Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The argument can be made that no league showed more parity during the 2013-14 season than the Big West Conference. The upside-down league tournament saw a No. 5 and No. 7 seed advance to the championship game, with Cal Poly coming away with the automatic NCAA Tournament bid despite an overall record below .500.
Last season proved that anything can happen once March comes around, but the underdog getting hot at the right time is still a rare occurrence. Despite the Mustangs' championship run, the overachieving squad returns just two starters and will have a difficult time breaking free from the middle of the pack.
Although UC Irvine was upset by Cal Poly in the semifinals of the league tournament, it had established itself as the favorite with a regular-season title, and the return of most of its experienced roster makes it the best bet to repeat. UC Santa Barbara finished just a game behind UCI and will have every chance to take over the throne this time around, especially with the league's best player on its side, Alan Williams.
Cal State Northridge fell just short of its third-ever NCAA Tournament bid, falling to Cal Poly 61-59 in the championship bout. CSUN finished with a losing record last season but appears in good shape to improve as it welcomes back two players who scored at least 17.0 ppg in addition to a couple of key newcomers. Long Beach State, the league's most consistent team over past few years, and it retains plenty of talent to continue the positive trend.
Hawaii registered a 20-win campaign last season but will need to replace more than half its starting lineup. UC Davis finished in last place and was the only team to fail to qualify for the league tournament, but with some solid returnees and a few key additions fully recovered from injury, it could be a team on the rise.
Rounding out the bottom of the league are Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside, two teams that combined to lose twice as many games as they won a season ago with not much help on the horizon.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: UC Irvine
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. UC Irvine, 2. UC Santa Barbara, 3. Cal State Northridge, 4. Long Beach State, 5. Hawaii, 6. UC Davis, 7. Cal Poly, 8. Cal State Fullerton, 9. UC Riverside
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
UC IRVINE: The Anteaters played the frontrunner in the conference for most of the season, finishing up 13-3 in league action for their third regular-season title (first since 2002), but after taking care of UC Riverside in the opening round of the conference tournament (63-43), their NCAA Tournament bid was halted with a 61-58 loss to eventual-champion Cal Poly. UCI's efforts still allowed it to earn a berth to the NIT, its second straight postseason appearance. The squad has improved its win total in each of the last three season's under head coach Russell Turner, culminating in a 23-12 mark last season, and it is in great position to continue that trend as it returns four of five starters. It outshot its opponents from the field, 47 percent to 37.4 percent, for a +6.8 scoring margin, with Luke Nelson (11.8 ppg), Will Davis II (11.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Alex Young (8.9 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Mamadou Ndiaye (8.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) all equally responsible for that production. The 7-foot-6 Ndiaye shot greater than 70 percent from the field and is a force on defense with 3.1 blocks per game.
UC SANTA BARBARA: The Gauchos were the conference's most improved team a season ago. After going a mere 11-20 during the 2012-13 campaign, they turned things around to go 21-9 in 2013-14 while finishing in second place in the conference standings at 12-4. However, after getting ousted in the league tournament by eventual champion Cal Poly, 69-38), they went uninvited to any postseason tournament. While the end of last season surely did not go the way UCSB planned, it has positioned itself for a similarly successful run in Bob Williams' 17th season as head coach with the return of four starters and 11 letterwinners to a squad that scored 71.2 ppg. Alan Williams will once again be the key to UCSB's success. Last season's conference player of the year returns for his senior season looking to improve upon gaudy numbers (21.3 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg). Michael Bryson (11.5 ppg, 4.3 ppg) and Zalmico Harmon (7.8 ppg, 5.1 apg) are key role players, and T.J. Taylor (4.8 ppg, 4.1 apg) is back in the mix after sitting out last season. Freshman Gabe Vincent (6-3, 190) and junior college transfer DaJuan Smith (6-3, 175) will battle for an open starting spot in the backcourt.
CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE: The Matadors' 2013-14 season was modest at best, finishing a game below .500 overall (17-18) while placing fifth in the league at 7-9 overall, but they nearly pulled off an improbable run during the upside-down conference tournament. They defeated Hawaii (87-84 in OT) and Long Beach State (82-77) to earn a berth in the championship game but lost out on their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2009 with a 61-59 loss to Cal Poly. Overall, it was a promising showing from the squad under first-year head coach Reggie Theus, and it hopes to keep that momentum going this season with a charge led by two of the league's best. Stephen Maxwell (17.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg), a preseason All-Conference selection, is a nightly double-double threat and shot 54.7 percent from the field, while Stephan Hicks (17.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, .519 field goal percentage) is also expected to build upon an outstanding season. CSUN will have extra help in the frontcourt with Devonte Elliott (6-10, 220) and Kevin Johnson (6-10, 240) - transfers from Nevada and Seton Hall, respectively - regaining their eligibility.
