Big West Tourney PreviewPosted by rtmsf on March 11th, 2009
Ryan ZumMallen of LBPostSports is the RTC correspondent for the Big West and SEC Conferences.
The Big West Tournament will kick off tonight at the Anaheim Convention Center, and anyone who claims they know who will be crowned on Saturday is either: (1) lying, or (2) not familiar with the way the season has gone thus far. The fact is that any Big West team is capable of beating any other team, and seeding means little in making your predictions.
Top seed Cal State Northridge won the regular season title outright, but have faced injuries, legal issues and general inconsistencies that made the race a little closer than most expected when the Matadors were chosen as preseason favorites. Long Beach State, the #2 seed, started out on a blazing 5-0 conference start but has alternated between wins and losses for the remaining eleven games. Third-seeded Pacific hasn’t won a road game since January 31, and even lost to lowly Cal Poly early in the season.
No, the hottest team heading into the Big West Tournament may just be the fourth-seeded UC Santa Barbara Gauchos – who started out 2-7 but have won six of their last seven against conference foes. UCSB ended with a rally, hitting a buzzer beater to defeat Long Beach State on Senior Night. The win ended Long Beach’s chance at a share of the conference title and catapulted the Gauchos into a first round bye. “We made shots when it counted most. The kids hung in there,” said UCSB head coach Bob Williams during a Monday morning conference call with Big West coaches. “The fact that the kids had enough character to react and respond… was a real turnaround for this group of kids.” The Gauchos’ turnaround in the second half of the season has been nothing short of remarkable, as they became the sound, defensively-oriented team that many foresaw when UCSB was picked to finish favorably in the preseason. The Gauchos are 1-5 when their conference opponents score 70 points or more, and 7-3 when they don’t. We won’t know who they’ve drawn in the Thursday game until tonight, but rest assured that UCSB will want to slow the game down.
But can a four-seed win the conference tournament and capture what is sure to be the Big West’s only NCAA Tournament bid? The conference’s tournament structure is such that a low seed can make a run to the finals. Pacific head coach Bob Thomason thinks so, anyway. “When the Big West [tournament] starts you’ve gotta win a game to get momentum started, because there is no momentum until you win a game,” he said. In a conference that has remained so close from beginning to end, Thomason believes that everyone has a shot. “I think anybody can win this thing. Once you win a game down there, you tend to relax and forget about anything that happened in the past. Then the momentum starts and that’s whats hard about the teams that have byes: the team that you’re playing has already won. So they’ve got the momentum and youre trying to create your momentum.”
One team in danger of going home early is Cal State Fullerton, in spite of Player of the Year Josh Akognon, who blazed through the conference on his way to 20.7 points per contest. The Titans even boast wins against three of the top four seeds, but Fullerton will first face UC Riverside – whose strength is a suffocating team defense that’s sure to pressure Akognon on the perimeter and crash when he drives. The teams are even against each other and the Rubber Match figures to be a classic. Barring a miracle run to the finals on the shoulders of Akognon – which is entirely possible – Fullerton will likely end their season early, though. Smart money lies on three teams and their endearing qualities: the precision and guidance of Bob Thomason and his Pacific Tigers, the boundless energy and talent of the Long Beach State 49ers, and the experience and high-octane attack of the Northridge Matadors.
Pacific will play the lowest remaining seed on Thursday night, so with a victory, they’ll face one of the top two seeds with a win already under their belt. It’s tough to rest for nearly a week before jumping into a tournament semifinal, but that’s exactly what the 49ers and Matadors will need to do to keep their Tourney hopes alive. Shoot, the 49ers are still reeling from their last-second loss to UCSB last weekend, after it ended their chance at a conference championship. “Time heals a lot and we’re gonna take some time,” said 49er head coach Dan Monson. The 49ers rested on Sunday and Monday before resuming practice yesterday, reeling from their loss at UCSB. “Guys had a chance to be a part of a conference championship and didn’t get it done, and how well we deal with that I think will be a factor in our play on Friday.”
Through it all, Northridge remains the favorite due to their superior record and top seed. The Matadors finished the year strong with an 8-2 record, and capped it off by recapturing the championship. Northridge put on a fast-break clinic in a 21-point victory over Long Beach in late February, and Coach of the Year Bobby Braswell will likely turn up the heat on whichever opponent they draw on Friday.
This weekend is for all the marbles, and the Big West will surely receive only one NCAA bid, and even that winner may be relegated to a #16 seed or event the Play-in Game. Even an NIT invite would be surprising. So why even pay attention to this conference? Because the Big West is one of few conferences this season that truly has no front-runner. A case could be made for UC Davis as much as UCSB, or for Fullerton as much as Long Beach State. Only the action on the court will decide who the conference will send to the Big Dance. And isn’t that the way it should be, anyway?