Checking In On… the Big West

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 7th, 2011

David Gao is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference. You can also find his musings online at Zotcubed, a UC Irvine blog, or on Twitter @dvdgao.

Reader’s Take

 

The Week That Was:

  • Thomason Sets Big West Win Record: Pacific coach Bob Thomason won his 406th game with the Tigers on December 3, surpassing former Long Beach State and UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian as the all-time winningest coach in the history of the Big West Conference. Pacific defeated Utah State 65-57 in the landmark win, the Tigers’ third of the year. Thomason is in his 23rd year as Pacific coach, and has perhaps his most difficult task before him this season with a team of newcomers and very little returning experience. So far, the Tigers are 3-3, but their win against the Aggies is their only win against a Division I opponent.
  • San Diego State Hangs On: Amidst rumors of San Diego State potentially joining the Big West in non-football sports due to its likely move to the Big East in football, the Aztecs went to overtime against Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara before beating both in a possible foreshadowing of match-ups to come. The 49ers, coming off their upset of #9 Pittsburgh, led by three at halftime and then battled back to force overtime before succumbing to the Aztecs 77-73. A similar storyline unfolded in Santa Barbara, when the Gauchos built up a lead at halftime before losing it and then forcing overtime with a late free throw. San Diego State came through in overtime once again however, defeating UCSB 76-75.
  • Growing Pains: The Big West is quickly sorting out into a top four and bottom five infrastructure, with the bottom five struggling mightily against some underwhelming opponents. Besides Pacific’s aforementioned one D-I victory, UC Irvine is 1-6 after going 0-3 in the Great Alaska Shootout including a loss to D-II Alaska-Anchorage by 14. UC Riverside is 2-4 with only one D-I win as well, albeit a decent win in the 76 Classic against Washington State. Worse off are Cal State Northridge and UC Davis, who together are a combined 2-13 with zero D-I wins on the year.   

Orlando Johnson Is Carrying A Heavy Load For The Gauchos, Playing 70% Of His Team's Available Minutes And Taking 34.9% Of The Shots.

Power Rankings

  1. Long Beach State (4-3) – The Big West darlings have yet to follow up on their triumph against Pitt, instead losing to Montana and #6 Louisville. While losing to the Cardinals is understandable, decent but unspectacular teams such as Montana have to be wins for Long Beach State if they want to make this season not merely good, but great. Interior defense has slipped as of recent, and turnovers and free throw percentage need improvement as well. A lot of that comes down to maintaining a high intensity throughout each and every game, regardless of whether it is in Pittsburgh or Missoula.
  2. UC Santa Barbara (4-2) – After a 4-0 start, UCSB has suffered two gut-wrenching losses to two very tough opponents in SDSU and UNLV. The SDSU game slipped away in overtime partly due to a timeout call when the team had none left, while the UNLV game went into a thrilling double overtime before the Rebels, fresh off their triumph over then #1 North Carolina, pulled out a 94-88 win. Any perceived gap between Long Beach State and UCSB has narrowed over the last two weeks, and it will be interesting to see if Orlando Johnson keeps up his torrid play. As a team, the Gauchos are at the top or near the top of every major statistical category. Read the rest of this entry »
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Pac-12 Morning Five: Thanksgiving Day Edition

Posted by AMurawa on November 24th, 2011

  1. We have to start our Turkey Day post by getting right to the team that Pac-12 fans are currently thankful for, the last remaining undefeated team in the otherwise underachieving conference, Stanford. The Cardinal continued their strong start Wednesday night with a thorough 15-point handling of a solid Oklahoma State squad in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score. Senior forward Josh Owens continued his strong start with 21 points on 10-12 from the field, while below-the-radar point guard Aaron Bright had 15 points on 6-9 shooting, with three three-pointers mixed in there.  Further exciting Cardinal fans is the continued emergence of freshman guard Chasson Randle, who played his best game of his young career, scoring 17 points, including three threes of his own. However, while OSU was a step up in competition for Stanford, they should be prepared for another big jump in the talent level of their opponent, as they face RTC’s #5 team in the nation, Syracuse, on Friday afternoon in the championship of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
  2. Elsewhere in the conference Wednesday night, there were two more losses coming from among the four teams considered to make up the top tier of the Pac-12 prior to the season, as UCLA continued its disasterous season with its fourth loss on the young season and Arizona dropped its second straight. The Bruins lost by 16 to Michigan in Maui to mercifully end their trip with only a throw-away win over Division II Chaminade and some Hawaiian Airlines frequent flier miles to show for their effort. Meanwhile the Wildcats had their 22-game home winning streak broken by a game San Diego State squad. If there was a bright spot for Arizona, it was their freshman backcourt duo of Josiah Turner and Nick Johnson turning in double-digit performances. While Johnson has been solid from the get-go in Tucson, Turner has had his much publicized struggles. However, he is improving almost every time out and could have his breakout performance in the near future. On the down side for the Wildcats, however, Sean Miller spoke about the Sidiki Johnson suspension following the game and noted that Johnson did not return with the team to Tucson and remains in New York. Miller said that he and Johnson “have an agreement and if he meets this agreement, he could potentially be reinstated.” However, Miller then added, “he could also be dismissed.” Asked later is he was optimistic about Johnson meeting the agreement, he simply said, “no.”
  3. After California’s 39-point loss to Missouri on Tuesday night, Golden Bear fans had to be asking themselves: “Does this really look like a team capable of winning the conference championship?” Upon further research by Jeff Faraudo, no team from any incarnation of what is now the Pac-12 conference (i.e., the Pac-10, Pac-8, AAWU or PCC) dating back to 1950 has ever lost a non-conference game by as many as 39 points and gone on to win the conference championship. Maybe, given the possibly historic weakness of this year’s Pac-12, that streak can be broken. And maybe Tuesday night was simply a matter of a Cal team playing a poor game against a Missouri team that could do no wrong. Still, that was just another in a long line of black eyes for conference teams this season. After Wednesday night, the conference is 33-20 thus far on the season.
  4. There is not a whole lot of hope around the conference thus far, but one team that has inspired confidence among its followers, Oregon State, will get its own dash of hope this weekend. The Beavers and head coach Craig Robinson are in the Washington, D.C. area this weekend for a match-up with Towson on Saturday, and, of course, will be spending some time visiting with Robinson’s brother-in-law, some guy by the name of Barack Obama. The Beavers spent some time Wednesday with the First Family working at a food bank in the D.C. area, and will get a chance to visit the White House likely on Friday. And, while we’re on the topic of the Beavers, I would be remiss if I didn’t point you in the direction of Rob Dauster breaking down Jared Cunningham’s defensive work against Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins the other night. Great read and great analysis.
  5. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m going to make sure I keep this post relatively positive. I’m not going to link to Bruin fans absolutely losing it over their team’s oh-for-Division-I start. I wouldn’t possibly send you in search of those same Bruin fans ripping Ben Howland’s personnel decisions (like Norman Powell, Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane are going to turn this team back into a Pac-12 front-runner). And I certainly wouldn’t encourage anybody to take a look at SB Nation’s power rankings of the eight Division I programs in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, in which UCLA is a distant sixth, behind (among others) a Pepperdine team that may finish last in the WCC, a Cal State Fullerton team that already lost to Houston Baptist this season, and a USC team that scored 36 points in losing to Cal Poly. Nah, you don’t want to read those. Go enjoy some turkey instead. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
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Checking In On… the Big West Conference

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 20th, 2011

David Gao is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference. You can also find his musings online at Zotcubed, a UC Irvine blog, or on Twitter @dvdgao.

