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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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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In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level (part two)

Posted by rtmsf on September 28th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor.

To read the entire In Their Words series, click here.

Part Two: RECRUITING

Over the summer, we’ve spent time hearing about some of the next big-name recruits on their way to college basketball: Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist. We’ve heard the big-time schools announce their high profile games on their upcoming schedules: Kentucky going to the Maui Invitational and visiting North Carolina, Michigan State hosting Texas and going to Duke. But for the vast majority of Division I programs, they’ve been flying under the radar. There are at present 73 teams that participate in basketball in the six BCS conferences, but there are 347 total programs in Division I. Of those other 274 programs, there are certainly quite a few big-name programs: last year’s national runner-up Butler comes to mind immediately, as does Gonzaga, Memphis and a handful of other schools in conferences like the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. But, we were also interested in how the other half (or really, how the other three-quarters) lives, so we spent some time talking to coaches, athletic directors and other people around the country affiliated with some of those other schools — those non-BCS schools, those “mid-majors” — and we asked them about how they recruit, how they create a schedule, how they market their programs, and quite a few other things. Over the next eight weeks, we’ll let them tell you their story, in their own words.

To begin, let me introduce and thank this week’s cast of characters:

  • Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider – Dempsey enters his fifth season as the head man at Rider, following two seasons as an assistant. He has compiled an 83-75 record over that time and coached NBA lottery pick Jason Thompson during his time there.
  • Jason James, Head Coach, Tennessee-Martin – James enters his second season as the head coach at UT-Martin following eight seasons as an assistant coach there. His first season was rough, to the tune of 4-25, after he was appointed head coach in the wake of scandal with the previous head coach. But James, the recruiter who brought Lester Hudson to UT-Martin, has plans to begin to turn things around this season.
  • Todd Miles, Assistant Athletics Director for Media Relations, Long Beach State – Miles starts his third year in Long Beach following a seven-year stretch at Boise State where he was the primary media relations contact for the basketball team.
  • Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State – Brown enters his fifth year as an assistant on head coach Dan Monson’s staff, after previously having spent time on coaching staffs at Cal-State Northridge, USC and Iowa State.
  • Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason – Caputo is entering his sixth season as an assistant coach for the Patriots after spending the previous three seasons as an administrative assistant and video coordinator under head coach Jim Larranaga.
  • Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State – Bartow is entering his eighth season as the Buccaneers head coach, after having previously succeeded his father Gene Bartow as the head coach at UAB. Bartow has posted a 118-72 record in his years at ETSU and has racked up 241 total wins and four NCAA appearances in his 13 seasons as a head coach.
  • Dale Layer, Head Coach, Liberty – Layer enters his second season at Liberty after having spent a season as an assistant at the university in 2007-08. In between, he spent a year at Marquette and previously he spent seven seasons as the head coach at Colorado State. He has compiled a 118-122 record in his eight seasons as a Division I head coach.
  • George Ivory, Head Coach, Arkansas-Pine Bluff – Ivory enters his third season in Pine Bluff, where he has turned the Golden Lions into winners. UAPB turned around an 0-11 start last season by finishing 18-5 over their last 23 games, winning UAPB’s first SWAC tournament title in 43 years and advancing to the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual national-champion Duke.

Last time around, we heard about the challenges mid-major schools face in competing for recruits and the importance of player development at the mid-major level. This time, we’ll look at some of the more practical questions to be answered when recruiting, such as what types of players coaches are going to be looking for and where they are going to find them. If you’re in a talent-rich area, you may not ever need to go outside of your region to find players, but the bigger pool of talent from which you are able to draw, the more likely you are to be able to land talented players.

Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider: We’re in a great location. We sit right in the middle between Philadelphia and New York City. We’re about 35 miles from Philadelphia and about 50 miles from New York City, which also puts us two hours from Baltimore, maybe three hours from Washington DC, within three hours of Virginia, we have a couple of kids from Delaware, so again we’re in a location that allows us to recruit regionally. I think most coaches will tell you that they want to take care of their back yard, but how big your back yard is changes for everybody. If you’re in the Midwest and there are not as many players within a two-hour radius of your school, then obviously you have to change your approach. But in our situation we are able to do the majority of our recruiting close to home.

Locating Talent is Extremely Important

Jason James, Head Coach, Tennessee-Martin: As far as location, we try to bring in student-athletes within about a six hour radius from us, we’ve been more successful doing that, but saying that, we kind of go where we know people, where people can help us and we’ve been able to be successful because of our contacts.

Todd Miles, Assistant Athletics Director for Media Relations, Long Beach State: Coach (Dan) Monson’s goal is always to get the best player in Long Beach. That’s his number one goal. That’s how we got Larry Anderson. Casper Ware is a local kid, T.J. Robinson happened to come from Connecticut, but he came because we were recruiting Larry Anderson who was at a prep school and we saw T.J. But, with this team this year we had a lot of returners, so they were trying to find pieces that would fit with this team, with all these returners they had certain needs and they may have been a little more particular about who they wanted. Three years ago when Coach Monson and his staff came here, they needed players, and it didn’t matter what position. And I think this year maybe more they wanted to recruit to a position or to a skill set.

Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State: We prefer to recruit locally, but really, it is all based on need. Certain classes are stronger than others: 2012 looks to be stronger than the 2011 class, as an example. And then there might be times when you have to recruit for need, like you need a point – it’s not just about recruiting a position, like you need a guard or forward – you might have more specific needs, like you need an athletic, guard-the-rim post-player, they may not need to be a great offensive post player. Or you might need a post player who can pick-and-pop and hit the three, but isn’t that great on the block. Or you might have a bunch of 6’4/6’5 athletes who are drivers/slashers, but you need to find a guy that can hit the three. If a player can do it all, they’re not going to come to our level. Sometimes we just need to find guys that can fit a need. In this case, we got some really good kids out of state and if we have a need and don’t think that need can be best filled out of the local area, we go to wherever it is we can get it.

Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason: There are some years where we sign a number of guys from the area and other years where it’s a little bit different, but yeah, our base is the local area. Last year we brought in two kids from the DC area. Obviously we want to stay with that as much as possible, but there are times when there is just not enough volume in your area when you’ve got to get five or six kids in a year, which we’ve had to do. You know, we had to get 10 guys in two years and so sometimes when there’s not as much in the area and you’ve got to get quality, you’ve got to go to places out of the area, and I think that’s where TV has helped us as well.

Schools like Long Beach State and George Mason have easy access to major metropolitan areas. Obviously, not all schools enjoy such a location, and as a result cannot rely entirely on getting recruits from their local area.

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2009-10 Conference Primers: #16 – Big West

Posted by rtmsf on October 21st, 2009

seasonpreview

Ryan ZumMallen of LBPostSports.com is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Big West Conferences.

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Long Beach State (13-3)
  2. UC Santa Barbara (12-4)
  3. UC Riverside (12-4)
  4. UC Davis (9-7)
  5. UC Irvine (9-7)
  6. Cal State Fullerton (7-9)
  7. Pacific (5-11)
  8. Cal Poly (3-13)
  9. Cal State Northridge (2-14)

All-Conference Team:

  • Mark Payne (G), UCD
  • Larry Anderson (G), LBSU
  • Joe Harden (F), UCD
  • Kyle Austin (F), UCR
  • Eric Wise (C), UCI

6th Man. Joe Ford (G), Pacific

Impact Newcomer. Michael Wilder (G), UCI

big west logo

eWhat You Need to Know.  The Big West consistently sends one representative to the NCAA Tournament, which is then soundly bounced from competition in the first round; but that shouldn’t take away from the fierce battle that’s being done within conference confines. The conference is riding a wave of improvement, witnessed by a recent flood of top-notch recruits and Cal State Northridge taking #2 Memphis to the wire in the first round of last season’s Tourney.  This season, there are shining stars waiting to break out, and most teams have scheduled challenging preseason opponents in a seemingly league-wide strategy to boost the conference’s profile. Long Beach State sophomore Larry Anderson and UC Riverside senior Kyle Austin have the combination of size and pro-level talent that give their teams the chance to beat anyone on any night. Tough schedules and big, athletic guards – does that make the Big West a conference with upset capabilities? No doubt.

Predicted ChampionLong Beach State (NCAA Seed:  #12).  The 49ers will be the popular pick to win the Big West regular season as well as conference tournament, due to an elevated talent level and difficult preseason schedule that will make the rest of the conference season seem like JV.  Because of that difficult preseason schedule – and therefore a favorable RPI – Long Beach State will likely be a trendy upset pick in the NCAA Tournament, especially if they can pull off an upset against Texas, Kentucky or Duke; on a national scale, however, they probably lack the firepower needed to advance to the second round. Only four seniors graduated from last year’s team that earned second place in the conference. The 49ers’ quartet of sophomores will lead the charge – with athletic sixth man Eugene Phelps, darting point guard Casper Ware, crafty forward T.J. Robinson and 2008-09 first-teamer Larry Anderson.

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Checking in on the… Big West

Posted by nvr1983 on February 16th, 2009

Ryan ZumMallen of LBSports.com is the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference.

Let’s be very honest about the Big West for a minute: The conference will only send one team to the NCAA Tournament that will probably be seeded 13th or 14th in their region, and there isn’t a single can’t-miss NBA prospect in the conference.

Here’s why you should watch the Big West, anyway.

1. It’s Been A Great Race

Long Beach State jumped out to an early 5-0 conference record behind the fresh legs of their four freshmen, but were hit with an injury to leading scorer Donovan Morris and have stumbled ever since, going just 2-4 in their last six. The most recent loss, a double-overtime thriller at UC Riverside, put the ball in Cal State Northridge’s court. The Matadors, picked in October by both media and coaches to win the conference title, beat that same Riverside team to snatch a full-game lead on Long Beach State. But beware as five teams trail Northridge by 2.5 games or less.

1) Cal State Northridge 12-10 (8-3)
2) Long Beach State 12-11 (7-4)
3) Pacific 14-9 (7-5)
4) Cal State Fullerton 13-12 (7-6)
5) UC Riverside 14-10 (6-6)
6) UC Davis 11-14 (6-6)
7) UC Irvine 8-17 (5-7)
8) UC Santa Barbara 10-13 (4-7)
9) Cal Poly SLO 6-16 (3-9)

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2008-09 Conference Primers: #21 – Big West

Posted by rtmsf on October 21st, 2008

Ryan ZumMallen, LBPOSTSports columnist, is the RTC correspondent for the Big West conference. 

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Cal St. Northridge
  2. UC Santa Barbara
  3. Long Beach State
  4. Pacific
  5. UC Irvine
  6. UC Davis
  7. Cal St. Fullerton
  8. Cal Poly
  9. UC Riverside

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.

Top Tier. 

  • 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 StateDisclosure: 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.

RPI Boosters. 

  • 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…

 

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