LONG BEACH STATE: No Big West team has been more successful in this decade than the 49ers, who had three first-place finishes from 2011-13 with an NCAA Tournament bid and two NIT appearances in that time frame, but the 2013-14 season was a step backward for the program. Although they were third in the league at 10-6, their overall record (15-17) left much to be desired. The fell to Cal State Northridge in the conference tournament semifinals (82-77) and missed out on postseason play for the first time in four years. LBSU, which scored 69.9 ppg and allowed 70.5 ppg last season, hoped to rebound this time around behind eighth-year head coach Dan Monson and an experience roster led by preseason All-Conference selection Mike Caffey (16.2 ppg, 4.3 apg). Tyler Lamb (15.4 ppg) is also a strong scorer, and he and Caffey combined to drain 86 3-pointers. A.J. Spencer (9.1 ppg), Travis Hammonds (6.5 ppg) and David Samuels (6.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) are all back to fill important roles, and incoming graduate transfer Eric McKnight (6-9, 220), previously a product of Florida Gulf Coast and Iowa State, is expected to see plenty of playing time in the frontcourt.
HAWAII: In their second season as a member of the Big West Conference, the Rainbow Warriors were in the hunt for the league title but lost four of their final six games, including their quarterfinal-round bout with Cal State Northridge (87-84 in OT). It was still a very successful season for Gib Arnold's bunch, which finished 9-7 in the league and won 20 games (20-11) for the first time since the 2003-04 campaign. Building upon that success in 2014-15 will be no easy task, as Hawaii lost a lot of production from three departing starters - Christian Standhardinger (18.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Brandon Spearman (11.3 ppg) and Keith Shamburger (9.3 ppg). The team isn't completely void of talent, however. Isaac Fotu (14.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg) was named to the preseason All-Conference team and shot a lofty 58.4 percent from the field. Garrett Nevels (13.1 ppg) is also back in the fold after an impressive season. Quincy Smith scored just 4.9 ppg last season but will have an opportunity to step up as he's inserted into the starting lineup. Junior college transfer Roderick Bobbitt (6-3, 205) and four incoming freshmen will try to make their mark as newcomers.
UC DAVIS: The Aggies regressed a season ago. In 2012-13, they showed a six- game improvement in the league by going 9-9, but in 2013-14 it went just 9-22 overall and finished in last place in the conference (4-12) for the second time in three seasons. The good news for UCD is it heads into Jim Les' fourth season as head coach is that it'll welcome back four of its top five scorers from a season ago, including two of the league's most potent. Corey Hawkins led the team in scoring (18.0 ppg), rebounding (4.5 rpg) and assists (3.0 apg) and was named to the preseason All-Conference squad. Josh Ritchart only played in nine games but was outstanding when he was on the floor (17.3 ppg, .632 FG percentage, 6.6 rpg), and a full season from him should go a long way in the team's improvement. Georgi Funtarov (8.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Brynton Lamar (7.9 ppg) are also back, and after missing all of last season with an injury, J.T. Adenrele hopes to regain his 2012-13 form (12.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg).
CAL POLY: Last season, the Mustangs were the poster children for getting hot at the right time. They endured a poor regular season, going a mere 10-19 overall while finishing in a tie for seventh place in the conference at 6-10. They came into the conference tournament having lost 10 of 12 but managed to improbably rip off three straight wins over UC Santa Barbara (69-38), UC Irvine (61-58) and Cal State Northridge (61-59) to win the league and claim its first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament, where it was even able to win its first-round matchup with fellow No. 16 seed Texas Southern (81-69). Cal Poly won't sneak up on anybody in Joe Callero's sixth season as head coach, and it'll return just two starters from its championship squad - Dave Nwaba (11.7 ppg) and Brian Bennett (6.1 ppg). The Mustangs, a defensive-minded squad (63.6 ppg) who had trouble putting points up (63.0 ppg), should benefit from the addition of Kyle Toth, who averaged 15.0 ppg at Foothill College last season after previously playing for Army.
CAL STATE FULLERTON: The Titans experienced some growing pains under first- year head coach Dedrique Taylor in 2013-14, finishing in a tie for seventh place in the league (6-10) while going just 11-20 overall and getting bounced from the conference tournament in the first round by Long Beach State, 66-56. Making matters worse for Fullerton is that it will have to move on this season without Michael Williams (17.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg), who was one of the league's best players a season ago. The roster is not completely devoid of talent, however. Alex Harris (15.6 ppg) is back in the fray but will need to improve upon his lackluster field goal percentage (.391) as the go-to scoring option. Role players Steve McClellan (6.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Josh Gentry (7.5 ppg) will see an uptick in usage. A trio of junior college transfers - Kennedy Esume (6-10, 245), Temjae Singleton (6-7, 205) and Malcolm Henderson (6-8, 250) - will give the Titans some much-needed size in the frontcourt.
UC RIVERSIDE: A coaching change couldn't reverse the Highlanders' fortunes in 2013-14. For the fifth straight season, they finished below .500 both overall (10-21) and in the league (5-11), and while they were able to sneak into the Big West Conference Tournament field, they were easily dismissed by No. 1 seed UC Irvine, 63-43. Dennis Cutts' second season at the helm for UCR, which finished in the red in terms of its scoring (-3.1), rebounding (-1.1) and turnover (-0.8) margins, will be without last season's top two scorers Chris Patton (13.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Sam Finley (12.0 ppg). Taylor Johns (12.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.3 bpg) will likely be the focal point this season, and he hopes to continue as one of the league's best big men. Steven Thornton (8.9 ppg) and Nick Gruninger (6.3 ppg) also bring starter's experience. Four freshman will try their luck at cracking the starting lineup, including Swedish import Alex Larsson (6-9, 245).