Reader’s Take

 

The Week That Was

  • Long Beach State Posts Signature Win: Possibly the biggest win of the season comes early for the conference with LBSU topping No. 9 Pitt 86-76 on the road. Casper Ware and the 49ers were a nationwide trending topic on Twitter when they took down a Top 10 team in its own arena on Wednesday night. Ware shined, pouring in a career-high 28 points and six assists in 39 minutes, while newcomer James Ennis verified his status as a noteworthy addition with 19 points and six assists. How big is this win? It’s the first time Long Beach State has beaten a Top 10 team since 1993. On top of that, Long Beach won emphatically, as the Panthers never seriously challenged a nine-point Long Beach lead at halftime. The win snapped Pittsburgh’s 58-game non-conference winning streak at home.
  • UC Santa Barbara Gives Strong Outing: The Gauchos’ routed Santa Clara 89-56 last week. Although understandably not as headline-grabbing as Long Beach State’s win, the Gauchos’ 33-point drubbing of a middle of the pack West Coast Conference team is a good sign. The two-headed beast of Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally were back at it, leading UCSB with 21 and 24 points respectively.
  • Pacific, UC Irvine Sluggish Out Of The Gate: Two teams pegged to struggle in the preseason poll have well, struggled. Pacific posted an uninspiring win over the D-II Otters of Cal State Monterey Bay before getting trounced by previously winless Nevada, 78-54. Coach Bob Thomason shuffled through 15 players, trying to sort out who could contribute the most to his team of new faces. UCI has looked shell-shocked in losses at No. 24 Cal and lowly San Jose State, which was nearly a buzzer-beating win until Adam Folker’s last second put-back was deemed too late by video review. There’s nowhere to go but up for these two teams.

Casper Ware And The 49ers Stunned The Oakland Zoo On Wednesday. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Power Rankings

Read the rest of this entry »

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UCLA on the Verge of a Meltdown?

Posted by AMurawa on November 15th, 2011

Less than a week into a season where UCLA was picked by the media to win the conference, Bruin fans are beginning to have flashbacks to the 2009-10 disaster of a year. That season got off to an ignominious start with a double overtime home loss to a southern California afterthought, Cal State Fullerton, and proceeded downhill quickly, with an oh-fer 76 Classic close on its heels and sophomore big man Drew Gordon having some run-ins with head coach Ben Howland that ended in his eventual transfer out of the program. The season was “highlighted” by some awful guard play and an inability to stop anyone on the defensive end, and after a 2-6 start, ended in a 14-18 record.

Joshua Smith, Reeves Nelson, UCLA

Nelson and Smith Are Causing Chemistry Issues This Season

Although this vintage of the Bruins has only played one game, they’ve already got the loss to a southern California afterthought in the books, a game in which they displayed awful guard play and an inability to stop anyone, and with yesterday’s revelation that junior forward and preseason all-conference selection Reeves Nelson has been suspended indefinitely by Howland for poor conduct in the opening days of the season, they’ve got the attitude problems too. Aside from skipping Monday’s practice, Nelson’s immature behavior also reared its ugly head in the opener against LMU, where he failed to participate in a timeout huddle on more than one occasion, yelled at teammates, and made progressively more erratic shot selections. The length of the suspension will be determined in a face-to-face meeting between Nelson and Howland soon, but there have already been whispers that Nelson is considering moving on from UCLA. And with a trip to the Maui Invitational to face a stacked tournament field around the corner (luckily, the Bruins drew host Chaminade in the opening round), the Bruins are on the verge of a complete meltdown.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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.
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Big West Wrap & Tourney Preview

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 11th, 2011

Ryan ZumMallen is the RTC correspondent for the Big West conference.

Tournament Preview

Northridge is a confusing team. They lost to a terrible UC Davis team and then upended Pacific for the No. 3 seed, followed by a first-round blowout of Fullerton. So one could assume they are rolling, but who knows in the Big West? One night is typically a complete wash from the next. Still, Northridge is hungry while Santa Barbara has looked tired all year. Maybe they were taking the Lakers’ approach and coasting through the regular season. We’ll see, but either team will provide a worthy challenge in the title game. In the other game, expect Long Beach to handle Riverside, who doesn’t have the depth nor scoring power of the Irvine team that troubled the 49ers on Thursday.

Could Long Beach State pose a threat to a first-round NCAA opponent? Maybe. Could any of the other Big West teams? No. They will be mercilessly run ragged. And it will be tough for Long Beach to hang with a top-tier squad, as well. They would have to play mistake-free basketball for a complete forty minutes, something that has been difficult all year. The 49ers do have impressive wins over Iowa and Montana, as well as near-misses at UNC and on a neutral site against St. Mary’s. But an NCAA Tournament game would require a level of focus that they haven’t shown yet, not to mention depth that will keep coach Dan Monson confident even going seven players deep.

Even with all of that in mind, Santa Barbara has weapons. They beat a very good UNLV team earlier this year and are difficult to contain when James Nunnally and Orlando Johnson are both hitting. They were one-and-done last year, but they made it, and a second chance could mean trouble for a high seed looking ahead to their next round.

A Look Back

Once you get to the conference tournament, regular seasons go out the window. In no other conference is that truer than the Big West, where so little stands between teams that the actual seedings don’t mean much once the ball goes up. Several teams looked good on paper, only to falter on the court because of unforeseen circumstances. Or because they just weren’t as good as expected. Even late in the season, teams were swapping positions up to the last second, criss-crossing very thin lines that were trying – unsuccessfully – to settle the teams into place. In round one of the conference tournament, for instance, a No. 7 beat a No. 2, a No. 5 beat a No. 4, and No. 8 gave No. 1 a run for their money. It’s unpredictable, exciting and entirely frustrating. That’s just how it goes out here. Let’s take a look back before we march forward.

Big West Player of the Year: Casper Ware (G, Long Beach) The smallest man on the court was unquestionably the best player in the building on any given night. At just 5-10 (maybe), Ware was a dagger machine, hitting one big shot after another. In the offseason, he drastically improved his long distance shooting and made more three-pointers this year than in his previous two seasons combined. That extended range made it impossible for defenders to contain the lightning quick penetrator who previously made his name on attacking the basket. Ware was also the head of the Long Beach offense and finished second in assists. For good measure, he was also named the Big West Defensive Player of the Year, and by the end of the season made a habit of chasing down breaking guards to pin their layups against the glass, a la LeBron.

All-Conference Team:

  • Casper Ware (Long Beach)
  • Larry Anderson (Long Beach)
  • Orlando Johnson (Santa Barbara)
  • David Hanson (Cal Poly)
  • Sam Willard (Pacific)

Big West Coach of the YearJoe Callero (Cal Poly) - The Big West awarded this honor to Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson, but I always said that Callero deserved the award if Cal Poly finished in the top four. When they did me two better and grabbed the No. 2 spot, I definitely had to stick to my word. Cal Poly was not the most talented team in the Big West this season; they were maybe the sixth or even seventh. But the tightest defense I have seen in years lifted the Mustangs high above more talented teams that were not offensively disciplined. Cal Poly finished first in the conference in scoring defense and defensive field goal percentage. They forced turnovers without committing them, and that is unquestionably a sign of solid coaching. In 2009, Callero took over a notoriously poor team and in two years has earned 27 overall wins, a monumental feat for the perennial doormats. This isn’t a total rarity in the Big West, as teams will regularly focus all attention on a one-year run at the NCAA Tournament and then fall back into dark matter once their seniors graduate. Callero hasn’t had success because of a massive influx of talent or transfers, he’s done it with fundamentals and defensive intensity and deserves to be recognized. The fact that Cal Poly fell to the No. 7 seed UC Riverside in the conference tournament on Thursday does not take away from their achievements this season but instead illustrates the tiny margin of error between Big West teams. It only takes two (sometimes just one) hot shooter to take a team to the title in this conference. Riverside took Cal Poly out of their snail’s-pace comfort zone and that was enough to halt what the Mustangs have achieved this year. Still, cheers to making the most of what you have, Coach Callero.

