(SportsNetwork.com) - The 39th annual Big West Conference Tournament will begin on Thursday, March 13 and last through Saturday, March 15 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
UC Irvine won the regular-season title outright for the first time since 2001, going 22-10 overall with a 13-3 record in league play. The Anteaters are trying for their first-ever conference tournament title, and thus their first trip to the Big Dance. UC Santa Barbara (21-8, 12-4) finished in second place, and the title ultimately came down to a Feb. 27 matchup in Irvine, which the Gauchos lost to the Anteaters, 71-60.
Long Beach State, which won three straight regular-season titles from 2011-2013, is just 14-16 overall but finished in third place in conference action at 10-6. Hawaii (20-10) is the only other team above .500 in the league at 9-7 and will act as the No. 4 seed.
Rounding out the tournament field will be Cal State Northridge (No. 5 seed), Cal State Fullerton (6), Cal Poly (7) and UC Riverside (8). UC Davis was the lone team to fail to qualify for postseason action, as it finished up 9-22 overall and a game behind UCR at 4-12 in the conference.
Action will tip off early Thursday afternoon when the UCSB Gauchos take on the Cal Poly Mustangs. Although UCSB failed to earn the regular-season title, it has won five of its last six games, most recently downing Cal Poly last Saturday (71-55), and it has now won 20 or more games in four of the last seven seasons. The Gauchos have impressed on both ends of the court this season, outshooting their opponents from the field, 46.9 percent to 39.9 percent, for a +7.2 scoring margin. Alan Williams is arguably the conference's best player, leading the league in both scoring (21.6 ppg) and rebounding (11.6 ppg) while shooting 53.8 percent from the floor. Michael Bryson (11.2 ppg) and Kyle Boswell (10.7 ppg) are also solid scorers, while Zalmico Harmon (8.1 ppg) hands out 5.2 apg.
As for Cal Poly, it has struggled for most of the campaign at 10-19 overall and 6-10 in league play, and it closed out the regular season with three straight losses. The Mustangs play stellar defense, allowing only 64.7 ppg, but their offensive output (.406 FG percentage, 63.2 ppg) is the league's worst. Chris Eversley (13.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg) is the top performer but shoots less than 40 percent from the field. Dave Nwaba brings 11.7 ppg to the table.
The next opening-round game on the docket will be between the Long Beach State 49ers and the Cal State Fullerton Titans. After acting as the cream of the crop in the conference over the last few seasons, LBSU took a step backwards this year, as it is currently situated under .500 despite its third-place showing in the league. The 49ers are shooting 43 percent from the field for 69.8 ppg, slightly less than what they give up on the other end (.440, 70.6 ppg). Mike Caffey stuffs the stat sheet with 16.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.3 apg and 1.5 spg. Tyler Lamb (15.5 ppg) is a strong second option, while Dan Jennings (10.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.1 bpg) mans the paint.
Fullerton (11-19) ended the season with back-to-back losses, finishing up conference play a mere 6-10, and it'll need to win three games in a row for the first time all season if it wants to capture the tournament crown. The Titans shoot less than 43 percent from the field on the campaign and own negative margins in terms of scoring (-3.8), rebounding (-1.3) and turnovers (-0.6). Michael Williams scores 17.6 ppg on 68-of-189 from 3-point range (.360). Alex Harris brings 15.5 ppg to the table but struggles from the field (.392).
LBSU and Fullerton split the season series, with each team winning on its home floor.
The top and bottom seeds will face off in the third opening-round game when the UC Irvine Anteaters take on the UC Riverside Highlanders. As the class of the Big West, UCI ended the regular season with victories in four straight and nine of 10. Not only did the Anteaters finish in first place in the standings, but they were the most well-rounded team, ranking first in scoring margin (+7.3), shooting 47.4 percent from the field, while holding opponents to a lowly 37.5 percent shooting (third-best in the nation). Although no one scores more than 11.8 ppg, all five starters net at least 8.2 ppg. Will Davis II (10.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and Mamadou Ndiaye (8.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.0 bpg, .714 FG percentage) are an imposing frontcourt duo, and Luke Nelson (11.8 ppg) has drained 67 3-pointers at a 37.6 percent clip.
UCR's season has been nothing to brag about, as it has lost twice as many games as it has won (10-20), while finishing up 5-11 in the Big West, but it snuck into the tournament by winning a battle for last place with UC Davis on March 6 (78-65). The Highlanders unsurprisingly score fewer points per game (69.1 ppg) than they allow (71.7 ppg), with Chris Patton (13.3 ppg), Sam Finley (12.5 ppg) and Taylor Johns (12.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) acting as the top performers.
UCI dismissed UCR twice this season by a combined 38 points.
The final opening round tip will be between the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors and the Cal State Northridge Matadors late Thursday night. Hawaii (20-10) impressed during its second season as a member of the Big West by going 9-7 in the league, and it crossed the 20-win threshold for the first time since the 2003-04 campaign. The Rainbow Warriors have the conference's most explosive offensive attack, shooting 47.3 percent from the field for 79.3 ppg, which has been more than enough to support a lackluster defensive effort (72.8 ppg). Christian Standhardinger is the catalyst, putting up 17.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 1.5 spg. Isaac Fotu (15.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg) has also been outstanding with a .593 field goal percentage, while Garrett Nevels (13.4 ppg), Brandon Spearman (11.1 ppg) and Keith Shamburger (9.0 ppg, 5.4 apg) round out the strong starting lineup.
CSUN, meanwhile, experienced an up-and-down season at 15-17 overall and 7-9 in league play thanks to its large disparity between home (11-3) and road (2-14) success. Much like Hawaii, the Matadors have a stellar offense, scoring 76.9 ppg on 45.6 percent field goal shooting, but they have ultimately been held back by a porous defense (77.8 ppg). Stephen Maxwell (17.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Stephan Hicks (16.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Josh Greene (15.6 ppg) make up one of the nation's top scoring trios.
After CSUN edged Hawaii at home at Jan. 11, 79-78, the Rainbow Warriors evened the season series with a 77-63 triumph in Honolulu on Feb. 1.