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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.