Power Rankings

1. Long Beach State (14-2, 21-10) – Defeated UC Irvine, 79-72, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday. At one point, conference Player of the Year Casper Ware nailed four consecutive three-pointers to keep the Anteaters at bay, but this game went down to the wire before the 49ers pulled away for their tenth straight win. Long Beach is playing very well and their greatest attributes have been Ware and their intense focus. An over-reliance on Ware is beginning to show, though, as the point guard collapsed in pain in the second half with cramps and the 49ers, even armed with capable forwards and guards, struggled without him. There must be a priority to feed forward T.J. Robinson inside if Long Beach wants to dance this year.

2. Cal State Northridge (9-7, 14-17) – Defeated Cal State Fullerton, 75-54, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday. With the collapse of Pacific and Santa Barbara this season, the Matadors found themselves in the No. 3 seed and promptly handled their first round opponents. This is not a bad team, but neither are they a complete team. They having scoring on the inside in Lenny Daniel and the outside in Reshaun McLemore, but consistency issues need to take a backseat if Northridge wants to contend for the title. That could be difficult, relying on a swarm of underclassmen and some true freshmen. The Santa Barbara draw is a tough one in the second round, but that’s what champions are made of.

3. Santa Barbara (8-8, 16-13) – Defeated Pacific – 79-67, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday. I said last week, forget the records, no one wants to play UCSB in the first round of the conference tournament. The Gauchos responded to a listless season with a big win over the Tigers and are very dangerous with a little momentum. Still, this is a squad with very serious off-court and on-court issues: Vital scorer James Nunnally played poorly down the stretch and is rumored to be feuding with All-Big West teammate Orlando Johnson, while the Gauchos are below-average rebounders and have little control over their pace or even their own offense without a capable point guard. Explosive and a certain title contender, but do not bet on UCSB.

4. UC Riverside (6-10, 14-18) – Defeated Cal Poly, 70-66 in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday. Riverside was able to speed up the game to avoid the suffocating Cal Poly defense and jumped out to a 14-0 lead. All three starting guards scored in double figures, led by 23 from Kareem Nitoto. It forced Cal Poly to play catch up and shoot an eye-popping 36 three-pointers, but 18 from All-Big West forward Shawn Lewis and 16 from My-Big West forward David Hanson forced overtime. Still, Riverside showed poise that had been absent from the conference season

5. Cal Poly (10-6, 15-15) – Lost to UC Riverside, 70-66 in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday.

6. Pacific (8-8, 16-15) – Lost to UC Santa Barbara, 79-67, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday.

7. Cal State Fullerton (7-9, 11-20) – Lost to Cal State Northridge, 75-54, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday.

8. UC Irvine (6-10, 13-19) – Lost to Long Beach State, 79-72, in first round of Big West Tournament on Thursday.

9. UC Davis (4-12, 10-21) – Did not qualify for Big West Tournament.

This is a one-bid league, so the Big West Tournament champion will be the team that punches a ticket to March Madness. Even Long Beach State, with 20 wins and a jaw-dropping non-conference schedule, will be an NIT invite without a tourney title. If Long Beach State does take the tourney, expect them to come in around the No. 13 seeding. If it’s any other team, expect a No 15. When the 49ers made it in 2007, the committee placed a lot of confidence in them with a No. 12 seed and Tennessee promptly blew them out by 35 points. The Big West hasn’t had a seed that high since. Until a Big West team steals a win, I wouldn’t expect any different.

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O26 Primers: Big West Tourney

Posted by KDoyle on March 10th, 2011

RTC’s Kevin Doyle, author of the weekly column, The Other 26, and the Patriot League Correspondent, will be providing conference tournament previews for all non-BCS conferences.

We have finally reached the last Other 26 conference to begin their tournament. It has been an incredibly entertaining journey beginning with the Big South and the Horizon League getting started back on March 1st, and concluding with the Big West today. As fun as it has been to track each of the 25 tournaments—remember, there are not 26 of them due to the Ivy League—it will certainly be even more enjoyable to watch how each of the conference victors match up in the NCAA Tournament against the big boys.

Big West


The Favorite: After experiencing a rough stretch to end their non-conference schedule that saw the 49ers lose four straight games to the likes of Utah State, North Carolina, St. Mary’s, and Arizona State—their five point loss to UNC and eight point loss to SMC are noteworthy—Long Beach State sprinted through the Big West with a 14-2 record. Barring an upset, this is LBSU’s tournament to lose.

Dark HorseUC Santa Barbara is limping into the tournament having lost three of four, but this is a confident team with NCAA Tournament experience. The Gauchos defeated UNLV earlier this season and boast probably the best one-two punch in the league with Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally.

Who’s HotLong Beach State enters the tournament riding a nine game winning streak. Their margin of victory during this stretch is 13.1 points.

Player to Watch: Speaking of Johnson, he is arguably the most exciting player in the Big West and someone to keep a close eye on. He fills up the stat sheet as he is the only Big West player to average more than 20 points, while also corralling 6.6 rebounds and distributing a shade over three assists a game.

First-Round UpsetCal State Fullerton over Cal State Northridge. In a battle between both of the Cal State schools, I like Fullerton to get past Northridge. The Titans have had a disappointing season, but they won their last two games of the regular season—road games, mind you—by slim margins. A two point victory at Pacific and five point victory at UC Davis will give Fullerton some much needed confidence heading into their game with Northridge.

How’d They Fare? As a #15 seed, UC Santa Barbara was able to keep it competitive against Ohio State for much of the game, but never truly threatened as the Buckeyes cruised to a 68-51 victory.

Interesting Fact: The last time a team from the Big West advanced to the second weekend of the Tournament was back in 1992 when New Mexico State—now a member of the WAC—defeated DePaul and Louisiana-Lafayette as a #12 seed.

Up next for many of the best Other 26 teams? Congregating in a tension-filled and exhilarating room on Selection Sunday as their fate is determined and then for those fortunate enough, onto the NCAA Tournament. Let the Madness begin!

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Checking in on… the Big West

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 3rd, 2011

Ryan ZumMallen, the RTC correspondent for the Big West, is the Sports Editor for The Long Beach Post and a contributor to SLAM Magazine. You can also find him on Twitter (@RyanZumMallen).

A Look Back

Life in the Big West Conference has taken quite a turn, as one team ran away with the championship as is now looking like a significant player on the mid-major scene, while at least four other teams are doing some last-minute jockeying before the conference tournament at the Honda Center in Anaheim next week.

Since we’re being honest, Long Beach State is the clear class of the conference. The 49ers are winners of eight straight going into their Wednesday night game at UC Riverside, including an 18-point home victory over Montana in their ESPN BracketBusters contest (one of only two Big West teams to win their BracketBusters game).

