RTC Conference Primers: #19 – Big West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on October 17th, 2011

David Gao of Zotcubed, a UC Irvine blog, is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference. You can find him on Twitter at @dvdgao.

Reader’s Take I

Top Storylines

  • LBSU 49ers Poised to Finally Strike Gold: After winning the Big West by four games last year, Long Beach State had to settle for the NIT after UC Santa Barbara upset them in the Big West Tournament finals. This year, four of last year’s top five scorers return for LBSU, and all as fourth-year seniors. But even if a Big West Tournament win isn’t in the cards, Coach Dan Monson will garner national attention and even a possible at-large bid with an incredibly tough non-conference slate featuring the likes of Pittsburgh, San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina and Xavier.

Long Beach State Star Guard Casper Ware (#22) Plays Much Bigger Than His 5'10" Frame Might Suggest. (credit: S. Dachman)

  • Three Straight for the Gauchos?: USA World University Games team member Orlando Johnson will look to take an up-and-down UC Santa Barbara team back to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. Some may see last year’s bid as a bit of a fluke, as the Gauchos were only a five-seed in the conference tournament, but scored a Big Dance berth anyway when they won the final against regular season champion Long Beach State. Seniors James Nunnally and Jaime Serna return as well, while D-I transfers Nate Garth and Keegan Hornbuckle become eligible for the first time this year, making this Gauchos team, on paper, even stronger.
  • Will Les Be More?: At UC Davis, gone is former coach Gary Stewart after eight seasons (and his not-so-illustrious 88-148 record), replaced by former Bradley coach Jim Les, who joins his son Tyler, a sophomore on the team. The elder Les spent nine years at Bradley, where he famously took the Braves to the Sweet Sixteen in 2005-06, knocking off a highly-seeded Kansas team in the process. However, his last two teams fizzled, just as Stewart’s Aggies did the last two years despite having highly touted players Mark Payne and Joe Harden on the roster. Harden and Payne are both gone now, but Big West Co-Freshman of the year Josh Ritchart returns with former Cal guard Eddie Miller.
  • Rebuilding Comparison: Both Pacific and UC Irvine have undergone drastic roster revamping this year after the Tigers lost all but 39 points of their offensive output from last year and the Anteaters lost their top three scorers and have no seniors on their roster. Long-time Pacific coach Bob Thomason chose to restock predominantly via junior college transfers, while UCI’s Russell Turner spurned the JC route and has eight freshmen on his roster this year (and not coincidentally has the youngest team in all of Division I basketball). It will be interesting to see which method brings about the most success in replacing respective stars Allen Huddleston, who left Pacific for Fresno State, and Eric Wise, who left UCI for USC.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Long Beach State (14-2)
  2. UC Santa Barbara (12-4)
  3. Cal Poly (10-6)
  4.  Cal State Fullerton (9-7)
  5. UC Riverside (9-7)
  6. UC Davis (6-10)
  7. UC Irvine (5-11)
  8.  Cal State Northridge (4-12)
  9. Pacific (3-13)

All-Conference Picks (key stats from 2010-11 in parentheses)

  • G: Casper Ware – Long Beach State (17.2 PPG, 4.4 APG, 1.6 SPG) – Ware is a pesky point guard who earned the Big West Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards last year, and returns with a penchant for nailing three-point shots when the game is on the line. The 49ers will count on him to make a huge statement with his senior campaign.
  • G: Larry Anderson – Long Beach State (14.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.3 APG) – The 6’5” guard plays big with his efficient shooting percentage and all-around game. He’s easily one of the most athletic players in the conference.
  • G: Orlando Johnson – UC Santa Barbara (21.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.9 APG) – Fresh off his experience representing Team USA and making himself eligible for the NBA Draft for a brief period, Johnson is one of the best mid-major players in the country. He shot over 40 percent from three last year, but thrives from a driving game as well.
  • F: David Hanson – Cal Poly (15.2 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.8 APG) – A sneaky good player who comes alive when the team most needs him, Hanson is known for hitting big threes. He will be counted on to pick up the slack with Big West All-Conference member Shawn Lewis having graduated.
  • F: T.J. Robinson – Long Beach State (13.6 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.0 APG) – Robinson is a rebounding machine who will match up against any big man in the conference. One weak spot is his free throw percentage, which has been below 60% for the last two years.

Sixth ManF: Andre Hardy – Cal State Fullerton (10.6 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.0 APG) – The transfer from Oral Roberts made an immediate impact with the Titans once he came back from an ankle injury last season. The Big West Newcomer of the Year in 2010-11 will see an even more important role now with the departure of JerVaughn Johnson.

Impact NewcomerG: Nate Garth – UC Santa Barbara – The transfer guard from New Mexico could provide a critical component that was missing at times for the Gauchos last season—an athletic point guard. He was a steady contributor for the Lobos in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, averaging more than 15 minutes a game for a team that spent time ranked in the Top 25.

