Full of resolutions and new beginnings, the New Year can be considered a reset button for many. However, in the world of college basketball, the New Year signals the beginning of conference play and brings us closer to the beginning of March Madness, whcih is set to start on March 15, 2016. But, before we can get to the Big Dance, we must enjoy the intense play that awaits within the conference schedule. With Big West play tipping-off on Wednesday, the Daily Nexus Sports staff decided to create a preview for each team in the conference, analyzing their chances in the 2015-16 season:
UC Santa Barbara- Michael Jorgenson
It’s been nearly 10 months since the UCSB men’s basketball team’s heartbreaking loss to UC Irvine in the Big West Tournament Semifinals, but the long wait to redemption is finally over. The Gauchos, who were predicted to finish second in the Big West this season behind only UC Irvine, open up conference play this Saturday at Hawaii, winners of four straight and looking to put their early season struggles even further behind them.
“I’m excited for us to play. We’re finally hitting the ground running right now coming back from break,” senior guard Michael Bryson said. “We’ve done what we needed to do these past games. As long as we stay with the process we’ll be fine. I’m excited to see what these younger guys can do and who’s going to step up come conference time.”
Santa Barbara is coming off a successful 2014-15 campaign in which it went 19-14 overall and finished tied for the second-best conference record at 11-5. At the helm is 18-year Head Coach Bob Williams, a three-time Big West Coach of the Year who has led the Gauchos to three Big West Tournament titles and is currently the longest tenured coach on the west coast.
After losing the program’s focal point from the past three seasons in center “Big Al” Alan Williams — UCSB’s all-time leading rebounder and second all-time leading scorer — Santa Barbara has adapted and changed its look with a faster-paced attack and guard-heavy lineup led by Bryson, their sole representative on the All-Conference Preseason Team.
The Gauchos got off to just a 2-7 start to the season, but have bounced back to take their last four by an average of 22 points per game and currently sit at 6-7. They shouldn’t feel too uncomfortable opening up Big West play with road games at Hawaii and Cal Poly as they have played 10 of their 13 games this season away from home.
“The key was just keeping our head up. After losing a couple games in a row, we wanted to just switch it up — play a little faster and see what we can do — and it’s working well for us,” junior point guard Eric Childress said. “We’re pressuring the ball up a little harder and getting out and running the floor. Right now it’s 0-0 and from this point on we’ve just got to worry about conference and trying to get to the tournament.”
Taking over as the team’s top offensive option in his fourth and final year at UCSB, Bryson, who was named First Team All-Big West in 2014-15, has not disappointed. The 6’4” guard out of Sacramento, CA is coming off the third Big West Player of the Week Award of his career after leading the Gauchos to a perfect 3-0 record heading into the New Year.
Last Monday, Bryson led the way with 17 points and five boards to help give Santa Barbara an 83-78 win over Washington and its first road win over a Pac-12 team since 2003. Just two days later at Seattle, Bryson was scorching hot from deep, tying a school record by knocking down nine three-pointers. With an impressive 36 points and 13 rebounds, both of which were career-highs, he also recorded his third career double-double.
“[Michael’s] been getting better and better. He’s been getting more physical, a lot more vocal, trying to get to the rim more often and get fouled,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “He had a huge game at Seattle and played well at Washington. He is our guy.”
Backing up Bryson in the backcourt are point guards Gabe Vincent and Eric Childress. After getting off to a slow start this season, Vincent, last year’s Big West Freshman of the Year, has found his shot of late, knocking down 10-22 (45.5 percent) of his threes over the past four games. He is the team’s second-highest scorer, averaging 12.3 ppg while leading the team with 1.2 steals a night.
Alongside him this season has been Childress, a player who doesn’t need to score in order to impact a game. A perfect example of this was when his only basket in a game at Nebraska-Omaha was a game-winning tip-in to give the Gauchos their second victory back in November.
After two years of coming off the bench, the third-year guard has started every game this season, doing all the little things on both sides of the floor. He has five or more assists in UCSB’s last three games, leads the team in both assists per game (3.8) and assist-turnover ratio (2.4) and has knocked down nine of his last 12 three-point attempts, shooting a team-best 52.9 percent from deep.
Unfortunately for UCSB, a knee injury to forward John Green last month will keep him out potentially until early February. The fifth-year senior has battled injuries for much of his collegiate career but was finally able to stay healthy last season on his way to being named Honorable Mention All-Big West. He is the team’s third-leading scorer at 11.7 ppg and second-leading rebounder with 5.7 rpg, but has struggled with his shot this season, making just 20.7 percent from deep and 35 percent overall.