But the race ain’t over yet. Cal Poly uses an absolutely suffocating defense to win seven out of their last nine, good enough to secure a second-place seed in the Big West tourney. On their heels are Pacific and Cal State Northridge, who each have two games remaining to settle their current tie. The Tigers seem to have righted the ship after a rough start and Northridge’s potent offensive attack is apparently enough to overcome depth issues.

As well as the top four are playing, no one wants to face defending conference champion UC Santa Barbara in the first round. Terrible play of late has left them stalled in fifth place – the Gauchos really need a point guard and also can’t rebound. UCSB still has two of the best scorers in the Big West in terms of ability, but rumors of infighting seem to have created a rift between guards Orlando Johnson and James Nunally.

POY Watch: Hand the trophy to Casper Ware right now. The Long Beach State point guard stands just 5’10, but that hasn’t made it any easier for Big West opponents to squash him. Ware has scored 20 or more points in five of the last seven games and ranks second in the conference in scoring. His assists have fallen a bit since last season with the increased scoring load, but his importance to Long Beach State’s March Madness hopes cannot be overstated. Teammate Larry Anderson has also played a stellar year and ranks in the top ten in the conference in points, rebounds, assists and steals (which he leads). Sam Willard of Pacific has also played exceptionally this season and put the Tigers on his back when they stumbled mid-season.

Power Rankings

1. Long Beach State (19-10, 13-2): Just one regular season game left against Riverside, and the 49ers look more focused than ever with their sights set squarely on an NCAA Tourney berth. All five starters are averaging better than 10 PPG and any previous concerns about depth seem to be shored up. Below, the 49ers clinch the conference title in front of a raucous crowd:

2. Cal Poly (15-13, 10-5): The Mustangs, led by high scorers Shawn Lewis and David Hanson at each over 15 PPG, are the only Big West team holding opponents under .400 shooting from the field. That’s bad news for their final regular season opponent, UC Santa Barbara, and anyone they face in the conference tournament.

3. Pacific (16-12, 8-6): A double-overtime loss at UC Irvine last week was a major setback for the Tigers, but albatross-wingspanned forward Sam Willard is a force inside and you do… not… bet against head coach Bob Thomason.

4. Cal State Northridge (12-16, 8-6): If the Matadors had a third scoring option, they would be a lock for the three-seed here, but as it stands, they rely almost completely on power forward Lenny Daniel and combo guard Rashaun McLemore. It’s truly a testament to the bond of this team that they’ve made it here. Northridge is very inexperienced beyond their two best players and we’ll see how that plays out come Big West tourney time.

5. UC Santa Barbara (14-13, 7-8): It’s not been good news in Santa Barbara recently as the Gauchos have lost six of nine in the most crucial part of the season. It’s possible that they even drop another spot in the standings. Not what we expected this season from the defending champs.

6. UC Irvine (13-17, 6-9): Huge win over Pacific last week – the second of back-to-back 2OT victories – and forward Eric Wise (15.7 PPG and 8.2 RPG) is playing above himself recently, a perfect compliment for versatile forward Darren Moore (17.3 PPG and 6.0 RPG). All you need to do damage in the Big West is two effective weapons and the Anteaters are playing well at the right time.

7. UC Riverside (10-17, 5-9): Losers of five straight, the Highlanders need to beat either Long Beach or Irvine if they don’t want to face the 49ers in the first round of the conference tournament.

8. Cal State Fullerton (9-19, 5-9): After showing encouraging signs to start the season, Fullerton has fallen off and dropped five straight games. They can score, all right, but the Titans haven’t held an opponent under 70 points since January 22.

9. UC Davis (9-19, 3-11) -1 vs Northridge vs Fullerton: The Aggies have almost certainly worked themselves out of a spot in the conference tournament, so their remaining games against Northridge and Fullerton are worth watching only in the Matadors’ race for third place.

A Look Ahead

The Big West took a big leap this season by scheduling the conference tournament at the Honda Center, a much larger and more visible venue than their former digs at the Anaheim Convention Center. Will it pay off? Tough to say. There is a lot of buzz around Long Beach State right now and the campus’ close proximity to the arena would normally mean big profits, but ticket costs are so high the Big West may price out their own fans. Whatever happens, the higher-ups have to be rooting for the 49ers.

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Checking in on… the Big West

Posted by Brian Goodman on February 1st, 2011

Ryan ZumMallen, the RTC correspondent for the Big West, is the Executive Editor and a sportswriter for The Long Beach Post. You can also find him on Twitter at @RyanZumMallen.

A Look Back

The story of the first half of the Big West Conference season has to be the confusing slide of both Pacific and UC Santa Barbara, who have both fallen into 4-4 conference records and are frankly lucky to be tied for third place because for the Grace Of God only two other teams have played well enough to sit above .500 halfway through the schedule.  Pacific and Santa Barbara have been overthrown so quickly that we should refer to them as “Cairo” for the rest of the year. Their records are so inappropriate that Tracy Morgan was like, “Whoa.” I could go all day.

That’s left the door open for two others to emerge on top: One expected and one the surprise of the year so far. Long Beach State jumped out to a 6-0 start and sits at 8-2 after a convincing home win over Fullerton, while Northridge has ridden its two high-octane scorers to an impressive 5-3 record and won four straight games to close January. Long Beach took Santa Barbara behind a shed on their own home court, and has already beaten Pacific twice. Northridge fell to Pacific but won at Santa Barbara in a one-point thriller (more on that later). Are these the two best teams in the conference or is it just a matter of time before sleeping beasts awaken?

POY Watch: We’ll keep players from Pacific and UCSB out of the discussion until one of them decides to move up from the JV.

With that out of the way, consider Casper Ware of Long Beach, Rashaun McLemore of Northridge and Darren Moore of Irvine for your end-of-season ballot. These are the guys you have to gameplan for, lest you plan on going home bruised. McLemore is the only true scoring machine – and you could even argue that, since Ware actually has a slightly higher PPG average – but right now these are the three guys playing the best all-around basketball to help their teams win. Second tier: Larry Anderson (LBSU), Lenny Daniel (CSUN) and Eric Wise (UCI).

However, keep this in mind: If Cal Poly manages to finish at or above .500 in the conference, their entire defense SHOULD collectively be named POY. I’m dead serious. This is not a good team. They’re last in the league in scoring and seventh in scoring margin. They’re second-to-last in rebounding margin, last in field goal percentage AND free throw percentage! Yet here the Mustangs sit, tied for third place with the two teams who should be embarrassed to be in this sentence. Why? Because the Cal Poly defense is stingier than Charlie Sheen with a pipe. Big West teams shoot just 40.1% from the field against them. They held Pacific to 39 points. THIRTY-NINE. IN STOCKTON.

Power Rankings

1. Long Beach State (13-10, 8-2): After a two-game slide on their first conference road trip, the 49ers are simply playing good basketball. You can tell because they’re beating teams in different ways than they were earlier in the season. As opponents began focusing on forward T.J. Robinson and sharpshooter Greg Plater, swingman Larry Anderson and leaper Eugene Phelps stepped up. Point guard Casper Ware is the leading POY in my mind, and is playing at his absolute peak right now. When Long Beach is running and attacking, you really can’t do much to stop them – unless you’re exceptional in the one-on-one man defense, and no one in the Big West is that good from one to five. The visible crack in the dam is the marathon minutes that all five starters are logging – one injury could really send them into a tailspin, but head coach Dan Monson says he isn’t letting up. Can you blame him? He sees an opportunity to earn an NCAA bid. Long Beach is also undefeated so far against the other four best teams in the conference. Does that mean that they’re playing their best in big games? I don’t know. But it’s worth mentioning as we enter Act II of the conference schedule.

