2009-10 Conference Primers: #16 – Big WestPosted by rtmsf on October 21st, 2009
Ryan ZumMallen of LBPostSports.com is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Big West Conferences.
Predicted Order of Finish:
- Long Beach State (13-3)
- UC Santa Barbara (12-4)
- UC Riverside (12-4)
- UC Davis (9-7)
- UC Irvine (9-7)
- Cal State Fullerton (7-9)
- Pacific (5-11)
- Cal Poly (3-13)
- Cal State Northridge (2-14)
- Mark Payne (G), UCD
- Larry Anderson (G), LBSU
- Joe Harden (F), UCD
- Kyle Austin (F), UCR
- Eric Wise (C), UCI
6th Man. Joe Ford (G), Pacific
Impact Newcomer. Michael Wilder (G), UCI
eWhat You Need to Know. The Big West consistently sends one representative to the NCAA Tournament, which is then soundly bounced from competition in the first round; but that shouldn’t take away from the fierce battle that’s being done within conference confines. The conference is riding a wave of improvement, witnessed by a recent flood of top-notch recruits and Cal State Northridge taking #2 Memphis to the wire in the first round of last season’s Tourney. This season, there are shining stars waiting to break out, and most teams have scheduled challenging preseason opponents in a seemingly league-wide strategy to boost the conference’s profile. Long Beach State sophomore Larry Anderson and UC Riverside senior Kyle Austin have the combination of size and pro-level talent that give their teams the chance to beat anyone on any night. Tough schedules and big, athletic guards – does that make the Big West a conference with upset capabilities? No doubt.
Predicted Champion. Long Beach State (NCAA Seed: #12). The 49ers will be the popular pick to win the Big West regular season as well as conference tournament, due to an elevated talent level and difficult preseason schedule that will make the rest of the conference season seem like JV. Because of that difficult preseason schedule – and therefore a favorable RPI – Long Beach State will likely be a trendy upset pick in the NCAA Tournament, especially if they can pull off an upset against Texas, Kentucky or Duke; on a national scale, however, they probably lack the firepower needed to advance to the second round. Only four seniors graduated from last year’s team that earned second place in the conference. The 49ers’ quartet of sophomores will lead the charge – with athletic sixth man Eugene Phelps, darting point guard Casper Ware, crafty forward T.J. Robinson and 2008-09 first-teamer Larry Anderson.
- UC Riverside – The Highlanders look to build on their most successful season of all time, a 17-13 campaign energized by the smooth scoring of 6’7 forward Kyle Austin – a likely preseason Player of the Year candidate. If Austin can get any help from the just-above-mediocre talent around him, Riverside has a shot in any game – the senior-laden squad boasts several returners who tasted success and relish the underdog role.
- UC Santa Barbara – Watch out for the Gauchos, who return ten players – including four talented, improved sophomores – and add transfer Orlando Johnson and Justin Joyner (who sat out last season with an injury). A cake preseason schedule may come back to haunt them, however.
- Nov. 13, 2009 – CSUN at Purdue
- Nov. 16, 2009 – Fullerton at UCLA
- Dec. 9, 2009 – Pacific vs. California
- Dec. 16, 2009 – Cal Poly at Wisconsin
- Nov. 19, Dec. 7, Dec. 23 & Dec. 29, 2009 – Long Beach State at Notre Dame, Texas, Kentucky & Duke
Key Conference Games:
- Jan. 7, 2010 – Long Beach State at Cal State Fullerton
- Jan. 14, 2010 – UC Irvine at UC Davis
- Jan. 16, 2010 – UC Riverside at UC Santa Barbara
- Feb. 13, 2010 – Long Beach State at UC Santa Barbara
- Feb. 28, 2010 – UC Riverside at UC Davis
Digging Deeper. The story about the Big West is really in its future. Most teams scheduled at least one eye-opening opponent, which is a huge step up for the conference’s profile. Basically, they’re trying to stay afloat in a conference that seemed to be slipping towards D2 status. And the funny thing is that it might work. Top-ranked recruits are saying “no thanks” to higher-profile suitors – even those in their own backyard. A very talented level of player is on its way to the Big West, and while we may not see its full impact for two or three more years, the effects are already starting to show with more star-quality talent and greater overall depth. Do not be surprised to see a Big West team knock off a big name opponent in the preseason, and expect the conference’s representative to be a bandwagon upset special come Tourney Time.
Fun With KenPom. Oddly, last season every single Big West team had a minimum of thirteen losses, giving the conference the ignoble title for having the ‘worst’ best teams in terms of Ls (Pacific and UC Riverside) of any conference in America. Even the lowly MEAC and SWAC had a team or two with ten or eleven total losses. Of course, strength of schedule is a much better indicator than total losses, but it was still interesting that the best team in this league last year, Cal St. Northridge, only went 17-14 overall (their nonconference SOS was a hefty 34th in the country, though).
NCAA Tournament History. The Big West has a solid history of success in the NCAA Tournament (40-51, .440) over the years, but the vast majority of that (30 wins) was due to Jerry Tarkanian’s Long Beach State teams of the 1970s and UNLV teams of the 80s and 90s. Pacific had a nice run in the middle of this decade (two wins and an OT loss in the first round), but there haven’t been many other highlights in recent years. It remains to be seen if Dan Monson’s upgrade in scheduling will result in a rising tide for all boats in the Big West, but he’s done it before in the WCC, so it’s certainly possible.
Final Thoughts. The Big West Conference has long been satisfied to hide in the shadows and play on a level sufficient enough only to remain competitive with each other. This season marks a concentrated effort by Long Beach State and head coach Dan Monson to compete on a national scale; whether the rest of the Big West is prepared for that level of talent or not. Monson has attracted an impressive group of nationally-acclaimed recruits and scheduled a brutal road schedule against the best of the Big 12, SEC and ACC – the same formula he used to catapult Gonzaga to national prominence in the late 90s. Other teams have likewise scheduled difficult preseason opponents, including UC Irvine’s trip to Texas and Pacific hosting Cal in a nearby stadium with hopes of attracting a larger audience. The Big West has long been a conference in decline, and though its teams may not fare well against their challenging foes, this season marks a distinct shift in the quality of opponents faced before the conference schedule kicks off. Years from now, we may look back on this season as the beginning of the rise of the Big West, with the effects of an increased national profile already manifesting itself in highly-ranked recruiting classes – setting the stage for an exciting future.