In Green’s absence, forward Maxwell Kupchak has started the last five games, showing good signs of maturation in his freshman year with averages of 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists in his last two outings.
6’10” centers senior Sam Beeler and sophomore Alex Hart along with senior forward Mitch Brewe round out the UCSB frontcourt. Beeler has been extremely efficient inside, leading the Big West with a 72.2 shooting percentage, and is coming off a perfect 7-7 shooting night against Point Loma in which he scored a career-high 14 points. Hart is second on the team at 51.2 percent shooting.
Brewe has continued to play tough inside, as he has his whole career, chipping in with a solid 8.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game through the last four.
Finally, senior guard DaJuan Smith has come alive in recent games, going 8/12 from the field in the last three games after making just four shots in his first 10 appearances this year.
Perhaps the Gauchos’ biggest weakness this year has been their inability to get to the free throw line. Although they rank second in conference, knocking down 71.4 percent of their attempts, they are in last place with just 199 attempts. That mark puts them 49 attempts behind eighth ranked Cal Poly and 136 behind top-ranked CSUN.
“Just our aggressiveness,” Bryson said when asked what the team needs to improve on most. “We’re still not getting to the line as much as we need to, we’re still fouling too much, not playing defense with our hands, not getting in help position. That’s going to be a constant process all the way to the end of the season. Hopefully we can be at our full stride when it comes to March.”
The early-season shooting struggles which plagued the Gauchos seem to be behind them for now, but coach Williams believes they still have some key things to work on if they are going to shine and make a run for the title this conference season.
“Mentally we’ve got to just continue to grow and get tougher,” Williams said. “I still think we have a long way to go. First you’ve got to understand your role, then you’ve got to accept your role and excel in it. I don’t think we’re excelling in our roles yet and I think that’s the next phase for us.”
The path to glory begins this Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Stan Sheriff Center in Hawaii.
UC Irvine- Sean White
It was a historic season for the UC Irvine men’s basketball team last year. The reigning Big West Champions concluded the season 21-13 overall, 11-5 in conference play to earn their first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 67-58 win over Hawai’i in the conference tournament championship. The 13th-seeded Anteaters nearly upset fourth-seeded Louisville in the Second Round but were defeated 55-57.
For the third consecutive season, Irvine was selected to win the conference title in the Big West men’s basketball preseason poll. The Anteaters are 11-5 overall, earning their most notable wins in the Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational as champions of the tournament. Although UCI has achieved a better mark than its 7-7 non-conference finish last season, the Anteaters fell short against credible opponents such as Oregon, Saint Mary’s, Evansville and No. 1 Kansas.
“We haven’t beaten the teams that are better than we are,” Head Coach Russell Turner said. “I’m surprised that we didn’t rise up and beat a couple of them, but we do have 11 wins against an incredibly tough schedule.”
Three starters from last year’s team returned for the current season. Senior guard Alex Young, junior guard Luke Nelson and junior center Mamadou Ndiaye can all be accredited for the Anteaters’ progression.
Tied for college basketball’s tallest player in the nation, Ndiaye is UCI’s mismatch for opponents in the paint with his seven-foot-six inch stature. He leads the Anteaters in scoring and rebounding with averages of 12.1 ppg and 7.3 rebounds per game. Nonetheless, Ndiaye is UC Irvine’s top shot blocker with a total of 43, ranking sixth in the country. He also ranks 17th in the nation in both blocks per game (2.69), field goal percentage (66.4) and has been named Big West men’s basketball player of the week once this season after a double-double performance of 17 points and a tied career-high of 14 rebounds along with four blocks against Utah State.
Complementing Ndiaye is the experienced backcourt of Young and Nelson. Young recently made history by becoming UCI’s all-time leader in career assists with a current total of 479. While Nelson is shooting 27.4 percent from beyond the arc, he ranks eighth in career three-point field goals made in program history with 150.
Irvine is well deserving of its third-straight first-place prediction, but must try to reestablish the same execution on defense in pursuit of a top finish. The Anteaters ranked third in the nation last season in opponent field goal percentage, holding teams to a 37.4 shooting percentage and ranked 38th in the country in scoring defense allowing just 63.7 ppg.
“We’ve built our program around being a defensive team,” Turner said. “We feel like our defense displays and reflects our togetherness, toughness and determination. That’s what worked for us in the tournament last year and enabled us to win the regular season the year before.”
The quest to repeat begins on Thursday, Jan. 7th as the Anteaters will host UC Davis at 7:00 p.m. in the Bren Events Center.
