Philadelphia, PA – Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The balance of competition in the Big West Conference has been outstanding over the past few seasons, as there has been five different champions in the last six years. The parity is evident yet again in 2013-14, with several legitimate contenders for the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
In 2013, it was Pacific which earned its ninth NCAA Tournament invite after defeating UC Irvine in the conference championship game, but with the Tigers jumping ship for the West Coast Conference this season, a new champion is guaranteed.
UCI has not typically been near the top of the Big West standings, but following an outstanding season and the return of several key components, it finds itself as one of the favorites to win its first conference crown. Long Beach State has won three straight Big West regular-season titles (going 43-7 in conference action during that span) and will once again be a major player.
UC Santa Barbara has fallen pretty far since winning back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011, but it is out to prove that last season's poor showing was the exception rather than the rule. Cal Poly is a quiet killer, improving in four straight seasons, and Hawaii hopes to further acclimate itself to the Big West after a strong showing in its first season.
Also on the upswing is UC Davis, one of the nation's most improved teams a season ago. Cal State Northridge has as much offensive talent as any team in the conference, but that has not translated to the win column.
Cal State Fullerton, once a conference power, has a lot of rebuilding in store after the loss of three of the league's top scorers. The bottom dweller once again is expected to be UC Riverside, which showed little sign of life in 2012-13 with just six victories.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: UC Irvine
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. UC Irvine, 2. Long Beach State, 3. UC Santa Barbara, 4. Cal Poly, 5. Hawaii, 6. UC Davis, 7. Cal State Northridge, 8. Cal State Fullerton, 9. UC Riverside
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
UC IRVINE: At 21-16, the Anteaters finished with the third-most victories in school history last season, and although their Big West Conference Tournament run was derailed in the championship game by Pacific (64-55), they have positioned themselves for perhaps their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid here in 2013-14. In Russell Turner's fourth season as head coach, he will welcome back three starters, including Preseason First Team All-Big West forward Will Davis II (9.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.4 bpg). Alex Young and Chris McNealy bring a similar dynamic to the backcourt, as each averaged 9.2 points per game and drained 30 3-pointers apiece last season. Young is an impressive floor general as well, dishing out 144 assists compared to just 55 turnovers. After sitting out last season, New Mexico transfer Dominique Dunning has a chance to make a splash in the backcourt. Mamadou Ndiaye, a freshman from Senegal who stands a towering 7-foot-6, will certainly be an imposing force.
LONG BEACH STATE: The 49ers have been arguably the best team in the conference over the past several years, having clinched postseason tournament berths four times since 2007, but after winning the regular-season conference title last season (19-14, 14-4 Big West), they were ousted from the conference tournament in the semifinals by UCI (67-60). There's no reason to believe that LBSU will take a major step backward in Dan Monson's seventh season as head coach, especially with the return of First Team All-Big West selection Mike Caffey, who tallied 12.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game to go with 47 steals last season. Dan Jennings (8.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 29 blocks) is one of the most physical forwards in the conference. There is still plenty of scoring the team will need to make up for, with departing players James Ennis, Tony Freeland and Keala King combining for 37.3 ppg in 2012-13. Tyler Lamb, a transfer from UCLA, is expected to be heavily involved.
UC SANTA BARBARA: The Gauchos endured an injury-riddled season in 2012-13, finishing a disappointing 11-20 overall (7-11 Big West), a year removed from qualifying for the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament. Things are looking up for UCSB in Bob Williams' 16th season as head coach, however, thanks to the return of nearly every impact player. Alan Williams (17.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 64 blocks) was named a 2012-13 First Team All-Big West member after becoming the first UCSB player to average a double-double since 1990. Doing damage from the outside should be Kyle Boswell (13.0 ppg), who drained 78 3- pointers as the team's sixth man last year. Michael Bryson (8.4 ppg) also has an impressive touch, and T.J. Taylor (4.8 ppg) is a top-notch distributor (4.1 apg). Keegan Hornbuckle, a former transfer from Colorado, has dealt with injuries over the course of his career but has shown promise when healthy.