2. Cal State Northridge (8-13, 5-3): Holding the longest current winning streak in the conference at four games, Northridge is unarguably and surprisingly the hottest team in the Big West. They’re still too reliant on Lenny Daniel and Rashaun McLemore, especially since Daniel is their only true post player with any size and McLemore is scoring off pure talent at this point. But coming off a short injury, McLemore was named Player of the Week and he is playing inspired ball inside. If a third scorer emerges, I would watch out for the Matadors.

3. UC Santa Barbara (11-8, 4-4): Just a few days ago trailing visiting Northridge by one point with 7.2 seconds to play, the Gauchos had the ball out of bounds with one last chance and the game on the line. The game was clearly going to decide second place at a crucial point in the season. With the conference’s two best isolation players on the floor for Santa Barbara, they stood a good chance of getting a great shot to win the game. All they had to do was inbound the ball and give themselves a chance to win. Now, let me tell you a story about inbounding the ball. Back when I was a young lad, my high school team played St. Mother of Mary or whatever in an early-season tournament. We were very good and finished 25-4 that season, but it was rare for us to destroy a team like we did in this game. At one point, I stole the inbounds pass that began the second half and took it in for a layup. For anyone who doesn’t play much ball: THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN. The thing that always cracks me up is that we won this game by about 40 points, but after the game our best player came up to me and laughed: “We were so bad, I mean, I can’t believe you stole the INBOUNDS pass!” I have always found it hilarious that of the 85 points we scored, that single steal and basket is the one that he remembered most. Guess what happened to UCSB. Talk all you want about a nagging hip injury to center Jaime Serna, but there’s something wrong with this team because no squad with Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally – two legitimate POY contenders – should ever be in the position to lose a one-point game to Northridge in the first place.

4. Pacific (12-9, 4-4): THIRTY-NINE.

5. Cal Poly (9-11, 4-4): The Mustangs have the distinction of being the only team in the conference that I like but would not – under any circumstances, including being offered money – watch. And I’m broke. They make John Wooden look like Don Nelson. Cal Poly shoots 38.3% from the field and has an assists-to-turnovers ratio worse than 1:1. Still, you wanna make a D-1 team? Play defense and hustle hard. I didn’t think that this team would make the conference tournament field of eight. Look what can happen.

6. UC Irvine (10-12, 3-5): Fullerton actually has a better record, but Irvine beat them in their only meeting so it’s only right to place them ahead. If it weren’t for consecutive losses to Northridge and Davis by a combined five points, we might have a very different discussion about the Anteaters. But they didn’t, and that’s what matters, no matter how complete a player Darren Moore is or how skilled Eric Wise is in the low post. Irvine is last in scoring average and mediocre in everything else. But they have good players, so the Anteaters could potentially run the table or completely implode (I don’t know how you lose to UC Davis in double overtime). They’re indicative of the entire Big West, in that way.

7. Cal State Fullerton (8-14, 4-5): I actually liked the Titans after watching them get dismembered at Long Beach State than I have at any other point this season, and I think I need a shower just for writing that sentence. But the fact remains: Post presence? Check. Distance shooting? Check. Go-to scorer? Check. Usually, that earns you a Big West title right there. Fullerton hasn’t been able to put it all together for whatever reason – mainly inconsistent and unreliable play from their four best players at once – but the pieces are there. If Orane Chin regains his earlier-season scoring form and Perry Webster begins to run the offense based on their inherent mismatches, the Titans could play spoiler.

8. UC Davis (8-12, 3-5): Sportswriters are a stubborn bunch, so I am not backing away from my prediction that UC Davis will finish third in the conference. No, I can’t support this with facts. No, I can’t tell you how or why. I just believe. Believe! Like Rudy, or “Miracle” or something.

9. UC Riverside (7-12, 2-5): This team is not playing the game of basketball very well. Earlier this season, I wrote: “The Highlanders are probably the Big West’s best legitimate contender to play spoiler.” Let’s all pretend that I wrote that about Cal Poly or Northridge. Phew! Dodged a bullet there.

A Look Ahead

BracketBusters: The Big West will be featured in ESPNU’s annual BracketBusters, and Long Beach State gets a coveted nationally televised game when they play host to Montana on February 19. Other Big West participants are as follows:

  • Boise State at UC Santa Barbara
  • Pacific at Oral Roberts
  • UC-Irvine at Nevada
  • UC-Riverside at Fresno State
  • Northern Arizona at Cal Poly
  • Hawaii at UC-Davis
  • Cal State Fullerton at Idaho State
  • Cal Stat Northridge at Eastern Washington

Long Beach State has a lengthy furlough until February 10, during which Northridge will hope to creep closer with bouts against Riverside and Irvine, two of the conference’s bottom-feeders. Meanwhile, the current third-place deadlock should loosen up Thursday, when Pacific ventures to Santa Barbara and Cal Poly battles UC Davis.

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Checking in on… the Big West

Posted by Brian Goodman on January 3rd, 2011

Ryan ZumMallen, the RTC correspondent for the Big West, is the Executive Editor and a sportswriter for The Long Beach Post. You can also find him on Twitter at @RyanZumMallen.

A Look Back

The holiday season was a joyous one for the Big West Conference, as one team notched an unlikely win against a ranked opponent, another made a power move for first place and the rest are still in the hunt with the conference schedule just underway. The big guys are beginning to flex their muscles but the little guys have to feel that they’re putting themselves in good position for a spoiler season.

POY Watch

Some interesting rising stars are making names for themselves, as UC Irvine’s Darren Moore and Pacific’s Sam Willard continue to show impressive performances. But UC Santa Barbara forwards James Nunnally and Orlando Johnson are still the most dominant individual players in the conference thus far, despite uncharacteristically horrid displays from both in a home loss to Long Beach State last week. Also in the mix are Long Beach juniors T.J. Robinson and Casper Ware, one of whom is averaging a double-double and the latter of which leads the Big West in both assists and steals. Given the chance, I would also pay to watch Lenny Daniel of Northridge and Orane Chin of Fullerton.

