Big West Tournament PreviewPosted by rtmsf on March 10th, 2010
Steve Coulter of the Clarion is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference.
Regular Season Recap
A year after making the NCAA Tournament, Cal State Northridge is the final team to make the Big West Conference tournament. However, it hasn’t been a year of complete surprise, rather just a season of emergence. Depending on who plays in Big West Tournament final game on Saturday afternoon, the Big West could have their conference champion as high as a No. 12 seed come the NCAA tournament. Both Santa Barbara and Pacific have had great seasons and they could be rewarded greatly by if the selection committee if they win the conference crown.
Overall the conference’s bottom four teams—Cal Poly, UC Irvine, CS Northridge and CS Riverside–have had ugly seasons with sub-.500 conference records. Despite this they have produced some of the conference’s best players. The Highlanders’ Kyle Austin would be conference player of the year, and still has a shot, if it weren’t for his team’s last place finish. His back-to-back 35+ point effort against Fullerton and Cal Poly is one of the bigger achievements of the year. Like Austin, senior forward Kenny Daniels has an argument for being player of the year despite the Matadors’ tough season. He scored in double figures in all of his last eight games and finished averaging 15.3 points a game.
Although neither are going to win conference player of the year, the Anteaters’ Eric Wise and Michael Hunter proved to be one of the conference’s more lethal tandems. Hunter, a senior, was a scoring threat for the Anteaters, but his biggest contributions were on the court leadership and defense. He finished the year with 1.4 steals per game. The middle teams—CS Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Davis–all had back and forth seasons that included both winning streaks and losing streaks. Overall Fullerton had a pretty consistent season, finishing over .500 both at home and on the road. After a three-game losing streak in January, the Titans turned things around in February and almost earned a first round bye. The 49ers had the roughest schedule of any team in the Big West, playing five top 25 teams during the season. Despite their 15-15 overall record, they played through the tough schedule to earn a first round bye. The 49ers biggest conference win came on January 14 when they beat the No. 1 seeded Gauchos by 20 points. The Aggies also had success against the top of the conference, beating Pacific on February 10. Despite Dominic Calegari’s departure after this season, the Aggies return their two top guards in Payne and Harden, which will put them in a position to be conference favorite next season.
The real difference between the league’s elite teams, Santa Barbara and Pacific, and the rest of the conference, is depth. Although the Gauchos have relied on only a few guys for scoring, the teams bench has given valuable minutes. In conference play they have at least four bench players averaging over ten minutes of action a night. As for the Tigers, they are a team that spreads the scoring effort around and does not rely on a single person to lead them each night. The similarities between Pacific and Santa Barbara are clear though, in that they are both teams that like to use their bench and use it effectively. That is why they are atop the conference going into the postseason.
Big West POY and COY Predictions
Conference Player of the Year is a two-man race between Santa Barbara’s Orlando Johnson and Long Beach State’s T.J Robinson. Johnson’s resume is more impressive considering he led his team to the conference tournament No. 1 seed and a share of the Big West regular season title. The sophomore averages a conference-best 18 points a game while grabbing 5.5 rebounds per contest. Despite Johnson’s resume, it would be hard for the Big West not to acknowledge a flawless season performance from Robinson. In 17 games this season he recorded a double-double, including his 22 point and 18 rebound night against Loyola Marymount back on December 21. Not giving Robinson the highest postseason recognition would be ignoring the conference’s best individual effort of the season. Calegari, Austin, and Wise, although all forwards, should round out the First Team All-Conference. Pacific’s Sam Willard deserves recognition as well. The junior averaged over 11 points and 8 rebounds during the season, while leading the Tigers to a second place finish.
As for Coach of the Year, one has to believe it is a no brainer to give it to Santa Barbara’s Bob Williams. Last year he turned around a Gauchos team that was 8-13 and helped them finish 16-15 on the season. This year Williams has been busy coaching the league’s best team to an impressive 18-9 regular season record. Again, it should be a unanimous decision, but time will tell.
