Ryan ZumMallen of LBPostSports is the RTC correspondent for the Big West and SEC Conferences.
The Big West Tournament will kick off tonight at the Anaheim Convention Center, and anyone who claims they know who will be crowned on Saturday is either: (1) lying, or (2) not familiar with the way the season has gone thus far. The fact is that any Big West team is capable of beating any other team, and seeding means little in making your predictions.
Top seed Cal State Northridge won the regular season title outright, but have faced injuries, legal issues and general inconsistencies that made the race a little closer than most expected when the Matadors were chosen as preseason favorites. Long Beach State, the #2 seed, started out on a blazing 5-0 conference start but has alternated between wins and losses for the remaining eleven games. Third-seeded Pacific hasn’t won a road game since January 31, and even lost to lowly Cal Poly early in the season.
Ryan ZumMallen, LBPOSTSports columnist, is the RTC correspondent for the Big West conference.
Predicted Order of Finish:
Cal St. Northridge
UC Santa Barbara
Long Beach State
Cal St. Fullerton
What You Need To Know (WYN2K). I know what you’re thinking: no good teams ever come out of the Big West. Oh yeah? What about 2006-07’s Long Beach State 49ers who ran roughshod over their schedule to a 24-8 record and an NCAA berth… losing to Tennessee by 35. Or last year’s three-way tie for first? UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton each won 12 conference games and two earned postseason berths… one bowing out in the NCAA opener and one in the NIT.
Ok, there hasn’t been much success outside of the conference lately – and last year produced some colossal stinkers – but that doesn’t mean that intense basketball isn’t being played within the Big West’s confines. After a conference flooded with seniors last season, nearly every team is starting anew, making for one of the most wide-open conferences in the country. All you need is one stud to will your team to victory, and if 2007 Fullerton product and recent Sacramento Kings signee Bobby Brown is any indication, it is definitely possible for raw talent to be developed in the Big West. Don’t expect the top teams to feast on the bottom-feeders again – all it takes is one hot hand for any team to have a shot on any night. So let’s get into it!
Bottom Feeders.UC Riverside, Cal Poly SLO and Cal State Fullerton. I mention them now because I shan’t be mentioning them again. All three lost a vast majority of their scoring to graduation, and senior leadership is vital in the Big West. Expect painful rebuilding from these three, although Fullerton’s Josh Akognon (video footage below) will win a few games for the Titans all by himself. The 5’11 guard averaged 20 ppg last year and won Big West Tournament MVP honors, but with only 2 returners and Akognon the only returning starter, it’ll be a long year in the cellar for CSF.
Middle of the Pack.
One team that you can (surprisingly) expect to emerge from that very cellar this year is UC Davis. Yes, the UC Davis that went 2-14 in the Big West last season. Stop laughing. Last year’s Aggies fielded zero seniors and this year’s edition has five. They return a trio of senior starters that scored 28.4% of the team’s points, boast two key transfers in Joe Harden and Todd Lowenthal and look to Big West Freshman of the Year Mark Payne to step us as a sophomore. With all of that, I’ve still got them pegged in 6th because, c’mon, it’s UC Davis.
UC Irvine gets the nod for 5th in the Big West, even after losing their top two scorers who brought in a combined 29.5ppg. They do return their other three starters, though, and while the team is not particularly heavy on seniors or explosive guardplay, last year’s squad won 9 of 12 down the stretch so these guys know how to win. Adding three recruits sized 6’8” or taller does not hurt, either. But the Anteaters could well fall prey to the experience of UC Davis, and certainly neither is worthy of a Top 4 spot.
The Pacific Tigers come in 4th, based yet again almost entirely on the genius of the Big West Conference’s greatest basketball mind, head coach Bob Thomason. Thomason consistently squeezes more productivity out of less talent than any other BW coach, and I’ve learned the hard way not to bet against the Tigers. They don’t have the talent to dominate this year, but the high-flying Anthony Brown enters his senior season, and I am intrigued to see what magic Thomason has worked with the 6’9” forward who wowed us with his potential and now will have to show us what’s been done with it. What wins games in the Big West? Guards. Anyone who gives senior sharpshooter Chad Troyer more than an inch of room deserves to be cut and sent to UC Riverside.
As we saw last season, the cream of the Big West crop can be extremely competitive. So these next three teams could end up in any of the top spots, or even in a three-way tie for first like the Trio of ’08. They’re clearly the most talent-laden squads and have the best shot at the hardware. At the rear of the triumvirate is – pains me to say it – Long Beach State. Disclosure: I’m a graduate, and last season’s 6-25 campaign was one of my life’s more painful experiences. But we relied heavily on first-year coach Dan Monson’s genius and junior guard Donovan Morris’ magic. This year, we’ll again need plenty of both, but have added more ammunition than a Howitzer tank to back them up. The 6’3” Morris is the only returning All-Big West honoree in the conference, led the Big West in scoring and is the likely preseason Player of the Year. But the 49ers also add three transfers and a four-member freshman class that is oozing with raw talent in one-guard Casper Ware and freakish swingman Larry Anderson. The experience and talent are there after recording barren levels of both last year. My pick is 3rd place and possibly higher – it’s just tough to get past the oddness of picking a 6-win team to win the conference, even if it’s my own.
Here then, we arrive at #2. This team could definitely end the season in a lower position than this, and probably doesn’t have much chance at the top spot due to a lack of real scoring power or explosive guards. But a notoriously stingy defense and hard-nosed hustle, coupled with eight returners (including three starters) earns the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos the second spot. Well-rounded forward Chris Devine begins collecting Social Security this year enters his sixth season with UCSB after being granted another year of eligibility due to injuries. His leadership will be invaluable as the Gauchos look to recapture the magic after being one of the three teams tied for the conference title in ’08. They’ll rely heavily on a suffocating half-court defense that allows few second chances, and will look for junior James Powell on the perimeter after shooting 46.7% from three-point land and averaging 12.3 ppg last season. Experience and guard-play win out, and the Gauchos legendary grit put them in a class above (most of) the rest.
Experience experience experience. The Cal State Northridge Matadors (#16 NCAA) field five seniors and eight juniors on their roster, including last year’s conference leaders in rebounds, assists and blocked shots. They too shared the Big West title and have a great shot to repeat with Tremaine Townsend returning to terrorize Big West post players for yet another season. Townsend led the conference in rebounds with 9.8 rpg, and blocked shots with 1.3 bpg. The Matadors led the conference in team rebounding, and senior guard Josh Jenkins will look to improve upon his conference leading 6.4apg as well. CSUN head coach Bobby Braswell has never won an outright Big West title in 13 years at the helm, but this is his best chance ever to break the streak.
California @ Pacific (11/15/08)
Long Beach St. @ Wisconsin (11/16/08)
Cal St Northridge @ Stanford (11/18/08)
UNC @ UCSB (11/21/08)
Wake Forest v. Cal St Fullerton (11/27/08)
Cal St Northridge @ UCLA (12/7/08)
Long Beach St. @ Syracuse (12/13/08)
65 Team Era. Due to UNLV’s former association with the conference in the late 80s and early 90s, the Big West has a solid overall record for the era (28-30, .483). But if you take out the Rebels, you’re left with a true mid-major level performance (7-24, .226) with only three wins in the last sixteen years. Pacific’s nice run in the 2003-05 seasons accounts for two of those; the other belongs to another former member of the conference, Utah St. in 2001.
Final Thought. Just for fun, let’s throw in the final seconds of Cal St Fullerton’s Big West championship game…
WYN2K. As we continue our ascent up the conference ladder, we once again come to a league where the top clearly consists of mid-major quality programs, but the bottom of the conference weighs it down as a whole and keeps it from becoming a consistent multiple bid performer. As might be expected for a middling league, the Big West has split its OOC games over the past three seasons (142-155, .478), winning the games against the lower leagues and losing to those above (1-13 last year vs. BCS teams). So what we see again this year is a handful of teams near the top that could easily compete in the WAC or Horizon, and an equal number that might be better suited for the OVC or Atlantic Sun (geographical considerations notwithstanding). Yet due to its schizophrenic nature (representative of its Californian makeup, perhaps?), the Big West has only once in the last fourteen years received two bids (2005), and that was solely because upstart Utah St. defeated unbeaten juggernaut Pacific in the conference finals that year.
Predicted Champion. UC Santa Barbara (#13 seed NCAA)is our choice to represent the Big West this year (turns out we’re not very original). Besides being located in one of the most awe-inspiring landscapes the lower 48 has to offer, the Gauchos return four starters from a second-place club including likely POY guard Alex Harris (21.1 ppg, .458 3fg%) and all-conference forward Chris Devine (14.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg).These two, along with a sophomore backcourt (Justin Joyner and James Powell)that made the all-freshman team last year, hold down a formidable defense that has finished second in the league for six consecutive years. Throw in transfer center Nedim Pajevic from Weber St. and UCSB has all the pieces to win its first conference title in six years. The way we see it, the only hurdle against this team’s success are the tasty waves and a cool buzz down on the campus beach (h/t Jeff Spicoli).