CAL POLY: The Mustangs have improved their overall record in all four seasons Joe Callero has been their head coach, culminating in an 18-14 mark last season, which included an outstanding 12-6 record in league play. Of the team's eight returning letterwinners, none are more integral to its success than senior Chris Eversley. The 6-foot-7 forward was named to the All-Big West First Team last season after tallying 15.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, and there's no reason to believe he can't replicate or even surpass those numbers in his final season. Jamal Johnson also returns for his senior campaign, and while he's not much for scoring (4.4 ppg), he handed out 3.8 assists per game and ranked 11th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. Brian Bennett (9.3 ppg) started every game last season as a freshman, and Reese Morgan (5.9 ppg) set a school record by shooting 90 percent from the free-throw line.
HAWAII: The Rainbow Warriors' first season as member of the Big West after coming over from the Western Athletic Conference was a success, the team going 17-15 overall and 10-8 in the league in Gib Arnold's third season as head coach. The club was even selected to the CIT field for the second time in three years. Hawaii will have some replenishing to do with the loss of both Vander Joaquim (13.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Hauns Brereton (10.0 ppg), but there's still plenty of talent in place to remain a legitimate contender. Leading the charge will be First Team All-Big West selection Christian Standhardinger. Not only was he one of the conference's best scorers at 15.8 ppg, but he shot 51 percent from the field, ripped down 7.9 rpg and even logged 45 steals. Isaac Fotu (10.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Brandon Spearman (9.6 ppg) also return to the starting lineup after stellar campaigns, and guard Keith Shamburger will be eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from San Jose State.
UC DAVIS: The Aggies were the Big West's most improved team in 2012-13. After going a dreadful 5-26 (3-13 in conference) in 2011-12, they were a respectable 14-17 last season, which included a 9-9 mark in conference play. UCD hopes that the upward trend continues this season in Jim Les's 12th season as head coach, and that prospect remains a distinct possibility thanks to the return of eight letterwinners. The most important piece of the puzzle is Corey Hawkins, who led the league in scoring last season with 20.3 ppg, while also contributing elsewhere with 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals per contest. Ryan Sypkens (14.1 ppg) and J.T. Adenrele (12.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg) are also back to give the Aggies an impressive core upon which to build around.
CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE: The Matadors disappointed in 2012-13, going 14-17 overall and 5-13 in conference, and after his fourth straight losing campaign, Bobby Braswell was fired and replaced by Reggie Theus, who has head coaching experience both in college (New Mexico State) and the NBA (Sacramento Kings). The good news for Theus is that he retains most of the offensive talent from a season ago. Stephan Hicks led the way with 15.7 points per game and is also a very good rebounding guard (7.0 rpg). Stephen Maxwell (14.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg) does the dirty work in the low post and shoots an outstanding 55.6 percent from the field. Josh Greene (14.5 ppg) is the senior leader of the bunch and mans the perimeter with 3.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game. After redshirting last year per NCAA transfer rules, former Louisiana forward J.J. Thomas (8.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg in 2011-12) is expected to assume a large role in the Northridge frontcourt.
CAL STATE FULLERTON: The Titans first and only season under interim head coach Andy Newman in 2012-13 was not successful, as they went just 14-18 overall, a seven-win decrease from the previous year. After serving as an assistant at Arizona State for seven season, Dedrique Taylor was named Fullerton's next head coach in the offseason, but he has much work to do as not only is he taking over an underachieving team, but he will be without last season's top three scorers in Kwame Vaughn (18.4 ppg), D.J. Seeley (17.9 ppg) and Sammy Yeager (15.8 ppg). With most of the offensive production gone, there are opportunities for someone to emerge. A pair of transfers, Michael Williams (San Francisco) and Steve McClellan (ULM), will have eligibility after sitting out last season, and both were adequate scorers on their previous teams in 2011-12. Of the returning Titans, Jared Brandon (6.9 ppg, .552 FG percentage) is the most polished.
UC RIVERSIDE: The Highlanders were not only the Big West's worst team last season (3-15 league ledger), but they were one of the most futile teams in the nation in going just 6-25 overall. The down season ultimately led to the ouster of coach Jim Wooldridge, who posted just one winning season in six years at the helm. Dennis Cutts is currently acting as the interim head coach for a squad that lacks the talent of many of its league counterparts. Luckily the cupboard isn't completely bare for UCR. Chris Patton (13.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Chris Harriel (10.6 ppg) return as the unit's top scorers, although the latter shot just 35.7 percent from the field in 2012-13. Taylor Johns (6.9 ppg) and Austin Quick (4.1 ppg) are also back after receiving plenty of minutes a season ago.