Hawaii- Daniel Moebus-Bowles
Under new leadership in Head Coach Eran Ganot, the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team played with an unmatched vengeance in its nonconference portion of the season to put it atop the Big West rankings. Entering the conference schedule, the Rainbow Warriors hold an outstanding record of 11-2, with one of their losses coming by only three points to the then No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners, who now sit at No. 2.
Ganot, a former assistant coach and director of the Rainbow Warrior program, returned to Hawaii this season just in time to aid a program that has experienced adversity in the previous few months. Due to a violation of NCAA regulations in regards to student-athletes, the ‘Bows were forced to vacate all wins from the past two seasons, lose scholarships, and will be banned from postseason play in the next few seasons.
The team’s former head coach was let go following the implementation of these sanctions, and Ganot was chosen to lead this program in need. Considering the winning record and the strong performances from his team so far, Ganot was clearly the perfect candidate for the job.
“Coach Ganot is a very experienced and intelligent coach, not just with the way he plays the game, but also in the way he gets the team to play,” Assistant Coach Adam Jacobsen said. “He has been in our program before and having him back now has truly benefitted our team.”
The Rainbow Warriors have been led by a three-headed monster in scoring, rebounds and assists to this point in the season. Junior guard Aaron Valdes, junior center Stefan Jankovic and senior guard Roderick Bobbitt top the team in points as the only three averaging double figures. Of the three, the senior leader Bobbitt, has truly been the most outstanding, averaging 14 points, 5.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game while shooting 46.4 percent from the field.
Bobbitt has been a true standout on this successful team with his ability to not only score, but also distribute the ball and run the team from the guard position, making a versatile player that is a handful to defend. Bobbitt will surely be the player to watch as he rides an impressive hot streak into conference play. The senior has scored a minimum of 30 points in three of the team’s last four games and even played all 40 minutes in two of those matches.
“If I had to describe Roderick Bobbitt in one word, I would call him a competitor,” Coach Jacobsen explained. “Along with being able to score and being a great passer, rebounder and defender, [Bobbitt] also is a huge presence on the court and he allows us to compete with top-ranked teams and players.”
The Rainbow Warriors will remain at Stan Sheriff Center for its next conference game versus UCSB on Saturday, Jan. 9 at 7:00 p.m.
Long Beach State- Elliot Thornton
With the departure of all five starters from last season, Head Coach Dan Monson has rebuilt his Long Beach State team around a core group of incoming transfers and young talent.
“We are going to have to find our identity this year,” Monson said. “Mike [Caffey] and David [Samuels] were our leaders last year, but I’m excited to see where these new guys bring us this year.”
While Monson’s new lineup propelled the 49ers to a 3-0 start this year with wins over BYU and Seton Hall, tough losses against powerhouse teams like No. 5 Virginia, No. 8 Arizona and No. 15 Duke have pinned the Beach with a record of 6-9.
Although it hasn’t been the smoothest opening, there are some positives to take out of these rough matches. Maryland transfer Nick Faust and junior forward Travis Hammonds have emerged as the central weapons in Monson’s spread offense.
After three years at Maryland and sitting out the entire 2014-15 season, senior Nick Faust has taken the reigns as the leader of the Beach. A combo guard with a 6’6” frame, Faust will arguably be one of the main threats in the Big West this year due to his upside and range.
Averaging 15.7 points per game, fourth best in conference, the former Terrapin has proven his scoring ability, finishing in double-figures 47 times under Maryland Head Coach Mark Turgeon. This year, Faust leads the 49ers in scoring in nine out of their 15 nonconference matches.
Down on the block, forward Hammonds has improved his points per game average from 6.4 to 10.7 this year. The 6’6” combo forward had a career-night on Dec. 18 leading his team with 27 points and seven boards against Oregon.
Lastly, coach Monson holds one more secret ingredient in freshman guard Noah Blackwell. The No. 25 California prospect by ESPN is averaging 19.5 minutes and 7.2 points per game and carried his 49ers in a hostile Cameron Indoor Stadium, going 7-12 from the floor for 19 points against Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke Blue Devils.
The Beach opens up Big West play with a road game against Cal State Northridge on Jan. 6.
UC Riverside- Jorge Mercado
UC Riverside looks like a team much improved this season, boasting a 9-7 record to this point. Despite the good start, the preseason media poll predicts that the Highlanders will finish fifth in the conference.
“Our conference is very good,” Head Coach Dennis Cutts said. “We had some success last year and we just want to build on that with the returning players we have.”
Although they are predicted to finish with an average standing in the Big West, UCR may have the necessary pieces to possibly go deep in conference play and the tournament.
