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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?