Checking In On… the Big West ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on January 17th, 2012
The Week That Was
- UC Riverside Continues Surge, Pulls off First Conference Upset: With the full-on commencement of Big West play, games have already jumped into that extra gear of competitiveness and closeness. However, pretty much everyone held serve until this last Thursday, when the Highlanders took out UC Santa Barbara in overtime, 79-70. The Highlanders then followed that up with a solid win over Cal Poly. Led by senior Phil Martin, UCR now sports a promising 4-1 conference record, currently good for second place in the Big West.
- UC Irvine Road Warriors: The Anteaters completed their first road sweep in six years when they traveled up to Northern California and defeated both Pacific and UC Davis in their home gyms. Although not exactly premium wins or complete upsets, any road win is a good win in the Big West. The fact that the extremely young Anteaters were able to hold their composure and go three-for-three in their first three conference road challenges is an encouraging sign. However, tough losses at Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara showed that the Anteaters are far from being out of the woods.
- Injury Bug Bites: Unlike the major conference teams with plenty of athletic depth, Big West teams can ill afford many injuries to their core group of players. Every year, some teams get bit by the injury bug around now, and this year has proven to be no different. UCSB got a scare when big man Jaime Serna hurt his right hand and wrist against Cal State Fullerton. Although X-rays were negative, Serna missed the OT loss against UCR. Meanwhile, Pacific center Randall Mauge is out at least two weeks with a knee injury. The battle to stay healthy is an important one as the season gets into the stretch run.
- Long Beach State (12-6, 5-0) – So far, so good for Long Beach State, who needs to sweep or come very close to sweeping their Big West slate to have a chance at an at-large bid at the end of the season. Although some games have been a little too close for comfort (a 55-50 win over Cal Poly, a 76-66 win against Pacific that was close until late), the 49ers have taken care of business thus far to hold a perfect record moving into a more difficult portion of their schedule. Long Beach State has faced their entire conference schedule without the services of senior forward Edis Dervisevic, who was suspended indefinitely by coach Dan Monson for failing to meet academic expectations. The loss of their main bench post player has forced Monson to play six-deep with freshman forward Nick Shepherd sprinkled in—it remains to be seen whether such a heavy minutes rotation for the starters will cause them to wear out later in the season.
- UC Santa Barbara (8-6, 3-1) – A 3-1 start to the Big West season has been a bit rockier than coach Bob Williams would have liked. The loss of senior center Jaime Serna had Gaucho fans worried, and an overtime loss at UC Riverside didn’t help matters. However, the emergence of freshman post Alan Williams has helped assuage fears. Picking up most of Serna’s minutes, Williams was a force to be reckoned with down low, picking up nine points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks against UCR and then nine points, 13 rebounds, and four more blocks against UCI. The increased playing time now for the 6’7”, 240-pound freshman will undoubtedly give both Williams the player and Williams his coach more confidence when it really matters.
- Cal Poly (11-7, 2-3) – The Mustangs’ slow-it-down, grind it out offensive style paired with their pesky defense will keep them in virtually every single Big West game. Unfortunately, Cal Poly has wound up on the wrong side of three hard-fought conference losses thus far. A one-point loss to UCSB was followed up by a five-point defeat at the hands of Long Beach State. Two solid wins against the Orange County teams were somewhat diminished by a seven-point loss at suddenly streaking UCR. However, Cal Poly’s depth has really begun to shine in recent games. Sophomore Chris Eversley, a transfer from Rice, has put up triple digits in his last three games, providing a quality big man option off the bench. While a team like Long Beach State has to be careful with their lack of depth, the Mustangs will have no such worry.
- UC Riverside (6-7, 4-1) – After starting the conference slate off with a humiliating home loss against lowly Cal State Northridge, UCR has been the surprise Big West team two weeks in. Phil Martin has been on fire, scoring 24, 29, and a whopping 33 points in wins against UC Davis, Pacific, and UCSB. The senior from Staten Island has benefited from the improved play of Kareem Nitoto and emergence of Robert Smith, earning Big West Player of the Week accolades for his hot hand. Out of nowhere, Riverside now resides in second place in the conference, with the inside track at an upset top-three finish.
- Cal State Fullerton (10-6, 2-2) – The Titans clearly have the ability to score; the problem has been the ability to stop anyone from scoring against them. Three straight losses to decent opponents (UCSB, Cal Poly, Cal State Bakersfield) provides more ammunition to naysayers who believe that Bob Burton’s bunch can only win against patsies and cupcakes, folding against legitimate teams who aren’t afraid to match CSUF bucket for bucket. Losses to Cal Poly and Bakersfield also saw the Titans turn the ball over much too often.
- UC Irvine (4-9) – The ’Eaters continue to give it their all every night, with the gritty trio of Big West road wins a positive reflection of that effort. However, their offensive consistency continues to be extremely streaky, prone to long scoring droughts against good defenses. Michael Wilder and Daman Starring are a nice duo when their 3-point shot and mid-range game are on, but neither has shown the ability to consistently lead the way. A tendency to start games slowly early in the season has evolved into a collapse in effort starting the second half recently, with the same result in the end—an inability to make up for the shortcoming. Nonetheless, the Irvine ship is still not sunk thanks to the strong coaching of Russell Turner, who has kept the morale of his team high while demanding improvement game in and game out.
- Pacific (5-11, 1-4) – The Tigers started conference play as badly as they ended non-conference, with a loss at Cal State Fullerton and uncharacteristic home losses to UC Irvine and UC Riverside. An irate Bob Thomason seemed to kick their butts into gear after that, however, as Pacific routed Northridge on the road by 20 before playing Long Beach State pretty close on the road. Guard Lorenzo McCloud and forward Travis Fulton have established themselves as the default go-to guys, but Thomason has emphasized riding the hot hand over a traditional star player. Unfortunately, Pacific hasn’t had quite enough hot hands to date.
- Cal State Northridge (5-10, 2-3) – The inexperienced Matadors continue to go through ups and downs, following up their conference home opener loss with a win at UCR, who is now surging against better competition. A blowout loss to Pacific was disheartening, followed up by the Matadors having to use a 20-1 run late in the game to squeeze past lowly UC Davis at home. Don’t expect the consistency from such a young team that relies on its streaky guards to improve much going forward.
- UC Davis (1-16, 0-5) – The losing streak is now a staggering 13 for the Aggies, who can’t seem to buy a win. They haven’t given up by any means, with heart-breaking losses against UC Riverside and Cal State Northridge falling the wrong way at the end. Coach’s son Tyler Les has provided a bright spot for the team with his impressive 46 percent 3-point shooting percentage, but it seems like the team just doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to overcome the loss of guard Ryan Sypkens to an early season-ending injury. Guard Eddie Miller may still not be 100 percent himself, because he has come nowhere close to his 12.5 point per game average last year, shooting at a paltry 30.7 percent from the field this year.
Long Beach State faces its toughest conference challenges of the season this coming week, traveling to take on both Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara on the road. If the 49ers can win these two, it may very well be smooth sailing from here on out. UCR looks to verify its legitimacy as a contender and not merely a pretender, taking on Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, and UCI in what should be entertaining rivalry games. Meanwhile, with the exception of the Long Beach State showdown on January 21, UCSB gets to pad its win-loss record with games against Northridge and UC Davis.
Caught on Film
Kobe Bryant stops by UC Irvine to film an episode of “Extreme Home Makeover” for the Joplin, Missouri, tornado victims. Peter the Anteater makes a cameo and a lucky UCI student beats Kobe one-on-one: