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.
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.
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.