Predicted Champion

  • Long Beach State (NCAA seed: #12) If everything goes right for the 49ers, they will have a stellar Big West conference record and a couple of major conference upsets on their resume by year’s end, and a real chance to pull an upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Seniors Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps are all in their fourth year at Long Beach, and their wealth of experience against big-time opponents is unmatched. Coach Dan Monson hopes that newcomers Michael Caffey, Shaquille Hunter, Kris Gulley and redshirt Nick Shepherd will be able to provide some depth for a squad that rarely went deeper than seven rotation players. Besides a tough UC Santa Barbara squad that has nearly as much experience, the only other thing that can stop the 49ers are themselves.

Top Contenders

  • UC Santa Barbara (NIT): Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally are going to do their best to return to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season, and with Division I transfers Nate Garth and Keegan Hornbuckle, it is a distinct possibility. If senior forward Jaime Serna can stay healthy and continue his strong play down the stretch for UCSB, the Gauchos are familiar with winning the Big West Tournament. Ultimately though, repeating as tournament champions for three straight years will be difficult.
  • Cal Poly: Coach Joe Callero has done a great job in turning the Mustangs around in the two years that he has been in San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly returns four starters from a team that finished third in three-point field goal percentage defense (28.7%) and sixth in scoring defense (58.9 PPG). Seniors David Hanson and Will Donahue will give the Mustangs a chance in every game, and sophomore Kyle Odister returns after redshirting last season due to a season-ending injury. I just don’t see the Mustangs having enough offense to win though.
  • Cal State Fullerton: Always a popular destination for Division I transfers, the Titans welcome a trio of promising players in Kwame Vaughn (San Francisco), Omondi Amoke (California) and D.J. Seeley (Cailfornia) joining previous transfers Orane Chin (South Florida) and Andre Hardy (Oral Roberts) in what should be a rugged group that could surprise. The Titans just don’t have the experience and group chemistry that the top contenders in the conference have, and this ultimately will hinder consistency.

Orlando Johnson Hopes To Bring UCSB Fans A Big West Title And Another Tourney Bid. (K. Sullivan/OC Register)

Reader’s Take II

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

  • Orlando Johnson of UC Santa Barbara represents the most plausible Big West NBA prospect, with his all-around game and mix of athleticism and size, while Casper Ware of Long Beach State drew the attention of NBA stars according to this article over the summer. Talents like Johnson and Ware aren’t exactly prevalent in the Big West, so tune in for their games when you can.
  • On the sidelines, It makes sense for Dan Monson to potentially attract another job in a major conference due to his success at Long Beach State and past experiences at Gonzaga and Minnesota. If Long Beach is able to live up to the hype and perform well in the NCAA Tournament, it will be interesting to see if Monson resists temptation from bigger programs to stay true to his previous promises of staying at Long Beach for the long term.

Spotlight on… Bob Thomason and Pacific

Entering his 24th season at the helm of Pacific, Bob Thomason is the respected grandfather of the Big West. He has five Big West Coach of the Year awards to his credit and NCAA Tournament success as recent as 2006. As a #12 seed in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, Pacific upset #5 seed Providence, and in 2004-05 Pacific earned a #8 seed and first round win over Pittsburgh. His half-court offense and strong X’s and O’s coaching has made up for a lack of talent at times, and no Pacific team traditionally is an easy win. But after a tough year last season, star sophomore Allen Huddleston has led a mass exodus that includes three other reserves. In an interview, Huddleston’s father said that his son had grown tired of Thomason’s motion-heavy schemes, and wanted to play somewhere with a more up-tempo offense. Is it possible that Thomason’s old school methods are losing their effect with modern players? Has Thomason already seen his best days at Pacific? Combined with five seniors graduating, Thomason is left with a team that has only two returning players—a seldom-used back-up and a walk-on. If he can turn this year’s Tigers filled with junior college transfers and Creighton transfer Andrew Bock into a contender, it may just be his biggest achievement at Pacific yet.

Final Thoughts

The wild Big West has provided great competition in recent years with a different team winning on any given night. While it is true that the conference is a far cry away from its glory days featuring UNLV and Utah State, coaching talent is on the rise in recent years, and every team in the conference has reason to believe in a brighter future.  The 2011-12 season could very well be the first year since Pacific’s run in the NCAA Tournament that a Big West squad will make a national impact and potential Cinderella story. The Big West Tournament has moved to the Honda Center in Anaheim, a nicer venue that hosted NCAA Tournament games last year. Next year, Hawaii rejoins the conference in all sports (except football), and figures to up the level of competition even more. If you’ve tuned out or dismissed the Big West conference in recent times, now is the time to tune back in.

Brian Goodman (987 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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