By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — We all remember Larry Eustachy for his fall, for his sudden descent to the bottom of the college basketball world.
What many forget is that he was once at the very top.
The 2000 national coach of the year had turned Iowa State into a national title contender by the time photos of a drunken Eustachy partying with two Missouri coeds circulated on the internet and sent him spiraling downward.
After eight seasons at Southern Mississippi, Eustachy continues his gradual climb back from a battle with public scrutiny and alcoholism. He is three games into his first season at Colorado State, and as Eustachy prepared for this afternoon’s game against the University of Washington, the biggest question that hounds him now is this one: Is Larry Eustachy coaching in the best men’s basketball conference in the West?
“I don’t know about from top to bottom, but the San Diego States and UNLVs and New Mexicos are similar (to Pac-12 teams) — particularly with UCLA coming back (to the pack) a little bit,” Eustachy said of a Mountain West Conference that has received 11 bids to the past three NCAA tournaments, as compared to just eight from the Pac-10/Pac-12. “It’s close, but I don’t know about the lower teams.”
While the UW men’s basketball team might not be able to cure the Apple Cup blues late this afternoon, the Huskies (2-2) can at least bring back some semblance of order to their conference. Bad RPI losses by UW (to Albany) and Stanford (to Belmont), as well as 11th-ranked UCLA’s recent loss to Georgetown, have put the Pac-12 back in the crosshairs of criticism.
Meanwhile, the Mountain West just keeps rising. Colorado State’s win over Denver on Wednesday night put the league at 31-4 this season, with two of those losses coming against ranked teams, and the Mountain West has won 16 of its past 17 games.
The conference has not only become a perfect landing ground for former Pac-12 and Big Ten players such as UNLV star Mike Moser (a UCLA transfer), Wyoming’s Leonard Washington (USC), Nevada’s Malik Story (Indiana) and Colorado State leading scorer Colton Iverson (Minnesota) but also for some big-name coaches whose stars have fallen (San Diego State’s Steve Fisher and Eustachy).
The Mountain West doubled the amount of Pac-12 participants in last season’s NCAA tournament — 4-2 — and had three teams earn seeds of No. 6 or higher.
So it was a bit curious earlier this week when UW coach Lorenzo Romar was asked about the possibility of his Huskies “overlooking” some of the unranked teams on UW’s four-game stretch of home games that begins this afternoon.
“Colorado State, St. Louis, (Nevada) Reno, even Cal State Fullerton is a good team,” Romar said, listing off a group of upcoming home opponents that includes two — St. Louis and Nevada — that beat UW on the road last season. “People say snore and bore, but those teams are good. We can’t afford to overlook any of those teams.”
Romar was waving the banner for the Mountain West earlier this week, calling the conference “a very competitive league.” During his Tuesday press conference, Romar said he had yet to watch Colorado State on film, but he was well aware that the Rams were one of several so-called bubble teams that made last year’s tournament, while the Pac-12 champion Huskies had to settle for a National Invitational Tournament bid.
On paper, Colorado State looks like a decent matchup for UW. The Rams’ top scorer, the 6-foot-10 Iverson, will have to contend with Huskies big men Aziz N’Diaye (7-feet) and Jernard Jarreau (6-10), while CSU doesn’t have the kind of score-first point guard that has given UW fits in the past.
But the Huskies aren’t overconfident heading into today’s matchup, nor are they necessarily looking for any kind of Pac-12 legitimacy. First and foremost, the Huskies need a victory to get back on the winning track at home, where they lost to unheralded Albany last time out.
“That definitely wasn’t us,” junior C.J. Wilcox said earlier this week. “We’re hoping we can bounce back and show that’s not the kind of team we are.”
Added freshman guard Andrew Andrews: “You never want to lose at home. Fans come out and support us, and you don’t want to lose in front of them. We’ll try not to lose any more home games.”
This stretch of games takes on added importance when it comes to the proverbial NCAA tournament resume. Had the Huskies beaten either St. Louis or Nevada last season, they probably would’ve gotten invited to the Dance. It’s conceivable that UW could get matched up against those teams again this March, along with CSU or another Mountain West power, when it’s time for the NCAA committee to start handing out at-large bids.
“We didn’t make the tournament last year,” Andrews said, “so we need to come into every game like we’re the underdog.”
When it comes to a game pitting the Pac-12 against the Mountain West, a lot of people might be looking at the team from UW’s conference as the underdog.