|Big West Conference Outlook|
|By Scott Haynes, Associate College Basketball Editor|
OUTLOOK : To be successful in the Big West Conference, a team usually needs to have an up-tempo style and plenty of scoring threats, and the two teams that figure to be contending for the league championship this year have no problem putting points on the board.
Last season, Long Beach State won their second consecutive conference title with a veteran team, but it will need to overcome the loss of a lot of talent from last season if it wants to make it a three-peat in 2012-13. Waiting in the wings is Cal State Fullerton, which returns two of last year's top scorers in D.J. Seeley and Kwame Vaughn.
Things get a bit muddled after the top two teams. UC Santa Barbara is typically a contender, but the cupboard looks pretty bare this season. In its first season as a member of the conference, Hawaii certainly has the talent to compete with anyone, but a transition is in order coming from the Western Athletic Conference. Although UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge were rather lackluster in 2011-12, both squads hold a lot of intrigue with regard to returning star power.
While never the sexiest of picks, Pacific and Cal Poly always seem to put together solid years without the same sort of talent its rivals have. UC Riverside was disappointing last season, and the loss of its best player in Phil Martin certainly doesn't help matters. UC Davis has no where to go but up after a dreadful year, but even a modest improvement could still mean last place for a team with so little to work with.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION : Cal State Fullerton
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH : 1. Cal State Fullerton, 2. Long Beach State, 3. UC Irvine, 4. UC Santa Barbara, 5. Hawaii, 6. Cal State Northridge, 7. Pacific, 8. Cal Poly, 9. UC Riverside, 10. UC Davis
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS :
CAL STATE FULLERTON : The Titans were one of the most explosive teams in the nation last year, scoring 78 ppg during a season in which they finished 21-10 and second in the conference at 12-4, resulting in a bid to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. With Bob Burton stepping down from his coaching duties, Andy Newman has taken over on an interim basis, and he will be fortunate enough to have two of the conference's best scorers returning. D.J. Seeley finished his junior season ranked fourth in the conference in scoring (17.3 ppg) and he also added 5.5 rpg and 1.8 apg en route to being named First Team All-Big West. Kwame Vaughn was also spectacular, scoring 15.6 ppg on nearly 46 percent shooting while leading the conference in assists (3.7 apg). Although Fullerton will be without three starters from last year, all of whom averaged double figures in scoring, Sammy Yeager (9.3 ppg) and Marquis Horne (8.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) were solid in reserve roles and are expected to shine in the starting lineup. The only question mark among the starting five is John Underwood, who has ideal size (6-9) but minimal experience (6.9 minutes per game last season).
LONG BEACH STATE : The 49ers won their second consecutive Big West Conference championship in 2011-12, going 15-1 in conference and 25-9 overall, advancing to the NCAA Tournament but losing to fifth-seeded New Mexico in the first round, 75-68. Head Coach Dan Monson will have his work cut out for him this time around however, as Long Beach State returns just one starter from its championship squad in James Ennis. The 6-6 guard earned All-Big West honorable mention last season, filling up the stat sheet with 10 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.6 spg, and 0.8 bpg. With the four other starters lost, the team hopes to replace more than 50 points per game. Michael Caffey (5.9 ppg, 2.2 apg) was the backup point guard last year and should step right into the starting lineup, as should James Ennis (10 ppg), although Peter Pappageorge and Nick Shepherd received very little playing time a year ago. The 49ers will hope that four transfers will help their prospects of repeating, including former Arizona State guard Keala King, who led the Sun Devils in scoring last year (13.7 ppg) before being dismissed from the team in January.
UC IRVINE : Despite a respectable home record (8-6) last season, the Anteaters suffered through a tough campaign, winning just six conference games and 12 bouts overall. The good news for Irvine is that it will enjoy nearly universal continuity from last season to this, with all 10 of its players who earned regular playing time coming back, including four seniors in Michael Wilder, Daman Starring, Derick Flowers and Adam Folker. Wilder is the top returning player in the conference in terms of career points (762), assists (162), field goals made (223), three-pointers made (152), free throws made (164) and minutes played (2,321). Wilder (11.5 ppg), Starring (11.4 ppg), and Chris McNealy (10.2) all averaged double figures in scoring last season, while Folker (8.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) was the team's best rebounder. Third-year head coach Russell Turner will also have several underclassmen with valuable experience in reserve roles under their belts in Will Davis II (7.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Aaron Wright (6.9 ppg) and Mike Best (4.0 ppg).
UC SANTA BARBARA : For the 10th time in school history, the Gauchos won 20 games a season ago, and as a result they were invited to play in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. UCSB has now gone to the postseason three straight years and 15th-year head coach Bob Williams is now the program's all- time leader in wins with 237. If it plans on returning to postseason action this year, it will need to do so without the Big West's best scoring duo from a season ago in Orlando Johnson (19.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.9 apg) and James Nunnally (16 ppg, 5.9 rpg), as well as Jaime Serna (9.0 ppg, 5.0) -- all of whom graduated. Predicting who will carry the torch as the team's leading scorer this year is not easy, as only Kyle Boswell (7.5 ppg) and Alan Williams (6.9 ppg) have shown any sort of scoring potential. After both players sat out last year because of NCAA transfer rules, Keegan Hornbuckle (formerly of Colorado) and Nate Garth (New Mexico) figure to be mainstays in the rotation. Williams also welcomes nine incoming freshman, who he hopes at least a handful of can make an immediate impact.
