UCLA in each team's season opener. Which means that in our inaugural rankings, we've got a different team squarely on top, and the Bruins hovering near the bottom.
The LA Eight Rankings (through games of November 22)
1. Long Beach St. 3-1
It's not news that the 49ers are good. They return four starters and several rotation players from a team that won 22 games and the Big West regular season title last year. It was news when the Beach went into the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh and knocked off the 9th ranked Panthers, a decisive defeat that was their first loss in 58 non-conference home games. Unfortunately, there was no time to celebrate, as whoever made the 49ers schedule this season has apparently lost his mind; they play probably the toughest non-conference slate in the country, with upcoming games against #1 North Carolina, #7 Louisville and #14 Kansas all on the road, and a neutral court meeting with #12 Xavier. They already lost one tough road contest, in overtime against San Diego State three days after the Pitt win. So the 49ers record entering Big West play may not look great - but this senior-laden team will be battle tested and ready for an NCAA-berth come March.
This week: @ Montana (3-1) Saturday; @ #7 Louisville (4-0) Monday.
2. Loyola Marymount 1-2
It may be strange to see the Lions second on this list with a losing record so early in the season, but their opening win over UCLA is easily the second best victory by an LA school at this early stage, even if UCLA isn't particularly good right now. There are a few other things you need to know about LMU's ranking here: (1) home losses to Middle Tennessee State and Harvard aren't that bad because those are good teams (no seriously, just ask UCLA about the Blue Raiders): (2) they're currently playing without their best player, All-WCC selection Drew Viney; and (3) the rest of the LA teams haven't exactly been great. Viney is expected to be back from foot surgery in December, at which point the Lions will be much better than they are now. But it remains to be seen exactly how much of an outlier the UCLA win looks like at the end of the season.
This week: @ Idaho State (1-2) Wednesday; Northern Arizona (1-3) Saturday.
3. CS Fullerton 3-1
It's difficult to gauge Fullerton's 3-1 start. A win over D-III Redlands doesn't count. The Titans then went to Louisiana for a round robin tournament, and beat McNeese State and Louisiana-Lafayette - before losing to Houston Baptist, a program in their first season of full D-I membership. So the 3-1 record is nice and all, but the schedule hasn't exactly been grueling, and a loss to HBU (Go Cougars!) is a definite blemish. We'll probably have to wait until the first week in December, when Fullerton plays road games against Wichita State and Utah, to find out if the team is for real. Another reason it's tough to get a fix on this team is because most of their contributors are from somewhere else - five of their top six scorers on the young season are transfers from other D-I programs.
This week: CS Bakersfield (2-1) Saturday.
4. Pepperdine 2-2
There's not much returning scoring in Malibu for new head coach Marty Wilson. Still, the Waves managed to pull off a road win over a Pac-12 school when they beat Arizona State in Tempe last week. The Waves appear committed to playing hard and could be a decent defensive team - but it's far from clear how they'll score enough points to win games. Even in their surprising win over the Sun Devils, they made just 10 of the 36 two point shot attempts and though they did make 8 of 11 threes, that's not something they should count on. Unfortunately, the win in Tempe may say more about ASU than it does about Pepperdine; the Waves have since lost at CS Bakersfield and in Malibu against Central Michigan.
This week: @ Texas San Antonio (3-2) Saturday; @ UCLA (1-4) Monday.
5. USC 2-3
With a little luck, the Trojans could be 4-1 on the young season. Then again, they could pretty easily be 0-5 as well. After hanging on for a season opening win over Northridge, the Trojans lost in overtime against Nebraska (frankly on a bad blocking call against Freshman Alexis Moore at the end of regulation) and then lost by two on a last second shot at San Diego State. They also lost a brick fest Saturday against Cal Poly, in which the two teams combined to score 78 points and shoot below 30%. The Cal Poly game illustrates SC's big problem this season - they can't score. With most of the options from last season's NCAA team either gone or injured, the Trojans are a mix of JC and D-I transfers, freshmen, and Maurice Jones. But Jones started the season in a horrendous shooting slump; he was 15 for 59 against defenses keyed to stop him through 4 games, 3 of them losses. He went 7 for 10 against Morgan State last night and they grabbed a win. Coincidence?
This week: @ UNLV (5-0) Friday, vs. #1 North Carolina (4-0) or South Carolina (2-2) in Las Vegas Saturday. The Trojans are participating in the Las Vegas Invitational this week. I'm not sure they want to beat UNLV on Friday, because a meeting with top-ranked UNC could get ugly.
6. UCLA 1-3
What is there to say about UCLA's disastrous start? A win Monday against D-II Chaminade didn't do much to stop the bleeding. Home losses to LMU and Middle Tennessee State to open the season were ominous, not least because neither game looked like a fluke. In each case, UCLA was beaten soundly by a mid-major that took it to them with dribble penetration from the opening tip. Sure, the Blue Raiders made 10 of 11 threes, a feat they're not likely to match any time soon, but let's be clear - those threes were wide open. So 10 of 11 may have been a little lucky, but UCLA's defense wasn't doing anything to change their luck. As of right now the Bruins are a mess - perimeter defenders can't stay in front of their assignments, and interior defenders seem completely clueless about helping. On offense, the Bruins want to work inside out with their strong front line, but their guards have often been so terrible that they can't even deliver the ball effectively, let alone provide an outside threat to spread the floor. Then there's the Reeves Nelson saga, which has seen the mercurial star forward suspended briefly for conduct unbecoming and then missing the team plane to Hawaii.There was a brief ray of hope against Kansas, when they battled back from a 20 point deficit to within 5 points. Unfortunately, they couldn't sustain the comeback and the result was their third double digit defeat of the season.
This week: Maui Invitational versus #15 Michigan (4-1) Wednesday; Pepperdine (2-2) Monday. It could get worse before it gets better for the Bruins. Beating Chaminade only served to plop the Bruins into the winners bracket of the toughest tournament of the year. The loss to #14 Kansas leads them to #15 Michigan today, which could provide an opportunity for redemption - but more likely will drop the Bruins to 0-4 against D-I competition.
7. UC Irvine 0-3
Not much was expected from a young Anteaters squad this year, picked to finish near the bottom of the Big West, and the season has started off accordingly. They opened the season in Berkeley with a 20 point loss to a very good Cal team and followed that up with a one point loss at San Jose State. They then lost their home opener to Weber State by 8. So they've been competitive in a couple of games, but they have yet to win.
This week: Thursday, Friday, Saturday at the Great Alaska Shootout. UCI opens against 2-1 Southern Miss. Then they'll face either Central Michigan or New Mexico State. The Great Alaska Shootout is not what it once was as a tournament, but it's a chance to play decent mid-majors on a neutral court. We'll know a lot more about the Anteaters when they get back.
8. CS Northridge 1-3
Like Irvine, Northridge is young and inexperienced and was picked near the bottom of the Big West. After losing by only 7 in their first game at USC, things have gotten progressively worse on the road for the Matadors - they lost by 19 at Hawaii and a whopping 42 at Boise State. It could be a long season in the Valley. A win against San Diego Christian last night makes the record look a little better, but the Matadors are still winless against D-I competition.
This week: @ Drake (3-2) Saturday.
If you go to only one college basketball game in the Southland this week, make it:
UCLA versus Pepperdine at the Sports Arena Monday. UCLA could easily return from Maui still winless against D-I teams. A home game against a less than intimidating Pepperdine team is the perfect time to get the season back on track. On the other hand, a loss to the Waves would signal that the situation in Westwood is truly dire.