Power Rankings

  1. Long Beach State (7-8, 2-0): After a shellacking of conference favorite Santa Barbara to open Big West season play last week, and following that up with a convincing businesslike road victory over Cal Poly, the 49ers have moved into the driver’s seat. Head coach Dan Monson & Co. must be riding high with four home games ahead of them. Even better, forward Larry Anderson returned from missing five games with a broken hand to score 25 points on 9-10 shooting in the UCSB win – to say nothing of the consistently dominant play of T.J. Robinson and Casper Ware. The sky is the limit for Long Beach, but that has always been their gift and curse as the 49ers have started out hot before only to fall to fatigue, over-reliance on their starters and – worst of all – hubris.
  2. UC Santa Barbara (7-5, 0-1): What to make of the Gauchos? The preseason favorites had been all but crowned conference champions when they played impressively throughout the preseason scheduled and topped it off with a huge win over then-#22 UNLV, on the road, no less. Nunnally was fantastic in that game and Johnson has looked like a probable candidate for back-to-back MVPs (though his scoring is down due to increased responsibilities).  But in the home conference opener against their top competition on ESPNU last week, the two shot an abysmal 6-27 from the field. Then came a New Year’s Eve victory. Against an NAIA team. At home. In overtime. Have the Gauchos lost their spurs? Or is this nothing to worry about? Road games against two of the conference’s top contenders in UC Davis and Pacific this week will test their meddle.
  3. Pacific (8-6, 1-1): In Long Beach, we have a saying: “The Queen Mary would crumble into the sea if it weren’t for the paint.” This could be the University of Pacific’s non-PC slogan, because if it weren’t for the outstanding coaching schemes of skipper Bob Thomason, the Tigers would be without a paddle. This is a team that will succeed not on its individual talents, but because of the cohesive system that Thomason has perfected over decades that allows any player to step into it and be effective – provided he understands and executes his responsibilities. In short, I am saying that Pacific is not very talented but will be and will continue to be a very real contender for the conference championship for as long as Thomason wears orange. I really like the play of long-armed Sam Willard, but he is a product of the post-heavy Thomason style through and through. Tellingly, the Tigers are best on the inside, where their well-trained big men will out-fundamental anyone for position and rebounds, or pass out of double teams to deadeye shooters. Their Achilles is that sometimes the lack of talent is too much to overcome, as when they fell behind by 19 points at Fullerton last week only to fight back and lose at the buzzer. Come to play and you can beat the Tigers, but show up unprepared and the Thomasons will execute.
  4. Cal State Northridge (4-9, 1-1): A loss to Pacific but a win over UC Davis puts the Matadors right here, though this is probably temporary and over time they’ll fall a few rungs down the Big West ladder. Lenny Daniel and Rashaun McLemore are a great one-two, but the deepest rotation in the conference is out of necessity, not luxury. Plenty of teams have two good players, and while they’ll pull Northridge out of some jams, they won’t be enough to overcome myriad deficiencies.
  5. UC Davis (6-8, 1-1): I still maintain that the Aggies are the conference’s third-best team behind Long Beach and Santa Barbara, but they’ve shown it with neither their record nor their play. Forwards Mark Payne and Joe Harden are a coach’s dream, but injuries and inconsistencies have been Davis’ downfall. Point guard Todd Lowenthal has had back troubles and they’ll need him to pick apart defenses. If he returns healthy, and the Aggies continue to shoot efficiently, no coach will want to face Davis in the conference tourney. They don’t rebound well but they don’t turn the ball over, either. It’s give and take with this team, but in the Big West, you only need more positives than negatives.
  6. Cal State Fullerton (5-9, 1-1): They got shellacked against Davis but handled Pacific, for which they deserve sufficient credit. A four-game road swing will tell us a lot about this team, which currently figures to hang around the fifth or sixth seed before falling early in the conference tournament. They’ve got some nice players but are small on the inside – and the outside, for that matter – and are pretty consistently average in most categories. Prone to offensive explosions and defensive lapses, anything could happen but the trouble will be sustainably mistake-free basketball. The Titans have yet to prove that they’re capable of that.
  7. UC Riverside (5-7, 1-1): The Highlanders are probably the Big West’s best legitimate contender to play spoiler. They do not have the talent to win the conference or even earn a high seed, but I would not want to play them with anything on the line. Riverside rebounds very well despite limited size, and they shoot threes with the best. Guard and leading-scorer Javon Borum poured in 30 in the Irvine win, with Phil Martin and Kareem Nitoto playing consistently well this season, too. But beyond that, the production drops off. This is not their year, but still, I would not want to see the Highlanders in a darkened alley.
  8. UC Irvine (6-8, 0-1): People expected more from UC Irvine this season, and there is still time to right the ship, but with a four-game losing skid and their last win over an NAIA team, success is looking less likely with each missed rebound. Power forward Eric Wise was supposed to blossom into an MVP candidate this season but has instead shown that his past success was due to need rather than ability, as he’s played second fiddle to guard Darren Moore all year. Wise has battled a nagging hip injury and the Anteaters hope to play better with him healthy, but a loss to Riverside makes you wonder. Fullerton at home and then a four-game road swing – I’ll let you know when to start paying attention.
  9. Cal Poly (4-8, 0-1): Heaven only knows how the Mustangs have even made it this far. They played a laughable non-conference schedule and got beat up. Last in so many categories that I lost count at infinity. Ok, I jest. But Cal Poly is just not in the right frame to be playing at this level, and at this point their strategy is clearly to slow the game down as much as possible in hopes of keeping it close. When you’re shooting .368 from the field, not even a 35-second shot clock is going to save you. Records will show that they have defeated Loyola Marymount, Hawaii and Pepperdine, and even gave then-#10 SDSU a run for their money, but how this was achieved is boggling. Because the Mustangs could legitimately go winless in the Big West this season, and no one would bat an eyelash.

Looking Ahead

As you can see, we’ve got several clear contenders mixed with a couple of explosive challengers and more than one dud. Within the conference, the things to watch are whether or not Long Beach can sustain their solid play, and whether or not the edges are beginning to fray around Santa Barbara. Plus, how several teams will deal with upcoming home or road swings this week. Taken all into consideration, what this means to the national basketball community is that the Big West is brewing a couple of teams that could post a threat to an unprepared No. 4 or even No. 3 seed. But in whole, an NCAA Tourney upset victory is unlikely and I’d invite you to sit back and watch the in-conference drama unfold because the Big West is certainly a fun place to watch varying styles of basketball. Isn’t that what RTC is all about?

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Checking in on… the Big West

Posted by Brian Goodman on December 7th, 2010

Ryan ZumMallen is the RTC correspondent for the Big West conference.

[Ed. note: this post was written prior to Tuesday night's games]

A Look Back

In the past two weeks, the Big West has picked up some solid wins for its obvious top-tier teams and seen clutch performers emerge in a conference where it only takes one to contend for a championship. After a stalled start, UC Santa Barbara looks to be hitting the groove that caused the media to pick them to win the conference, while Pacific has hit a snag and people like me are still waiting to see if their risky UC Davis pick is going to pay off. Meanwhile, Long Beach State and UC Irvine both posted impressive showings. The competition will be fierce in the race up to the lone NCAA Tournament bid, and we’re still about two weeks away from conference play.

POY Watch

Multi-dimensional players that can do it all are an extreme rarity, so if you’ve got one, you’re an immediate favorite to win the Big West (the short list: Darren Moore of UCI, Sam Willard of Pacific, Orane Chin of CSF and Casper Ware of LBSU). Unfortunately, for the rest of the conference, it’s obvious that the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos have two. The media selected junior guard Orlando Johnson as the preseason Player of the Year, but it’s junior James Nunnally who has made the most noise thus far. The 6’7 forward scored 29 in a big home win over Loyola Marymount and 34 at Santa Clara. He also leads the Gauchos in rebounds, with Johnson not far behind. If there’s something to worry about, it’s whether or not UCSB has too much dependence on their two wing stars. But with a two-game winning streak, the conference’s best record and a red hot Nunnally, all is well for the Gauchos as they prepare for the top-heavy Big West.

Power Rankings

1. UC Santa Barbara (4-3): With a strong inside presence and two explosive weapons on the wing, the Gauchos are looking like the very wise choice to win the conference. Look no further than their recent home win over Loyola Marymount. The Gauchos handled the Lions rather easily, while Long Beach State fell to them in overtime and Cal Poly was destroyed by 19. So that tells you a bit about the current hierarchy in the conference.