HAWAII : After competing in the Western Athletic Conference for the past 33 years, the Rainbow Warriors will play their first season as a member of the Big West after going 16-16 in 2011-12 under second-year coach Gib Arnold. Hawaii lost 27.7 combined ppg from its starting lineup with the departures of Zane Johnson and Joston Thomas, but it still retains its top scorer from a year ago in 6-10 Vander Joaquim (14.3 ppg). The First Team All-WAC performer also ripped down 9.5 rpg and blocked nearly two shots per game, and he will immediately be one of the most imposing forces in the conference. The team also lost Jeremiah Ostrowski, who ranked sixth in the nation in assists per game (7.0), and it will have difficultly replacing him as no returning player averaged more than one helper per tilt last season. Of the eight newcomers, five are freshman. Caleb Dressler (6-10) was one of Washington State's top prospects and should be a nice complement off the bench. Keith Shamburger was a two-year starter at San Jose State but must sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules.
CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE : Bobby Braswell's 16th season as the Matadors' head coach was not one of his best as the team went just 7-21 overall and 3-13 in conference play. There's a silver lining for Northridge however, as it returns the reigning Big West Freshman of the Year and Mid-Major Freshman All-American Stephan Hicks. The 6-5 swing man was among the Big West's leaders in scoring (15.1 ppg), rebounding (7.1 rpg), field goal percentage (.440), and free throw percentage (.813) last year. Hicks is already one of the league's elite players, and he hopes to spring on to the national radar in his sophomore season. Josh Greene (12.4 ppg, 2.8 apg) was a solid complement to Hicks last season, but he needs to improve upon his dreadful field goal percentage (.368) to be a more consistent performer. Stephen Maxwell (8.6 ppg, .524 FG percentage, 6.4 rpg) also returns as a solid post presence. The team is still very young with just three juniors and no seniors, so once again the sophomores and freshmen will need to step up.
PACIFIC : Just a few years removed from a Big West regular season championship in 2010, the Tigers fell a long way to just 11-19 (6-10 Big West) last season, which was one of the worst in legendary head coach Bob Thompson's career. Heading into his 25th year as Pacific's head man, Thompson has announced he will retire at year's end, and he has an experienced squad ready to make a leap in the standings. Despite starting just two of 26 games, Ross Rivera (11.0 ppg) was the leading scorer a season ago, shooting an impressive 51.8 percent from the field. Lorenzo McCloud (10.6 ppg, 3.5 apg), Travis Fulton (9.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Markus Duran (6.8 ppg) are all be seniors this season and have multiple years of starting experience under their belts. Center Khalil Kelly (6.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) made an impact in his freshman year and hopes to take the next step this time around.
CAL POLY : The Mustangs (18-15) won more games than they lost in 2011-12 behind the best scoring defense in the conference (60.5 ppg), but improving upon their 8-8 Big West record may prove to be difficult with the loss of their three best players in Amaurys Fermin (9.8 ppg, 3.6 apg), David Hanson (11.8 ppg, All-Conference Second Team) and Will Taylor (9.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg). In his fourth season as head coach, Joe Callero will turn to forward Chris Eversley and guard Dylan Royer as his go-to performers. Eversley saw time in all 33 games last year and averaged 8.2 ppg and 4.8 rpg. Royer (7.5 ppg) led the team in three-pointers (72) and was tops in the conference in three-point field goal percentage (.465), and his production is expected to go up with an increased role this season. Drake U'u (6.1 ppg) is the only other returnee who experienced regular minutes a year ago. Senior guard Chris O'Brien (5.9 ppg in 2010-11) hopes to contribute after missing all of last season after suffering an injury in the preseason.
UC RIVERSIDE : In five years as head coach of the Highlanders, Jim Wooldridge has recorded just a 64-87 record, but his squad was able to inch closer to .500 in 2011-12 with a 14-17 (7-9 Big West) mark. The return of only three of 10 letter-winners from a season ago, including just one starter, means this year will likely be a difficult one. Without former star Phil Martin (17.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Robert Smith (9.2 ppg) will need to step up to be the team's leader and its primary scorer. Smith is a great distributor of the ball (3.3 apg), but his field goal percentages (.384, .284 three-point) will not cut it for a go-to guy. Other than Smith, only T.J. Burke (2.0 ppg) and Austin Quick (2.4 ppg) are back of the guys who have logged regular minutes in the past. In addition to the usual influx of rookies, the Highlanders welcome Chris Harriel, a transfer from Portland State who averaged 12.6 ppg in 2010-11, and Chris Patton, a 6-10 forward from Australia. The fresh blood could mean a change in culture in the UCR locker room this season. Time will tell.
UC DAVIS : The Aggies' 2011-12 season was nothing short of dreadful, winning five games overall and finishing just 1-15 in conference play. After performing well in his first two seasons, Ryan Sypkens averaged 14.5 ppg in four games before being lost for the remainder of the season with an injury. With presumably a full season of action ahead, UC Davis will automatically be much better with him in the lineup. The team alsos welcome Josh Ritchart back to the starting lineup, as he was the team's top performer in 2011-12 with 11.3 ppg and 5.1 rpg. Tyler Les (9.7 ppg) and Ryan Howley (6.7 ppg) also return to the rotation as both averaged more than 27 minutes per game. There's an influx of new players, including transfers Corey Hawkins (Arizona State), Avery Johnson (USF), and Iggu Nujic (Texas-San Antonio), all of whom should see immediate playing time with the hopes of improving upon the Aggies' league-worst scoring margin of minus-12.4 from a season ago.