Big West Breakdown: Injuries Could Dictate Tight Race

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 2015

Here is a fun fact: four of the six players named to the Preseason Big West All-Conference Team are either currently injured or no longer playing college basketball. UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams has missed extended time with a shoulder ailment; UC Irvine has been without Mamadou Ndiaye for the majority of its games because of a foot injury; Corey Hawkins sat out UC Davis’ last two contests due to a leg issue; and Isaac Fotu – ruled ineligible in October – opted to leave Hawaii and turn pro before the season started. And as if that hasn’t made the already-up-for-grabs league hard enough to handicap, additional key injuries and unexpected surprises in the standings – namely UC Davis (currently in first place) and Cal State Northridge (one game out of last) – certainly have. With roughly half the slate remaining and some of the injured due back soon, let’s examine the top contenders, the possible returnees, and who might be best positioned come March.

The Top Four

UC Santa Barbara's Alan Williams has been out with a shoulder injury. (AP)

UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams has been out with a shoulder injury. (AP)

  1. UC Davis – 18-4 (8-1). The Aggies, picked seventh in October, have vastly exceeded expectations and sit alone atop the conference, thanks largely to their offense – the 25th-most efficient in college basketball. But the schedule significantly ramps up over the next month (UC Davis has faced the easiest slate to this point) and Hawkins – likely Big West Player of the Year – is battling a leg ailment.
  2. Long Beach State – 13-2 (7-2). Things were looking peachy for Long Beach State until it fell at home to UC Irvine on Saturday, a banged-up team which had just lost to UC Davis by 19 points. Road trips to Cal Poly, UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis still loom, but 49ers boast an all-conference guard – senior Mike Caffey (17.4 PPG) – and, most importantly, remain healthy.
  3. UC Irvine – 14-9 (7-2). Beset by injuries nearly all season, preseason favorite UC Irvine still finds itself only one game out of first place. Saturday night’s road win at Long Beach State was huge, especially considering the Anteaters had been blown out at home two nights before and were without point guard Alex Young. They will need him back (not to mention 7’6’’ Ndiaye – discussed below) going forward; like UC Davis, Russell Turner’s club faces a difficult schedule down the stretch.
  4. UC Santa Barbara – 11-11 (4-4). The Gauchos probably can’t win the conference at this point, but they can make things interesting – both in the regular season and conference tournament. Four of their five most difficult remaining tests are at home, but any serious run ultimately comes down to the health of Alan Williams.

Key Injuries

  • Corey Hawkins – UC Davis. Hawkins has been the Big West’s best player this season, leading the conference scoring (21.3 PPG), three-point shooting (52.6% 3FG), ranking fourth in assists and leading the country in offensive rating among high-usage players (122.2 ORtg). He’s been simply excellent. But now he is hurt, missing the last two games with a lower leg injury. The Aggies have actually gotten along swimmingly without him, using lights-out three-point shooting to beat both UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge, but his health will be essential if Jim Les’ club is to win its first-ever Big West title. That kind of production is irreplaceable, and hopefully the injury does not linger.
  • Alan Williams – UC Santa Barbara. The most demonstrably impactful injury – without question – has been Alan Williams’ shoulder, which has caused the big man to miss UC Santa Barbara’s last six games. Although the Gauchos (tabbed second in the preseason poll behind UC Irvine) have managed to go 3-2 without the 6’8’’ Big West Player of the Year, those two losses include a 22-point manhandling against the Anteaters. Senior point guard Zalmico Harmon also missed both contests, which undoubtedly played a part, but the impact of Williams’ vacancy is unmistakable: UC Santa Barbara’s two-point percentage (44.5%) and defensive rebounding rate (roughly 65%) in conference play have fallen off substantially from last season despite minimal personnel turnover. Harmon is back, but the Gauchos – which sit three games out of first place – desperately need their center if they are to have any hope heading into March. Unless he makes an unexpected return tonight against Long Beach State, another loss could be in the cards.
  • Mamadou Ndiaye – UC Irvine. No other player in the Big West makes a larger defensive impact than Ndiaye, literally and figuratively. At 7’6’’, he is the tallest player in college basketball, leading the conference in blocked shots (3.1 BPG) last season and leading the Anteaters to the nation’s best defensive two-point percentage (opponents shot 39.2% 2FG). Without him for 16 of its 23 games this season – including the last seven Big West contests – UC Irvine is far less stingy around the rim (43.5% 2FG) and blocks shots at a lower rate. If Ndiaye’s foot heals and his stamina returns fast enough, the Anteaters can still be the top unit they were pegged as in the preseason.
  • Alex Young – UC Irvine. Young, who averages more than 10 points per game, went down early with an ankle injury against UC Davis last Thursday and hasn’t played since. Fellow guard Luke Nelson was forced to miss six games in the middle of the season – of which UC Irvine lost four – so keep an eye on this one.

The Outlook

Mike Caffey and the 49ers could be a top seed come Big West Tournament (Long Beach State Athletics)

Mike Caffey and the 49ers could be a top-two seed come Big West Tournament (Long Beach State Athletics)

First, let’s talk about why the standings matter. Only eight of the conference’s nine teams make its postseason tournament, so all play a first round game. KenPom’s rankings – along with the ‘eye test’ – suggest that the drop-off from the top six and the bottom three teams is significant; Cal Poly (sixth) is ranked 147th in the country, while UC Riverside (seventh) comes in at 233rd. Assuming two of UC Riverside, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton wind up as the seven- and eight-seeds, that leaves the three- and four-seeds with first-round games against Cal Poly or Hawaii or another tough opponent. In short, it pays to finish first or second.

So how will it shake out? UC Irvine is probably the best team when fully healthy – certainly on the defensive end – and UC Santa Barbara has two-seed potential if Williams returns in time. But I like UC Davis and Long Beach State to emerge in what should be a neck-and-neck, three-horse race until the final week. It will be tough sledding for UC Davis down the stretch – especially if Hawkins misses more time (luckily, the Aggies get a week off after tonight) – but there’s a good chance they can lose three of their final seven games and still claim a top-two seed, since they have a game in hand. And while they end the season with UC Irvine – a tilt that could dictate the final standings – that game is at home. Likewise, Long Beach State is healthy, boasts good frontcourt depth (in addition to Caffey at the point) and, most importantly, has a manageable schedule: the 49ers catch still-shorthanded UC Santa Barbara on the road tonight before three tough games in a row, but end with a trio of exceedingly winnable contests. Assuming they go 6-2 down the stretch, which is doable, that should be enough.

Of course, seven-seed Cal Poly beat five-seed Cal State Northridge to win last season’s conference tournament, so none of this may ultimately matter – but it should be a fun and interesting final month, either way.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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