2. Long Beach State (5-4): Expect to see UCSB and LBSU at the top of the power rankings pretty much all year, as the season goes on these two are likely to stay at the top of the pile. Not that the 49ers won’t have their challenges. With another grueling non-conference schedule barely half over, Long Beach has already won big (over Iowa and Boise State) and lost big (struggling to beat D-II BYU-Hawaii and getting thumped by 27 at Washington). Even worse, star wing Larry Anderson broke his hand in the loss to the Huskies. Added to other injuries, the 49ers have been forced to go to their unproven bench. This is obviously good for development, but could be trouble if they don’t have key players back by conference time, especially for a team with an obvious over-dependence on its starters (where UCSB has two players averaging over 30 MPG, Long Beach has five). Senior guard Greg Plater leads the NCAA in three-pointers made and gutsy point guard Casper Ware may prove to be the Big West’s most valuable player.

Team Clip of the Week: Division-II BYU-Hawaii gives LBSU a fight

3. Pacific (4-4): The Tigers fall from first to third because of a three-game losing streak against strong competition in Missouri State and Texas A&M, with a disappointing loss to Pepperdine thrown in. This is a good team because of mind-blowingly excellent coaching, but it is and will continue to be limited by a lack of talent, evidenced by very balanced but unimpressive scoring (in fact, they’re just eighth in the conference in total scoring). Forward Sam Willard is posting monster numbers more because of the offensive system than his ability. They’ll win a majority of conference games because there are plenty of terrible teams in the Big West, but any championship hopes will fall back on team defense (third in the conference in points allowed per game).

4. UC Irvine (4-4): Despite a better overall record than Pacific, the UC Irvine Anteaters find themselves looking up the power rankings because of a weak non-conference schedule. Yes, they started out at Illinois and at USC, but since then they’ve only played one team with a KenPom rating better than 200 (and they lost that one by 15 to San Jose State). It may be rough going come conference time, but the good news is that the Anteaters will win enough games simply off the play of Darren Moore. The 6’3 guard leads Irvine in both points and rebounds and is shooting a blazing 57% from the field and 41.7% from three. It allows junior forward Eric Wise to focus on controlling the paint. It’s not the best one-two punch in the Big West by any stretch, but certainly an intriguing one to keep an eye on.

5. UC Davis (4-5): Not much to take from the Aggies’ last three games – blowouts over two bad teams and a 12-point loss to Cal – as UC Davis seems to be exactly what they seem: A middle-tier conference team that depends heavily on two players. Either forward Joe Harden or guard Mark Payne leads the team in all three major statistical categories (four, if you count minutes averaged). Their next-best player is point guard Todd Lowenthal, who is an effective offensive leader but poses almost no scoring threat at all. If another scorer emerges, then the Aggies could contend for a great seeding in the conference tournament.

6. Cal Poly (3-4): With a pretty nice core, the Mustangs have posted good wins against Loyola Marymount and handed Hawaii their first loss on a buzzer-beating tip at home (video below, but no sound for some reason). But a brutal lineup awaits with UCLA, #15 SDSU, Cal and Pepperdine before opening conference against two of the best in the Big West. Expect to see their power ranking slip in the next few weeks, although in the end the Mustangs are definitely a better team than those currently ranked below them. Shawn Lewis and Will Donahue are nice players, but unless something drastic happens, it won’t be enough to bring them into the top five.

Team Clip of the Week: Cal Poly beats the Warriors on a last-second tip-in:

7. Cal State Fullerton (3-5): The thing about Fullerton is that they have the talent to win some Big West games and maybe make a run at a top conference tournament seed, bit with an abhorrent preseason schedule and no stand-out performances thus far it’s hard to see where they fit in. Junior forward Orane Chin is an unlikely emerging star in the conference as he’s building an impressive all-around stat sheet after flying under the radar last year, while senior Devon Peltier is well-known as a dangerous deep threat (check out the range below at 0:30). I like the size and toughness of Jer’Vaughn Johnson and we’ve already established what three scoring threats can do for you in the Big West. The Titans are notoriously good at home but they’re dangerously thin on the inside and their big three may be excelling more out of necessity than ability. We’ll find out soon enough.

Team Clip of the Week: The Titans sweep their home-and-home with San Diego:

8. Cal State Northridge (2-6): A reliance on freshmen can mean you’ve got an influx of talent, or a lack of ability from your returners. Save for the play of do-everything forward Lenny Daniel, it’s the latter for the Matadors. They play five freshmen and even start two, but this is clearly preparing for the future and not a sign that Northridge is attracting top-flight talent. The team that repped the Big West in 2009 is indicative of how teams will mortgage their future for one shot at glory, and it’s a perfect illustration of why the conference never makes much progress on the mid-major scene: no sustainable power program. Northridge built a senior-laden team aimed at a conference title in 2009, accomplished it, and was left with little else for 2009-10 and 2010-11. Daniel is leading the team in scoring and rebounds with Rashaun McLemore providing a second option. A 22-point win over DePaul was a headline-grabber for Northridge, but we all know the Blue Demons ain’t what they used to be and it doesn’t change the fact that the Matadors are the weak link in a watered-down conference.

9. UC Riverside (3-4): There’s excitement out in the Inland Empire as the Highlanders are nurturing a backcourt that one sportswriter recently said “has the potential to be the best in the program’s Division-I era.” That would be scoring leader Phil Martin along with guards Javon Borum and Kareem Nitoto, a trio that accounts for over half of the Highlanders’ scoring output. It’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t mean they’ll match up well against superior guards in the rest of the conference. Riverside will really need to show something unique in upcoming games against Stanford and St. Mary’s or it will be easy to key on Martin and stop the Highlanders in their effort to be the only one.

A Look Ahead

Long Beach State clearly has an intriguing schedule over the next two weeks. After a big win at Boise State, they look for similar success against former conference foe Utah State and then head into uncharted territory for the Big West: Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to take on the Tar Heels. After playing at Duke and Kentucky last season, then facing this gauntlet in 2010, you’ve got to admire the stones of head coach Dan Monson. The more important game is against perennial mid-major power St. Mary’s in the Wooden Classic on December 18. It’s clearly a play to become The Next Great Mid-Major and it hasn’t panned out yet, but the Big West will ride the 49ers if it ever does, so keep your eye on the Beach. Not to be outdone, UC Santa Barbara has back-to-back opportunities to put their program on the map with games at UNLV and SDSU this week. Winning just one of these games could put the Gauchos in the Big West driver’s seat. Until further notice, I have the 49ers behind the Gauchos in the conference race and these are obviously the two horses.

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Checking in on… the Big West

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 20th, 2010

Ryan ZumMallen is Executive Editor and sportswriter for The Long Beach Post and the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference.

A Look Back

With about two weeks of games behind us, we’re learning a little bit more about how the Big West may play out this season. Despite a slow start thus far, UC Santa Barbara is still the consensus favorite with all five starters returning from a team that went to the NCAA Tournament last year. Long Beach State believes their time is now and has the talent to challenge, but after just two games there are obvious depth issues that will need to be resolved quickly (strong competition like Clemson is lined up at this weekend’s Paradise Jam Classic). And though it looked like this may be a down year for perennial challenger Pacific, head coach Bob Thomason has shown why he may be the most respected coach in the conference by pulling his team to big victories over UTEP and Nevada. Senior forward Sam Willard has been a monster, putting up 18.7 PPG and 13.3 RPG against very good competition for Pacific, who only lost on a back-to-back road game at UCLA. Willard wasn’t selected to the conference preseason first team, but it looks like some sportswriters (including this one) may be eating their words this year.

