Checking In On… the Big WestPosted by Brian Goodman on January 2nd, 2012
The Week That Was
- Long Beach Takes Down Another Ranked Opponent: Long Beach State continued its strong nonconference play at the Diamond Head Classic, beating then-#14 Xavier as well as Auburn to reach the tournament championship game against Kansas State, where it fell to the Wildcats. At the beginning of the season, the 49ers knocking off two ranked opponents would have been seen as a gigantic accomplishment, but now the two wins look somewhat less impressive given Pittsburgh’s and Xavier’s struggles. Xavier was missing starters Mark Lyons and Dezmine Wells, and would fall to a very mediocre Hawaii team the following day. Nonetheless, still a very good showing in Honolulu for the 49ers.
- Santa Barbara Goes Cold: Long Beach State’s consensus biggest Big West threat at the beginning of the season sputtered to an ugly finish in the nonconference portion of their schedule, getting walloped by both Cal and Brigham Young on the road. UCSB went into overtime against both San Diego State and UNLV earlier this season, but seemed to shrink on the road. Beyond the Gauchos big three of Orlando Johnson, James Nunnally, and Jaime Serna, the UCSB bench has been uninspiring. New Mexico transfer point guard Nate Garth has also struggled recently, being relegated to the bench against BYU where he committed four turnovers in just 10 minutes. Colorado transfer Keegan Hornbuckle has also been a non-factor.
- Big West Action is Here: In recent years, the Big West has been one of the most closely fought, anyone-can-win-on-a-given-night conferences. Even though Long Beach State went 14-2 last year en route to the regular season title, they lost to eight-seed UC Irvine in the regular season and lost to No. 5-seed UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament. Although there figures to be more of a divide in the contending teams and the rebuilding teams this year, extremely hard-fought close battles are still to be expected. How teams match-up with each other, coaching strategy, home court advantage and coming up with clutch shots late will determine a number of games. Already, streaking Cal State Fullerton had to squeak out a win against cellar dweller UC Davis, who has yet to claim a win against a Division I opponent this year. These are coaches and players who know each other very well, bringing a whole new element to games with an increase in intensity a likely by-product.
- Long Beach State (7-6) – Despite coming up short against Kansas State in the Diamond Head Classic championship game, Long Beach State still had a tournament they could be proud of, beating No. 14 Xavier by 10 and Auburn by 21. In addition to notching wins over Atlantic-10 and SEC teams, Long Beach State also gained more national exposure with a couple games on ESPN2 and the Xavier win on ESPNU. All positive things for a program that is trying to take it to the next level. Senior Larry Anderson was named to the all-tournament team for scoring in double figures all three games, while freshman point guard Mike Caffey emerged as an exciting player for not only the future but for this season as well. The 6’0” Riverside, California native poured in 14 points against Xavier, exciting fans with his energetic yet composed play.
- Cal Poly (9-4) – Third-year head coach Joe Callero has done a great job with the Mustang program, and this move up to the #2 spot is a reflection of the entire body of work that Cal Poly has put up to date. The Mustangs had a decent game against Big East opponent DePaul, falling 63-58 after whittling the lead down to two with about two minutes to play. They handled the Blue Demon full-court press pretty well, and turned in their usual solid defensive effort. The loss still doesn’t take over solid wins over USC and Fresno State, their first win over the Bulldogs in 41 years.
- UC Santa Barbara (5-5) – The Gauchos still probably pose the biggest threat to Long Beach State at the end of the year, but they ended their nonconference schedule losing five of six. Granted, all five losses were to quality programs, but UCSB’s cohesion and effort seemed to suffer during their last two games in particular. Despite Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally both scoring 22 points against BYU, the Gauchos fell by 14, never really challenging for the lead after about five minutes into the second half. UCSB is really going to have to get more from their bench and role players going forward or defenses will continue to hone in on Johnson and Nunnally, wearing them down.
- Cal State Fullerton (9-3) – The Titans have stretched their winning streak to six after pulling out wins against both Portland State and UC Davis to start conference play. The Titans are big and fast, and have the gaudy national statistics to prove it—they are in the top 20 nationally in points per game, rebounds per game, and team field goal percentage. However, they also have yet to beat anyone of note, and eeking out a one-point victory over the Aggies does not exactly inspire confidence. Also of note: the Titans only played seven deep against UCD. It will be interesting to see if the lack of depth comes back to bite them as the conference schedule goes along.
- UC Riverside (6-7) – The concept of playing up to the competition has not been a familiar concept in Riverside thus far. A 25-point drubbing from San Diego State was added to the list of blowout losses UCR has sustained on the year. However, the Highlanders have also shown the knack to pull out close wins against more evenly matched opponents, beating both San Jose State and UTSA to close out non-conference play. Robert Smith and Kareem Nitoto have been playing well lately, giving leading scorer Phil Martin some relief when UCR needs to turn to a hot hand.
- UC Irvine (4-9) – The young guys in Irvine continue to go through some ups and downs, putting forth their worst effort of the year in a shellacking at UCLA before recovering for pair of wins that doubled their season total. Led by the emergence of point guard Derick Flowers, UCI beat Cal State Northridge to start Big West play, hanging on to a 22-point lead in the first half for a 71-62 win at the Matadome. UCI’s defense remains pretty consistent, but their shooting is not. In order to keep winning without a clear go-to shooter, UCI will have to keep on making their foul shots and avoid sustained scoring droughts.
- Pacific (4-7) – The Tigers finished their nonconference schedule on a four-game losing streak, getting embarrassed by Cal State Bakersfield 83-53 and losing to Fresno State 55-47. Although coach Bob Thomason could conceivably strategize a few wins in the Big West, Pacific ranks near the bottom of the conference in scoring, scoring margin, field goal percentage, rebounding, 3-point shooting, and assists. Not a season to remember in Stockton.
- Cal State Northridge (3-6) – The Matadors’ lack of experience down low and poor field goal shooting percentage from their guards make for an ugly combination. After getting crushed by Washington to end non-conference action, coach Bobby Braswell’s group started conference play on the wrong note as well, losing to UCI at home. One piece of good news is the approved eligibility of forward Michael Lizarraga, who was granted a season of competition waiver by the NCAA for the final twenty games of the season. The 6’7” forward was honored with a special Inspirational Award by the Big West coaches last season as the only deaf D-I men’s basketball player.
- UC Davis (1-9) – It’s been nine straight losses for the Aggies, and still no Division I wins on the season. More dreadful losses including a 20-point defeat at San Jose State and an 11-point deficit against Southern Utah ended the non-conference schedule, but a mere one-point loss to Cal State Fullerton was a sign of improvement. UCD fought back from a 16-point deficit in the first half to tie the game late in the second half before coming up just short. Sophomore Josh Ritchart came off the bench to score 19 points to lead Davis, who has nowhere to go but up from their RPI of 343, dead last in the entire nation.
The Big West conference slate is upon us, and a couple of excellent rivalry games go down right after New Year’s. Cal Poly hosts UC Santa Barbara in what should be an interesting test between conference contenders. Long Beach State travels to UC Irvine for part one of the “Black and Blue” rivalry game. Although seemingly an easy win for Long Beach State, UCI upset Long Beach State in Irvine last year, and also catch the 49ers coming off of a long break after the holidays. Long Beach also hosts Cal Poly while UCSB hosts Cal State Fullerton in other early January match-ups that could provide tell-tale signs for the final conference standings.
Caught on Film
Some holiday cheer from Big West basketball (no auto-tune included).