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 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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Checking in on… the Big West

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 20th, 2010

Ryan ZumMallen is Executive Editor and sportswriter for The Long Beach Post and the RTC correspondent for the Big West Conference.

A Look Back

With about two weeks of games behind us, we’re learning a little bit more about how the Big West may play out this season. Despite a slow start thus far, UC Santa Barbara is still the consensus favorite with all five starters returning from a team that went to the NCAA Tournament last year. Long Beach State believes their time is now and has the talent to challenge, but after just two games there are obvious depth issues that will need to be resolved quickly (strong competition like Clemson is lined up at this weekend’s Paradise Jam Classic). And though it looked like this may be a down year for perennial challenger Pacific, head coach Bob Thomason has shown why he may be the most respected coach in the conference by pulling his team to big victories over UTEP and Nevada. Senior forward Sam Willard has been a monster, putting up 18.7 PPG and 13.3 RPG against very good competition for Pacific, who only lost on a back-to-back road game at UCLA. Willard wasn’t selected to the conference preseason first team, but it looks like some sportswriters (including this one) may be eating their words this year.

Other than that, it’s been rough going for the Big West, which doesn’t have much to offer beyond those three teams and a possible strong push from UC Davis. We’ll be able to provide a much more accurate picture of the conference with a few more games in the books, but for now we turn our attention to the future. The success of the Big West lies not in this season or probably even the next, but several seasons down the line as the conference attempts to paint itself as a sustainable West Coast contender. We’re seeing attempts by several teams to take that leap this season, to become the next mid-major to make a name for itself – Long Beach State played #25 San Diego State tough and UCSB gets the Aztecs in December as well. Pacific faces an impressive nonconference schedule and there are far more games against Pac-10 opponents than usual. Clearly, the Big West is making a move.

The best scheduling in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t pull off the victories, and for that, the Big West simply needs better talent. By the looks of the recruiting announcements made over the past week, some of the initial pieces are coming into place. UC Davis picked up an elite athlete and defender in 6’6 forward J.T. Adenrele, while shooting guard Reese Morgan signed with Cal Poly SLO. But the highest-ranked recruit to sign onto a Big West school was point guard Michael Caffey – described by ESPN as “one of the top 5 point guards in the state” – with Long Beach State, who will also add an immediate impact with 6’7 wing and high-jump champion James Ennis from the JC ranks. The rest of the conference picked up a steady stream of quality players, but without much hype. For the Big West Conference to stay competitive over the long term, it will have to attract talent to match an increasingly challenging schedule. Otherwise, expect it to remain a one-bid conference come Tourney time.

Player of the Week

Without question, it’s the senior forward Sam Willard from Pacific. The easiest way to succeed in the Big West is to play for coach Bob Thomason, who continually takes teams without top-flight talent and turns them into conference contenders, if not champions. That’s not to say that Willard isn’t a very good player in his own right, just that Thomason knows how to take talent and maximize it. Case in point: Willard improved steadily in his first three years with Pacific, but it’s fair to say that no one expected him to throw up three straight double-doubles in early season wins over UTEP and Nevada. Willard has always been a force defensively but with added offensive moves and a lack of big post players in the conference, it could be a big year for both he and the Tigers.

Power Rankings:

  1. Pacific (2-1): The Tigers really made some noise after coming back from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat UTEP and new coach Tim Floyd, and then knocking off Nevada in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off in Los Angeles. Pacific lost to UCLA in the second round, but Willard has posted double-doubles in every game and Thomason has them playing very well to start off the season.
  2. UC Santa Barbara (1-2): It’s hard to gauge the Gauchos after a 1-2 start, but as the near-unanimous selection for preseason conference champions, they’ve simply got to be near the top at this point. A home loss to North Dakota State was a surprise, and a 72-70 loss at Oregon is up in the air because it’s a tough placeto play but the Ducks simply aren’t very good this year. Combo guard Orlando Johnson and forward James Nunnally have put the team on their backs, as expected, and are averaging 23.3 PPG and 18.7 PPG, respectively. In the Oregon game, only one other player attempted more than three shots.
  3. Long Beach State (1-1): Both players and coaches alike are saying that this is the year for the 49ers, with a quartet of juniors ready to step into the spotlight. The question isn’t whether or not they have the talent to do it – they do – but whether or not they can depend on going to the bench when they need to rest. After just two games, we’ve seen glaring weaknesses in the team’s depth with very little D-I experience to offer. Long Beach played #25 San Diego State to a halftime tie but ran out of gas because head coach Dan Monson refused to turn to the bench. With a chance to win, you can’t really blame him, but the starters began to cramp up and the more talented Aztecs took advantage for a 16-point win. This needs to be addressed and the Paradise Jam Classic this weekend could be a good time to get some minutes to bench guys.
  4. UC Davis (1-3): The Aggies started off poorly before finally picking up a blowout win against UC Santa Cruz, and have proven what most writers expected: They’ll really almost entirely on 6’8 guard Mark Payne and 6’7 forward Joe Harden, who are 1-2 on the team in both points and rebounds. The good news is that those two have talent to carry UC Davis to several wins both before and during conference play. The bad news is they’ve both had issues with staying healthy over the years and there isn’t much to turn to on the bench. Opponents like Boise State, UCLA and Cal will tell us a lot about their prospects this season.
  5. Cal State Fullerton (0-3): Despite a winless start and a blown 11-point lead against Central Michigan, the Titans’ season is actually looking up compared to the rest of the Big West thanks to the emergence of one possible star and solid play from the supporting cast. Fullerton lost nearly all of its scoring from last year due to graduation and transfers, but 6’7 forward Orane Chin is establishing himself as a force with a 22.7 PPG average. Players like Devon Peltier and Orlando Brown seem to be settling into their respective roles nicely and the entire team is shooting well from the field. They’re not likely to turn heads in the non-conference, but consistency is what’s needed to finish well in the Big West and Fullerton is building it.
  6. Cal Poly (1-1): Not much positive news to report for the Mustangs, who shot just 29.6% from the field in a loss to D-II Cal State Monterey Bay. This is the type of game that really drags the Big West down as a whole. Senior center Will Donahue has been a bright spot but Cal Poly SLO has a long way to go before they can achieve relevance in the conference. If they don’t improve quickly, the Mustangs are walking into a minefield with non-conference games against Loyola Marymount, Hawaii, UCLA, SDSU, Cal and Pepperdine coming up.
  7. UC Irvine (0-2): The encouraging thing for the Anteaters is that they haven’t needed to ride forward Eric Wise solely in their first two games. The preseason all-conference selection is there on the boards with 8.5 per game, but third in scoring behind Darren Moore and Pavol Losonsky. If they develop into consistent scoring threats, then UC Irvine automatically becomes a top tier Big West simply for having more than one scoring option. Yeah, the conference isn’t real deep this season. After tough opponents in #16 Illinois and USC, we’ll get a better idea of their identity this weekend against Seattle.
  8. Cal State Northridge (0-2): Apparently, Big West teams saw some vulnerability in UCLA and Cal that they thought could be exploited. How’s that working out so far? The Matadors have dropped games at UCLA and Cal by an average of 25 points and the two Pac-10 schools are 3-0 against the conference so far, likely licking their chops at the Big West buffet lined up before them over the next few weeks. Northridge is not very skilled this year and they’ll be crushed by  #24 Virginia Tech next weekend.
  9. UC Riverside (1-1): The Highlanders were absolutely handled with an 85-41 loss at UNLV, so they returned the favor to something called a Pomona-Pitzer. A lot of Big West teams cushion their early schedules with a D-II opponent, but Riverside did them all one better and beat up on a D-III team. Not like it will do them much good. They face a total cake non-conference schedule before the rest of the conference hands them beatdown after beatdown.

