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 rtmsf on February 8th, 2010

Steve Coulter of the Clarion is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference.

Top Story

Santa Barbara shuts down Pacific

UC Santa Barbara traveled to play conference leader Pacific on Thursday night and upset the Tigers 61-48 on their court.  The Gauchos played outstanding defense not allowing any of the Tigers starting five to score more than 10 points in the game.  Sophomore guard Orlando Johnson had a career best 28 points for the Gauchos and led all scorers.  Johnson, the conference’s leading scorer (17.8 points per game), also had six rebounds in the victory.  Fellow sophomore James Nunnally added 19 points and six rebounds.  With the win the Gauchos move to within a half-game of Pacific for the conference lead.  Eight minutes into the game the Tigers trailed 14-2 and failed to recover from that.  They couldn’t come back mainly because of horrendous shooting. The Tigers shot 29.4 percent from the field and only connected on six of their 27 attempted three point shots.  Freshman guard Allen Huddleston led the Tigers off the bench, scoring ten points.  Santa Barbara had beaten Pacific 68-67 earlier this year on January 10 and has now swept the season series.

Other News

Nunnally on fire for Santa Barbara

James Nunnally’s breakthrough in the last four weeks has been a key factor in the Gauchos’ rise in conference standings.  The sophomore forward has the perfect combination of skills that has allowed him to peak.  He can drive to the basket and make a play or he can shoot the three-pointer. On defense he has proven solid in the past few weeks, as the Gauchos have won five of their last six games.  In those six games, Nunnally has scored in double figures every game and has scored more than 20 points five times.  Big performances against Cal Poly, Pacific, and UC Davis in the past two weeks have helped the Gauchos pick up necessary conference wins.  The small forward’s presence is also freeing up space for his teammate Orlando Johnson, who has scored in double figures every game this season and leads the team in rebounding.  With the Johnson and Nunnally combination it seems plausible that UCSB can overtake Pacific in the weeks to come and snag the top seed in next month’s conference tournament.  While Johnson may be pulling away with conference player of the year award, it has been Nunnally’s emergence that has propelled the Gauchos in conference play.

Austin has a career-high night

UC Riverside’s Kyle Austin set a career-high when he scored 35 points last Saturday night in a 76-59 road win over Cal State Fullerton. The mark is second all-time for the Highlanders in their Division I era and is five points short of Rickey Porter’s record set on January 7, 2006.  Austin’s performance helped UC Riverside snap a three-game losing streak.  After a road win over UC Irvine on the January 23, the Highlanders dropped all three games during a three game home stretch.  Austin, who has scored in double figures every conference game this season besides one, was surprisingly cool at home only scoring a total of 25 points in losses to Pacific and CS Northridge.  Without Austin’s scoring, the Highlanders dropped both games and failed to score over 60 points.  In Saturday’s win Austin could not be stopped by the Titan defense. In the first half he shot 7-10 from the field and nailed both three-pointers he attempted.  He finished with 21 first half points, which was one shy of his season record of 22 points in the second half against San Diego on December 4, 2009.

Phelps named player of the week

Sophomore forward Eugene Phelps became the fifth player from Long Beach State to be named Big West Men’s Basketball Player of the Week.  Phelps received the award on February 1 because he led the 49ers to two conference wins the previous week.  Entering the week Phelps had been averaging 8.2 points per game, but he stepped his game up by scoring a career-high 18 points in a 69-68 road victory over Cal State Northridge.  The following game he set a new career high, scoring 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds in a win over UC Davis.  By earning the honor, Phelps helped the 49ers become the first team in league history to have five different players earn Player of the Week honors in a season.  Phelps followed his career best week by returning to earth, scoring ten points in Thursdays overtime loss to Fullerton and finishing with just seven in Saturday’s victory over Northridge.

Two Big West teams will play in BracketBuster games

When Pacific hosts New Mexico State in two weeks (2/20), the Tigers will be representing the Big West in one of eleven of ESPNU’s televised BracketBuster games being held throughout the weekend.  This marks the second time that the two schools play each other in a BracketBusters matchup. They played each other on February 18, 2006, as well.   Although it will not be televised, UC Santa Barbara will also be playing in an out-of-conference game that weekend when they travel to play Fresno St.  The Gauchos are 5-6 out of conference and are below .500 on the road, but they will be playing a 12-12 Bulldogs team that has lost five of its last seven games.

