Checking In On… the Big West ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on December 19th, 2011
The Week That Was:
- San Diego State Officially Moving to the Big West: In the biggest addition the Big West has made in years, San Diego State has announced that they will move their 14 other sports besides football to the Big West as of 2013. Thanks to the Big East and the madness that is BCS college football realignment, the Big West had the Aztecs basically drop in their lap, a development that has the basketball team putting on a front of contentment. The move saves the Aztecs a lot of money on travel. They become part of a conference that has an ESPN contract, which means potentially more exposure. But it also would be a giant step down in strength of schedule and RPI, which has spurred talks of shortening the number of conference games to 14, an unbalanced slate. For the Big West, they add a school with an arena with nearly twice the seating capacity as any current school, and an athletic budget that dwarfs the other schools as well. The hope is that SDSU will act like a Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, and raise the profile of the entire league.
- Fullerton Heats Up: Because of the large number of new players and transfers this season, Cal State Fullerton has been the wild card under-the-radar team this year. However, Bob Burton’s squad is making strides as of late, winning four straight. These wins have been in grand fashion as well, including a 22-point victory over SIU-Edwardsville, a 31-point thrashing at Pac-12 Utah, and a sound 15-point win over Eastern Washington. This group of transfers is seemingly starting to gel a bit, but it remains to be seen if their defensive consistency can improve for league play.
- Long Beach Close But No Cigar: The 49ers continued their treacherous schedule with good efforts against Kansas and North Carolina. They fell 88-80 at Allen Fieldhouse, and lost in Chapel Hill, 84-78. Against the Jayhawks, Long Beach battled from a 19-point deficit at one point to close within a margin of five with about three minutes to play. In North Carolina, they actually led at halftime, 45-40, before losing steam late. Long Beach State continues to impress by hanging in there against top opponents, but remain slowed down by the little things. The absence of graduated Greg Plater seems to be hurting a little more than expected, and the fact that the 49ers can’t sneak up on anyone does not help things either.
- Long Beach State (4-5) – Although the hype surrounding Long Beach State has quieted down in recent weeks with losses to Kansas and North Carolina, the 49ers are still hanging tough against nationally ranked teams. One last window of opportunity to bolster their resume lies ahead against Xavier, who is coming off the infamous fight against Cincinnati. The one thing that the 49ers may be missing this year is a guy who can be a pure knock-down shooter.
- UC Santa Barbara (5-3) – Coach Bob Williams tied former UCSB coach Jerry Pimm for the most wins at UC Santa Barbara when the Gauchos took down San Diego 65-61 on December 13. It wasn’t a pretty win for the Gauchos as Orlando Johnson struggled with a bandaged thumb until turning on an extra gear late in the game. When the Gauchos finally clinched the win late in the game, narrowly holding on against a lowly USD team, rowdy Gaucho fans threw tortillas on to the court at Jenny Craig Pavilion. The temporary delay of game drew a warning from the PA Announcer that any more objects thrown on to the floor would result in a technical foul. UCSB followed the USD game up by playing Washington close, but both the Gauchos and their fans will have to clean it up a bit going into conference play.
- Cal Poly (8-3) – The Mustangs held serve over the last two weeks, beating San Jose State, NAIA Menlo College, and Fresno State. Right now, this Cal Poly group is spreading out the scoring very well, keeping pace with their best start to the season in 18 years in D-I ball. Besides playing unselfish ball, defense remains a staple: Cal Poly is currently ranked in the top ten nationally in opponent points per game.
- Cal State Fullerton (7-3) – Bob Burton’s Titans beat the teams they were supposed to beat as well, and are currently riding a four-game winning streak going into a game against Portland State. Of note was a 31-point drubbing of Utah, the Utes’ worst loss in the Huntsman Center since the arena was built in 1969. Burton chalked up the Titans’ improved play to an improving defensive effort but mostly to the team getting healthier. Burton also set the record for victories at Cal State Fullerton (140) with CSUF’s 91-76 win over Eastern Washington.
- UC Riverside (4-6) – The big news out of UCR is transfer Robert Smith becoming eligible after sitting out the first seven games of the season after transferring from Santa Clara. He’s averaging 11 PPG after two games, which includes a 14-point effort against Montana State that saw Smith score nine of the final 12 UCR points, including the game-winning 3-point basket with 0.7 seconds left to go. The Highlanders received a pick me up against D-III UC Santa Cruz, slamming the Banana Slugs 91-60 in Riverside. Although UCR stumbled badly against Nevada, losing 71-47, maybe the confidence from earlier wins will carry over better against San Diego State.
- UC Irvine (2-8) – After an ugly win that required a few last minute shots against NAIA Vanguard, the young UC Irvine squad has put a good fight on the road against Wyoming and Louisiana State. A tenacious defense allowed the Anteaters to stay in games against both the Cowboys and the Tigers, but poor starts in both games ultimately doomed UCI. The lack of a go-to scorer or even a real identity on offense has continued to plague the Anteaters, and the loss of starting point guard Aaron Wright to a hyper extended knee against Wyoming will not help matters. Still, if UCI can continue to keep up the spirited play, they should fare better than expected in Big West play.
- Pacific (4-5) – Sophomore center Khalil Kelley came into the season as coach Bob Thomason’s only returning letter-winner. After averaging less than two points a game last year though, Kelley has been stepping it up this year. In a win against Hawaii, the 6’8’’ big man posted 15 points and 13 rebounds along with two blocks, going 7-7 from the field. Otherwise, Pacific still doesn’t have any wins or performances that inspire much confidence, although a closely fought overtime loss to Santa Clara was a good sign. Their last two games before conference play — at Cal State Bakersfield and at home against Fresno State — present one more stretch for the game to come together and form more of an identity.
- Cal State Northridge (3-6) – The Matadors finally notched their first Division I and road victory on Dec. 10, beating Pepperdine 73-70. Even this feat wasn’t an easy accomplishment, as CSUN trailed by as much as 12 in the first half before going on a 13-4 to open up the second half. The four-headed monster of Stephan Hicks, Josh Greene, Vinnie McGhee and Aqeel Quinn have established themselves as the leading scorers, but the Matadors desperately need a more dominating force down low to accompany these four guards.
- UC Davis (1-9) – It’s still looking ugly for the Aggies, as they suffered a 74-61 loss to Hawaii, a team that Pacific was able to beat. More discouraging than the final total was the fact that UC Davis actually had the lead halfway through the second half, only to let Hawaii storm back and run away with it. A whopping 43-point loss against UCLA didn’t help matters. It’s abundantly clear that Coach Jim Les still has a lot of work to do before conference play begins.
Long Beach State is once again the team to watch, as they head off to the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu to face Xavier. On day two, they will most likely play Auburn, who is facing off against host Hawaii, a team that has been struggling this season. Kansas State and Clemson are other major-conference teams in the field. Elsewhere, UCR gets one last crack at future conference mate SDSU, while UCI will try to fare better than UC Davis against UCLA. The first conference games of the year will also take place before our next update, which is when many Big West coaches claim that the “real season” begins.
Caught on Film
UC Riverside’s Robert Smith with the heroic three-point shot to get the win against Montana State. As far as debuts go, this is as good as it gets.