Ryan ZumMallen is the RTC correspondent for the Big West conference.
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.
- Casper Ware (Long Beach)
- Larry Anderson (Long Beach)
- Orlando Johnson (Santa Barbara)
- David Hanson (Cal Poly)
- Sam Willard (Pacific)
Big West Coach of the Year: Joe 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.
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.