Conference Breakdown

Top Tier: Pacific (8-2), (15-7), Santa Barbara (8-3), (13-8)

The conference leader, Pacific, has not lost to another conference opponent other than UC Santa Barbara yet this season.  Offensively the Tigers have been struggling in the past two weeks. The shooting behind the arc has increased in attempts, but hasn’t produced nearly enough baskets for an offense that relies on it to pull ahead in games.  Pacific is fifth in the conference behind the arc, shooting 34.3 percent but in the past two games against Santa Barbara and Cal Poly the Tigers have shot 27.1 percent. That number is staggering considering that Pacific shot 10-20 from three-point range in a January 21 victory over Cal State Fullerton.  In the past four games there has been a lack of consistency from the starting line up. Joe Ford, Terrell Smith and Michael Nunnally each scored in double-figures in a win over UC Irvine on January 28. Since that game the trio has struggled to score, which has meant Sam Willard and Demetrece Young have had to step up to carry the load.  Willard currently leads the team and rebounding, however the junior forward missed Saturday night’s game against the Mustangs  The Gauchos remain a half game back of Pacific for the conference lead, but must take care of the two teams that sit behind them in the conference standings if they want to catch the Tigers and claim the top spot.  Next Saturday the Gauchos play host to Long Beach State, who has a 5-5 conference record, and then they travel the following Thursday (2/17) to take on Fullerton, also a 5-5 conference team.  The Gauchos are clearly the team to beat in the conference, winning five of their last six games.  Right now they are doing the exact opposite of Pacific—they are effectively shooting the ball from 3-point range and rank first in the conference shooting 37.3 percent from behind the arc  In Saturday’s win over UC Davis, the Gauchos hit their first seven 3-point baskets and in their upset win against Pacific on Thursday they shot 46 percent from 3-point range.  Johnson and Nunnally are giving this team plenty of offensive power and have seemed to mature rapidly as the season has progressed.  With two consistent scorers, good shooting, and a defense that has begun to make plays in recent weeks, the Gauchos have solidified their spot among the top teams in the Big West this season.

Middle of the Pack: Cal State Fullerton (5-5), (11-11), Long Beach State (5-5), (11-12), UC Davis (5-5), (9-13), and Cal Poly (5-5), (9-13)

None of the middle teams seem to have anything in common besides their 5-5 conference record.  They all seem to be going in opposite directions. Long Beach State is winner of three of their last four and has become the second best offensive team in the conference.  Upcoming games against conference heavyweights—Santa Barbara (2/13) and Pacific (2/17)—put the 49ers in great position to thrust themselves into the top tier of the conference before the postseason begins.  It helps to have six players who average over nine points a game, including sophomore forward and player of the year candidate T.J Robinson.  Robinson averages a double double with 15.3 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game. He had a streak of three consecutive double-doubles last week, but had his streak snapped on Saturday in a win over Northridge.  While the 49ers appear to be heading in the right direction, Cal Poly seems to be heading the other way.  The Mustangs have lost their last four games, including an ugly nonconference to Cal State Bakersfield on January 30. The win was the first road win of the year for Bakersfield and their fourth win on the season.  To revive, the Mustangs must beat the 49ers this upcoming Thursday night. Then they travel to play bottom feeders Riverside and Northridge.  Fullerton has the league’s highest scoring offense, which has positioned them three games back of the Tigers for first place in the division.  Starters Aaron Thompson, Jer’Vaughn Johnson, Jacques Streeter, and Devon Peltier have formed a nice nucleus for the Titans, who until Saturday’s loss to Riverside had no problem scoring more than 70 points a game.  All four players average more than ten points per game and must find help from role players such as center Bryce Webster and forwards Gerald Anderson and Orane Chin.  The Titans have played in three overtime games in their last six games and have come away winners twice, the team needs to continue to rally late in halves in order to continue to have a chance this season.  Of all the middle of the pack teams, UC Davis seems to be the most stagnant. The Aggies seemed destined to stay in the middle of the pack while other teams (Fullerton and Long Beach State) rose past them and others (Cal Poly) dropped.  The Aggies have a chance to make a statement when they host Pacific on Wednesday night.  However no matter what the outcome of the game the Aggies’ postseason future seems murky, as the team has struggled to find consistency. They are 3-3 in their last six games and haven’t had a winning streak since the first week of January.

Bottom Tier: Cal State Northridge (4-6), (9-14), UC Irvine (3-7), (10-14), and UC Riverside (3-8), (9-14)

UC Irvine didn’t help themselves by dropping one of two back-to-back games against non-conference foe Cal State Bakersfield.  The Anteaters have struggled in conference all season and have lost six of their last seven conference games.  Senior guard Michael Hunter and sophomore forward Eric Wise have made up a nice combo for the Anteaters, a lone bright spot in a season that hasn’t seen many.  As for Northridge and Riverside, the two teams continue to turn the ball over too much.  The Matadors have a horrendous defense that doesn’t complement a shaky offense well. They surrender 74.5 points per game, but will have a chance to gain a few wins in the upcoming weeks as they play feeble nonconference opponents in Bakersfield and Drake. Also a Wednesday night game next week against a struggling Cal Poly team could have the Matadors marching into the middle of the conference.  Riverside has pulled off some upsets so far this season, beating Long Beach State and Fullerton, but the facts remain that Riverside is abysmal.  Kyle Austin seems to be the only bright point for the Highlanders, as the junior cannot be stopped by opposing defenses.  Unfortunately for the Highlanders, the rest of the offense is inept, averaging just above 62 points per game.

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