Big West Tournament Matchups
The four bottom seeds open the Big West Conference Tournament on Wednesday night. With a conference-worst 5-11 record, UC Riverside is the only team not participating in the tournament, which leaves No. 8 seeded Cal State Northridge to take on No. 5 seeded CS Fullerton, a team that was a tiebreaker away from getting an opening round bye. Nonetheless, this is the most intriguing matchup the first day. The last time the two teams met was back on February 13, when the Titans won 113-112 in triple overtime. The Titans, 8-8 in conference play, walk into the matchup slumping and losers of their last two, but the Matadors are in worse shape. They are losers of four of their last five and are coming into the matchup after being throttled by Pacific, 66-47, on Saturday night.
The other opening round matchup, which will be played 30 minutes after the Fullerton-Northridge game, pits No. 6 seeded Cal Poly versus No. 7 seeded UC Irvine. This is another exciting first round game because both teams just faced each other in an overtime thriller to close out the regular season. The Anteaters won that contest 91-84, thanks to Darren Moore’s 24-point effort which kept their season alive. A loss to the Mustangs would have ended the Anteaters season; instead it kept their season alive and will have to beat Cal Poly once again to continue. The Anteaters have the momentum coming off the overtime win, in addition to the fact that they have won three of the last four.
Day two of the conference tournament will include No. 3 Long Beach State taking on the lowest remaining seed from Wednesday’s opening round and No. 4 UC Davis playing the highest remaining seed. If Fullerton beats Riverside they automatically play the Aggies, which will be yet another great matchup between two teams that recently played an overtime contest. The Aggies have beaten the Titans twice this season, including a 92-86 win last Saturday. Davis finished with an 8-8-conference record like Fullerton but have the advantage thanks to the conference’s best scoring tandem of Dominic Calegari and Mark Payne. As for the 49ers they have their own weapon that can help them advance against whomever they draw. Sophomore forward T.J Robinson enters the postseason averaging 15.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Although they lost five in a row in December and January, the 49ers have collected themselves late in the season and enter the conference tournament as the No. 3 seed, because they have won seven of their last eleven games.
On Friday, the third day of the tournament, conference stalwarts No. 1 seeded Santa Barbara and No. 2 Pacific begin play against the two remaining teams. Already in the semifinals because of the tournament structure, both the Gauchos and the Tigers are on a collision course to play each other in the championship game. They both have 12-4 conference records and have played their best basketball against the other top teams in their conference. The Tigers enter the tournament as winners of five of their last six games and seemed destined to get back to the championship game, where they lost last season to Northridge.
If the Aggies win their second round contest, then they will proceed to play No. 1 seeded Santa Barbara in the semifinals. Like the Aggies, the Gauchos have a lethal combination of scorers in Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally. In both of their matchups this season Santa Barbara came away with a win, but the results were extremely different. On January 8, the Gauchos limited UC Davis to just 47 total points on their way to a 21-point rout. The later game of the regular season series took place on February 6 at Davis and was a close battle that resulted in a four point win for the Gauchos despite Joe Harden’s 19 point and 12 rebound effort.
If the 49ers get by the second round their semifinal game will be against Pacific, who dominated the regular season series with two impressive wins late in the season. On February 17 the Tigers beat the 49ers by 22 thanks in part to junior Pat Eveland’s career-high 23 points. In both contests the 49ers were plagued by horrendous three-point shooting, finishing 6-34 behind the arc in the series. As a team this year the 49ers have struggled shooting the ball from behind the arc, which most likely won’t improve against a stingy Pacific defense. The Tigers have not allowed their opponent to score than 70 points in the their last 12 conference games.
With Santa Barbara and Pacific holding the advantage in the semifinals against whoever they play, the two teams most likely will meet in the Big West Tournament Championship game. This matchup is intriguing for several reasons. First of all, it pits the two best teams in conference against one another for a third time. What is noteworthy is that twice in the regular season the Gauchos ousted the Tigers who were then the conference leader. The outcomes of both of those games greatly swayed Santa Barbara’s reign over the conference in the final weeks of the regular season. Redemption will not come easily for the Tigers as they have lost their last three meetings with the Gauchos, dating back to last year. Johnson also poses a problem to the Tiger defense, as the versatile sophmore has netted 24 and 28 points against the Tigers this season, the latter of which was a career-best performance on February 4.