Others Considered. Should UCSB stumble just a bit, we like Cal Poly as next in line to pick up the pieces. Despite losing all-conference wing Derek Stockalper, the Mustangs return sufficient talent to build off of their season-ending 10-2 run (including the conference title game). Three other starters return, including all-conference guard Dawin Whiten and inside presence Titus Shelton (#96 nationally in blk%). The other team we like a lot in this league is Cal St. Fullerton, another second-place team from last season that returns three starters, but must deal with the loss of Bobby Brown, the school’s all-time leading scorer. The Titans are most excited about incoming transfer guard Josh Akognon, a lights-out shooter who led Washington St. in scoring during Dick Bennett’s last season there in 2006. As a sophomore, Akognon dropped 25 on UCLA’s vaunted defense in a half, so expectations are obviously high. Pacific had a rough year last season after a run of three straight NCAA Tourney appearances (49-3 in the Big West over that span), but they do return four of their top seven players and still carry a swagger that the rest of the league hasn’t quite forgotten yet. A core group of juniors led by Anthony Brown will spearhead the renaissance for head coach Bob Thomason, so they can’t be dismissed.
Games to Watch. The Big West is back to nine teams after two years at eight, so the round-robin schedule remains intact. Here are the key games to watch for:
UCSB @ Cal St. Fullerton (01.12.08) & Cal St. Fullerton @ UCSB (02.07.08)
Cal Poly @ Cal St. Fullerton (01.10.08) & Cal St. Fullerton @ Cal Poly (02.09.08)
UCSB @ Cal Poly (01.19.08) & Cal Poly @ UCSB (02.14.08)
ESPNU Bracketbusters (02.23.08)
Big West Championship Game (03.15.08) ESPN2
RPI Booster Games. The Big West doesn’t typically play a lot of games against BCS teams, and we’re not sure why that is (perhaps it has more to do with location than anything). Nevertheless, the league was 1-13 (.071) last year, with the sole victory coming from UC Irvine against South Carolina (67-52). Here are this year’s best opportunities for RPI enhancement:
Pacific @ Oregon (11.11.07) ESPN FC
UCSB @ Stanford (11.11.07)
Mississippi St. @ UC Irvine (11.22.07) ESPNU
Cal Poly @ Arizona St. (11.26.07)
UNLV @ UCSB (11.27.07)
Cal St. Fullerton @ Arizona (11.28.07)
Nevada @ Pacific (12.01.07) ESPN FC
UCSB @ UNC (12.22.07)
Cal Poly @ USC (12.22.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. Not this year. While UCSB is very good, it’s not so good that it will dominate the league to the level necessary to ensure an at-large bid (as Pacific managed to do in 2005).
Neat-o Stat. Last year’s champion Long Beach St. galloped into the sunset with a conference regular season title as well as the tournament title before getting utterly shellacked 121-86 by Tennessee in last year’s first round matchup. Not only did the program lose its coach Larry Reynolds, it also lost its top nine scorers. The leading returning scorer is guard Artis Grant, who averaged all of 1.9 ppg last season in less than ten minutes of game time. Dan Monson, the architect of Gonzaga basketball in the late 1990s (of which Mark Few gets all the credit), took the job and according to one media report, he’s quite happy with the decision. He may have said that before he saw how thin his roster was going to be this year.
64/65-Team Era. The Big West’s record of 28-29 (.491) is extremely misleading due to the UNLV effect. UNLV was in this league from 1982-1996, and while there the Runnin’ Rebels ran off only 21 wins, 3 F4s and a national championship in 1990. The other seven wins during the era belong to UCSB (1990 – 1), New Mexico St. (1992 – 2; 1993 – 1), Utah St. (2001 – 1) and Pacific (2004 – 1; 2005 – 1). In more recent NCAA history, Pacific has owned the Big East in the NCAAs, beating #5 Providence 66-58 (2004), #9 Pittsburgh 79-71 (2005) and coming very close to beating #4 Boston College (Pacific lost 88-76 in 2OT) in the Eagles’ first year as a member of the ACC. Since 1994 the league has been a one-bid league with the one exception mentioned above in 2005, and its average seed has been a #12.9. If we omit Long Beach St.’s asskicking last year at the hands of Tennessee, we see that the league has performed admirably (if not successfully) in its first round games during this decade. We mentioned Pacific’s three games above, but in the Big West’s other five games its representative lost by an average of only 6.8 pts, showing that these teams play competitive basketball. For now, though, let’s reminisce about Bong Long Beach St.’s championship RTC at the Big West Championship.
Final Thought. The Big West is a league seemingly in continual flux. Every time it seems to be building a cache of solid programs at the top, one of them bolts for another conference (see: UNLV, New Mexico St., Utah St.). As a result, it can never quite get a good enough RPI rating to break through as an annual two-bid league. Regularly reaching into the lowest reaches of D1 to pick up the likes of UC Davis and UC Riverside just to have a full complement of teams only worsens the problem. Who will be next to go if a spot opens in the WCC or WAC – UCSB? Pacific? We shall see.