The sad truth is that it's been a very bad year for college hoops in Southern California -- a very bad year indeed. UCLA, traditionally the best program in the region, and indeed one of the storied programs in the entire nation, began the season with a string of bad losses, and while the Bruins have been better at times, their just concluded weekend in Oregon proves once again that they're just not a very good basketball team right now. And while UCLA has been bad, USC, the other major conference team, has been dreadful.
That leaves Long Beach State as the best team in the LA Eight (the eight Division I schools in LA and Orange County), and it's not really close. The Beach played one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country, coming away with a 7-6 record, including a couple of quality wins. But the 49ers have opened conference play with seven straight victories, and took control of the Big West race this weekend with a decisive road win over their closest rival, UC Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, because their non-conference resume may not be quite strong enough, their NCAA tournament hopes will probably still come down to the conference tournament. Still, if they can run the table in the Big West, they should be able to secure a respectable seed come March. Chris Dobbertean of SBNation currently has them as a 12 seed in his bracket projection, which would put them on the bubble for an at large bid.
The LA Eight Rankings (through games of January 23):
1. Long Beach State 49ers 14-6 (Last week: 1)
Long Beach State put a stranglehold on the Big West Conference this week, recording decisive road wins over two of the better teams, Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara. Their nationally televised game at Santa Barbara was particularly impressive -- a 71-48 road win over the team that has knocked them out of the conference tournament in back to back years served notice to the rest of the conference that they have no intention of losing any time soon. The 49ers are now in the driver's seat with a two game lead in the standings and have a real chance to go unbeaten in conference. They can put more distance between themselves and the pack with wins over Riverside and Fullerton (both currently tied for second) this week.
This week: @ Riverside (10-9) Jan 26, Fullerton (12-6) Jan 28
2. Loyola Marymount Lions 12-8 (3)
Loyola Marymount opened the season with an impressive win over UCLA, and has shown glimpses of quality play all season. However, they've been plagued by massive inconsistency (home losses to Columbia and North Texas? Really?) owing in part to injuries. They're now fully healthy for the first time, and beginning to look like they belong among the contenders in the West Coast Conference. On Thursday they went into the Marriott Center in Provo and handed BYU their worst home defeat of the year in front of almost 13 thousand fans. With Monday night's win in Santa Clara, the Lions are now 5-2 in WCC play, with all five wins coming on the road. Thursday's home meeting with conference leader St. Mary's, currently ranked No. 20 in the nation, is huge. A win over the Gaels would qualify LMU as a true threat in the WCC tournament.
This week: No. 20 St. Mary's (19-2) Jan 26; Portland (5-15) Jan 28
3. Cal State Fullerton Titans 12-6 (4)
After losing three straight, Fullerton got back on track with a pair of victories last week. Cal transfer D.J. Seely scored 49 points in the two games, including a career high 27 on Saturday at Irvine as the Titans won the unofficial championship of Orange County. Seely was 6 for 6 from beyond the arc against the Anteaters. If the Titans, 4-2 in conference, feel they can compete for the Big West title, they'll have their chance to show it Saturday in Long Beach against the 49ers.
This week: @ Northridge (5-12) Jan 26; @ Long Beach State (14-6) Jan 28
4. UCLA Bruins 10-9 (2)
Just when you think the Bruins might be turning the corner, they leave the state and return with two more losses. They managed to stay close against Oregon State, but eventually handed the Beavers just their second Pac-12 win. Then the Bruins took a 13 point halftime lead in Eugene, only to have Oregon outscore them 15-2 to open the second half; UCLA eventually lost by seven. UCLA has only one road win over a Division I school this season, and none out of the southland. Basically, if the Bruins have to travel, forget it.
This week: Utah (5-14) Jan 26, Colorado (13-6) Jan 28
5. UC Irvine Anteaters 6-13 (6)
Irvine lost the unofficial championship of Orange County to Fullerton on Saturday, 92-84. After opening Big West conference play 3-1, they've now lost three straight. The Anteaters have a non-league game tonight against Seattle, before returning to conference play against Riverside.
This week: Seattle (5-12) Jan 24; Riverside (10-9) Jan 28
6. Pepperdine Waves 7-12 (5)
With two more losses this week, the Waves have now lost seven consecutive conference games in the WCC. Maybe they can take some comfort in staying within 14 points of St. Mary's on the road after losing to them by 29 at home earlier this season. The lone bright spot for the Waves has been the play of freshman guard Jordan Baker, their leading scorer in conference play. It's hard to believe that Pepperdine can hang onto the sixth spot on this list after seven straight losses, but that's just how bad USC and Northridge are.
This week: @ San Diego (7-12) Jan 26; Santa Clara (8-11) Jan 28
7. USC Trojans 5-15 (7)
Just when you think it can't get any worse for USC, it gets worse. Junior forward Aaron Fuller, the team's leading rebounder and second leading scorer, will undergo shoulder surgery on January 26th and is lost for the season. It's the second starter USC has lost this season from a team that wasn't expected to be particularly good in the first place. Without Fuller, USC lost twice to the Oregon schools last week. The Trojans' best chance at a Pac-12 conference win may be this Saturday when Utah visits the Galen Center.
This week: Colorado (13-6) Jan 26; Utah (5-14) Jan 28
8. Cal State Northridge Matadors 5-12 (8)
Northridge suffered two losses this week, the second being a 100-54 embarrassment against Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. The Matadors shot 23 percent in the loss; the Mustangs shot 60 percent, and at one point made 11 consecutive three pointers. Ouch.
This week: Fullerton (12-6) Jan 26; @ Bakersfield (11-10) Jan 28
If you go to only one college basketball game in the Southland this week, make it:
Fullerton at Long Beach State from the Pyramid in Long Beach. It's an 8 PM start and the game will be nationally televised on ESPNU.