A Look Ahead

With Cal State Northridge in the 76 Classic, UC Irvine in the 2k Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and Long Beach State in the Paradise Jam Classic, there will be early tests to see how Big West teams hold up in rapid-fire tournaments with little rest. Watch UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis to see how they fare against mid-major names like Fresno State and Boise State, respectively. Long Beach State hosting Loyola Marymount is also a good indicator. No one is trying to build an NCAA Tournament resume here, so the important thing is to look for signs of how they’ll play in conference and whether or not they can make a run at the Big West’s only invite.

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Big West Tournament Preview

Posted by rtmsf on March 10th, 2010

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

Regular Season Recap

A year after making the NCAA Tournament, Cal State Northridge is the final team to make the Big West Conference tournament. However, it hasn’t been a year of complete surprise, rather just a season of emergence.  Depending on who plays in Big West Tournament final game on Saturday afternoon, the Big West could have their conference champion as high as a No. 12 seed come the NCAA tournament. Both Santa Barbara and Pacific have had great seasons and they could be rewarded greatly by if the selection committee if they win the conference crown.

Overall the conference’s bottom four teams—Cal Poly, UC Irvine, CS Northridge and CS Riverside–have had ugly seasons with sub-.500 conference records. Despite this they have produced some of the conference’s best players. The Highlanders’ Kyle Austin would be conference player of the year, and still has a shot, if it weren’t for his team’s last place finish. His back-to-back 35+ point effort against Fullerton and Cal Poly is one of the bigger achievements of the year. Like Austin, senior forward Kenny Daniels has an argument for being player of the year despite the Matadors’ tough season. He scored in double figures in all of his last eight games and finished averaging 15.3 points a game.

Although neither are going to win conference player of the year, the Anteaters’ Eric Wise and Michael Hunter proved to be one of the conference’s more lethal tandems. Hunter, a senior, was a scoring threat for the Anteaters, but his biggest contributions were on the court leadership and defense. He finished the year with 1.4 steals per game. The middle teams—CS Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Davis–all had back and forth seasons that included both winning streaks and losing streaks. Overall Fullerton had a pretty consistent season, finishing over .500 both at home and on the road. After a three-game losing streak in January, the Titans turned things around in February and almost earned a first round bye. The 49ers had the roughest schedule of any team in the Big West, playing five top 25 teams during the season. Despite their 15-15 overall record, they played through the tough schedule to earn a first round bye. The 49ers biggest conference win came on January 14 when they beat the No. 1 seeded Gauchos by 20 points. The Aggies also had success against the top of the conference, beating Pacific on February 10. Despite Dominic Calegari’s departure after this season, the Aggies return their two top guards in Payne and Harden, which will put them in a position to be conference favorite next season.

The real difference between the league’s elite teams, Santa Barbara and Pacific, and the rest of the conference, is depth.  Although the Gauchos have relied on only a few guys for scoring, the teams bench has given valuable minutes. In conference play they have at least four bench players averaging over ten minutes of action a night. As for the Tigers, they are a team that spreads the scoring effort around and does not rely on a single person to lead them each night. The similarities between Pacific and Santa Barbara are clear though, in that they are both teams that like to use their bench and use it effectively. That is why they are atop the conference going into the postseason.

Big West POY and COY Predictions

Read the rest of this entry »

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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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