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SWAC TITLE RACE WIDE OPEN

SHARE SWAC TITLE RACE WIDE OPEN

Two teams can claim to be defending champions of the Scenic West Athletic Conference from the 1993-94 season.

Salt Lake Community College finished sixth in the regular season but won the Region 18 tournament and advanced to the NJCAA national championship tournament, where they finished fifth. The Dixie Rebels had an impressive 28-3 record and were ranked among the top 10 teams in the country but lost an opening round game to a weak College of Eastern Utah team in St. George in the first round of the post-season tournament.Chances are the Rebels would've traded final results with the Bruins, but now each team returns hungry for the championship that eluded them. They are not the only teams in the powerful SWAC that have a legitimate shot at the regular season title and a berth in the national tournament. They will vie with the College of Southern Idaho, a greatly improved College of Eastern Utah team and North Idaho College for the SWAC title. Ricks College and Utah Valley State College could also sneak in and take the championship.

Dixie, CSI and SLCC received recognition in the pre-season national juco rankings because of some of their strong personnel and the league's consistently impressive showing in the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas where CSI won the National Championship in 1987.

CSI started the pre-season only one spot out of the Top 10. Dixie was ranked 21st despite having no returning starters and has since jumped to 14 after a strong preseason. SLCC was bunched among the others category, probably on the strength of last season. The three teams have a 33-0 combined preseason record

"Dixie is really reloaded." said SLCC coach Norm Parish. "CEU has as good as talent as anybody, and (UVSC`s) Ruffner gives every team a match-up problem. I think it's up for grabs."

SLCC lost Silas Mills to Utah State, where he has proven that he is a major talent, while two-yearSWAC scoring leader (22.1 ppg) Chuck Overton is off to Cal-State Fullerton. Just as importantly is the loss of Shane Belnap, who now suits up for the Montana. But the Bruins return Marcel Johnson, Don Faux and add shooter Bret Barton. Ed Johnson, from the U., will boost the already strong line-up if he becomes eligible in January. Either way, the Bruins will contend.

CSI has had a stranglehold on the SWAC since its inception since 1986 - only last year did any team other than CSI win the regular-seasonor post-tournament titles. Second-year coach Steve Irons hopes to prove that last year was an aberration, and he has the talent to do it. Sophomores Ed Gray and Shawn Bankhead are the Golden Eagles' most talented players, and their homecourt in Twin Falls is the juco equivalent of the Pit in Albuquerque. Every home game is televised and the gym is always packed. If they earn the right to host the tournament, they may be unbeatable.

Dixie will count on its sohpomore transfers Jason Jackman, a nine-game starter at Utah, and Chancelor Davis, a 5-8 transfer point guard from Northern Arizona University.

The SWAC features five Utah colleges that some are naming the Small 5 to counter-balance the more established Division I-A Big 5. Former SWAC players dot the rosters of Weber State and Utah State, and current UVSC standout Bryon Ruffner will be another link in the school's chain to BYU when he joins the Cougars for the final two years of his career.

The SWAC also features 45 former Utah high school players, giving the league a familiar look. Snow and SLCC feature 10 Utah players each, but even the non-Utah schools recruit and sign Utah talent. Only two of the teams do not feature local players.

Regular-season action in the SWAC begins Friday, Dec. 9 when the league contenders will get their chance to test their mettle against their powerful region opponents. The team in the Northern division of the conference (SLCC, NIC, Ricks, CSI, Treasure Valley Community College) with the best record will host the Region 18 tournament which determines the national tournament representative.