Other than that, it’s been rough going for the Big West, which doesn’t have much to offer beyond those three teams and a possible strong push from UC Davis. We’ll be able to provide a much more accurate picture of the conference with a few more games in the books, but for now we turn our attention to the future. The success of the Big West lies not in this season or probably even the next, but several seasons down the line as the conference attempts to paint itself as a sustainable West Coast contender. We’re seeing attempts by several teams to take that leap this season, to become the next mid-major to make a name for itself – Long Beach State played #25 San Diego State tough and UCSB gets the Aztecs in December as well. Pacific faces an impressive nonconference schedule and there are far more games against Pac-10 opponents than usual. Clearly, the Big West is making a move.

The best scheduling in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t pull off the victories, and for that, the Big West simply needs better talent. By the looks of the recruiting announcements made over the past week, some of the initial pieces are coming into place. UC Davis picked up an elite athlete and defender in 6’6 forward J.T. Adenrele, while shooting guard Reese Morgan signed with Cal Poly SLO. But the highest-ranked recruit to sign onto a Big West school was point guard Michael Caffey – described by ESPN as “one of the top 5 point guards in the state” – with Long Beach State, who will also add an immediate impact with 6’7 wing and high-jump champion James Ennis from the JC ranks. The rest of the conference picked up a steady stream of quality players, but without much hype. For the Big West Conference to stay competitive over the long term, it will have to attract talent to match an increasingly challenging schedule. Otherwise, expect it to remain a one-bid conference come Tourney time.

Player of the Week

Without question, it’s the senior forward Sam Willard from Pacific. The easiest way to succeed in the Big West is to play for coach Bob Thomason, who continually takes teams without top-flight talent and turns them into conference contenders, if not champions. That’s not to say that Willard isn’t a very good player in his own right, just that Thomason knows how to take talent and maximize it. Case in point: Willard improved steadily in his first three years with Pacific, but it’s fair to say that no one expected him to throw up three straight double-doubles in early season wins over UTEP and Nevada. Willard has always been a force defensively but with added offensive moves and a lack of big post players in the conference, it could be a big year for both he and the Tigers.

Power Rankings:

  1. Pacific (2-1): The Tigers really made some noise after coming back from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat UTEP and new coach Tim Floyd, and then knocking off Nevada in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off in Los Angeles. Pacific lost to UCLA in the second round, but Willard has posted double-doubles in every game and Thomason has them playing very well to start off the season.
  2. UC Santa Barbara (1-2): It’s hard to gauge the Gauchos after a 1-2 start, but as the near-unanimous selection for preseason conference champions, they’ve simply got to be near the top at this point. A home loss to North Dakota State was a surprise, and a 72-70 loss at Oregon is up in the air because it’s a tough placeto play but the Ducks simply aren’t very good this year. Combo guard Orlando Johnson and forward James Nunnally have put the team on their backs, as expected, and are averaging 23.3 PPG and 18.7 PPG, respectively. In the Oregon game, only one other player attempted more than three shots.
  3. Long Beach State (1-1): Both players and coaches alike are saying that this is the year for the 49ers, with a quartet of juniors ready to step into the spotlight. The question isn’t whether or not they have the talent to do it – they do – but whether or not they can depend on going to the bench when they need to rest. After just two games, we’ve seen glaring weaknesses in the team’s depth with very little D-I experience to offer. Long Beach played #25 San Diego State to a halftime tie but ran out of gas because head coach Dan Monson refused to turn to the bench. With a chance to win, you can’t really blame him, but the starters began to cramp up and the more talented Aztecs took advantage for a 16-point win. This needs to be addressed and the Paradise Jam Classic this weekend could be a good time to get some minutes to bench guys.
  4. UC Davis (1-3): The Aggies started off poorly before finally picking up a blowout win against UC Santa Cruz, and have proven what most writers expected: They’ll really almost entirely on 6’8 guard Mark Payne and 6’7 forward Joe Harden, who are 1-2 on the team in both points and rebounds. The good news is that those two have talent to carry UC Davis to several wins both before and during conference play. The bad news is they’ve both had issues with staying healthy over the years and there isn’t much to turn to on the bench. Opponents like Boise State, UCLA and Cal will tell us a lot about their prospects this season.
  5. Cal State Fullerton (0-3): Despite a winless start and a blown 11-point lead against Central Michigan, the Titans’ season is actually looking up compared to the rest of the Big West thanks to the emergence of one possible star and solid play from the supporting cast. Fullerton lost nearly all of its scoring from last year due to graduation and transfers, but 6’7 forward Orane Chin is establishing himself as a force with a 22.7 PPG average. Players like Devon Peltier and Orlando Brown seem to be settling into their respective roles nicely and the entire team is shooting well from the field. They’re not likely to turn heads in the non-conference, but consistency is what’s needed to finish well in the Big West and Fullerton is building it.
  6. Cal Poly (1-1): Not much positive news to report for the Mustangs, who shot just 29.6% from the field in a loss to D-II Cal State Monterey Bay. This is the type of game that really drags the Big West down as a whole. Senior center Will Donahue has been a bright spot but Cal Poly SLO has a long way to go before they can achieve relevance in the conference. If they don’t improve quickly, the Mustangs are walking into a minefield with non-conference games against Loyola Marymount, Hawaii, UCLA, SDSU, Cal and Pepperdine coming up.
  7. UC Irvine (0-2): The encouraging thing for the Anteaters is that they haven’t needed to ride forward Eric Wise solely in their first two games. The preseason all-conference selection is there on the boards with 8.5 per game, but third in scoring behind Darren Moore and Pavol Losonsky. If they develop into consistent scoring threats, then UC Irvine automatically becomes a top tier Big West simply for having more than one scoring option. Yeah, the conference isn’t real deep this season. After tough opponents in #16 Illinois and USC, we’ll get a better idea of their identity this weekend against Seattle.
  8. Cal State Northridge (0-2): Apparently, Big West teams saw some vulnerability in UCLA and Cal that they thought could be exploited. How’s that working out so far? The Matadors have dropped games at UCLA and Cal by an average of 25 points and the two Pac-10 schools are 3-0 against the conference so far, likely licking their chops at the Big West buffet lined up before them over the next few weeks. Northridge is not very skilled this year and they’ll be crushed by  #24 Virginia Tech next weekend.
  9. UC Riverside (1-1): The Highlanders were absolutely handled with an 85-41 loss at UNLV, so they returned the favor to something called a Pomona-Pitzer. A lot of Big West teams cushion their early schedules with a D-II opponent, but Riverside did them all one better and beat up on a D-III team. Not like it will do them much good. They face a total cake non-conference schedule before the rest of the conference hands them beatdown after beatdown.

A Look Ahead

With Cal State Northridge in the 76 Classic, UC Irvine in the 2k Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and Long Beach State in the Paradise Jam Classic, there will be early tests to see how Big West teams hold up in rapid-fire tournaments with little rest. Watch UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis to see how they fare against mid-major names like Fresno State and Boise State, respectively. Long Beach State hosting Loyola Marymount is also a good indicator. No one is trying to build an NCAA Tournament resume here, so the important thing is to look for signs of how they’ll play in conference and whether or not they can make a run at the Big West’s only invite.

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