The team is led by two preseason All-Conference players in senior guard Jaylen Bland and junior forward Taylor Johns. Johns is coming off a spectacular season in which he was top three in the conference in both scoring and rebounding as well as named All-Big West First Team.
Bland is also coming off a great year in which he was named Big West Newcomer of the Year and led the conference in three-point shots made with 95. The senior guard is off to a hot start this year, averaging 16.3 points per contest, ranking first on his team and tying for second best in the conference.
“They are great players — they can do it all,” Cutts said. “It’s nice to have two proven players lead our team.”
The team as a whole has been great from behind the three-point line, shooting 37 percent, which is currently fourth best in the conference. They also do a solid job of rebounding, averaging 37 per game — again good for fourth best in the conference.
However, the biggest reason for the Highlanders’ success is their play of the defensive side of the ball. They hold opponents to a 28 percent shooting average from beyond the arc — best in the conference — and a 39 percent shooting average from the field, thirdbest in the Big West.
“Right now we are confident,” Cutts said. “We are playing good basketball but we know we can improve. We are expecting a battle against Fullerton to start conference play.”
UC Riverside tips off conference play at the UCR Recreation Center against CSUF tonight at 7 p.m. The game will be streamed live on ESPN3.
Cal Poly- Antonia Bird
While sustaining the legacy of becoming the first seventh-seeded team to win the Big West Conference Championship back in 2014, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team is anxious to enter conference play in hopes of making its second appearance ever in the NCAA Tournament.
Cal Poly currently stands at 5-7 overall, a respectable record for the Mustangs considering they faced powerhouse teams such as UCLA, USC and No. 21 Texas A&M in their preseason.
One of Cal Poly’s multiple offensive threats is 6’4” senior guard David Nwaba. Averaging 11.6 points per game in nonconference play, Nwaba has been one of the top two scorers for Cal Poly in each of his last three seasons. He is also the Mustangs’ leading rebounder with 5.6 boards per game, ranking fourth among Big West players.
Senior forward Joel Awich also adds to the team’s offense with his presence down low as he entered the Mustangs’ last nonconference matchup against Texas A&M on Tuesday, scoring a team best 11.7 points per game. In addition, he is ranked 12th among Big West players in rebounding with 5.4 per game. Awich is also a solid defensive player and is currently Cal Poly’s third leading all-time shot blocker with a career total of 95.
Altogether, Cal Poly averages 76.6 points per game, the second-highest in the conference. The Mustangs have already scored 80-plus points three times this season, a remarkable change from last year when they didn’t reach 80 points in any game. In the last nine years, this is only the second time they have averaged more than 70 points per game.
Cal Poly has committed the least amount of turnovers per game since the beginning of the 2012-13 season, averaging just 9.21 turnovers over 107 games. It will take an aggressive defensive effort to force the Mustangs into making offensive mistakes.
Cal Poly’s next game will be its conference home opener versus UCSB on Jan. 14 for a Blue-Green rivalry game that will take place at 7 p.m.
Cal State Northridge- Ryan Burns
As the CSU Northridge men’s basketball team enters the new year, coming off of a 5-9 preseason featuring some tough games against perennial giants USC and UCLA, the Matadors are aiming to compete with the top teams in the Big West.
They are led by former Sacramento Kings coach and two-time NBA All-Star Reggie Theus, who is entering his third season as the Northridge coach. He has led the squad to two Big West Tournament appearances, including a trip to the final in the 2013-14 season, and will be looking to do the same this year.
“We obviously want to grow as a program and win as many games as possible,” Theus said. “We have a young team with six freshmen, so we’re developing our young players so the program will be strong for years to come.”
The younger players will eventually have to fill the hole left by seniors Stephan Hicks and Stephen Maxwell. Last year, Hicks was named to the Big West All-Conference Second Team and finished his career at CSUN with 1,973 points, good for eighth on the conference’s all-time scoring charts. Maxwell was an honorable mention for the All-Conference team.
Theus is sure his current roster can make up for the loss with a deep backcourt, featuring junior guard Aaron Parks, who is returning after a big end to last season, including a 21 point outburst in the first round of the Big West Tournament in the 71-67 loss to UC Davis.
“We have a really solid guard trio with [Parks, Kendall Smith, Michael Warren], and we’re expecting these guys to have great seasons for us,” Theus said.
Smith and Parks are the two leading scorers for Northridge thus far this year, averaging 17.0 and 15.0 points per game, respectively. Smith also brought home the Big West Player of the Week in his first two games for the Matadors after taking a year off of basketball following his transfer from UNLV.
With conference play starting up Jan. 6 against Long Beach, the Matador coaching staff is preparing its players to peak later in Big West play when the postseason approaches.
“There are a lot of things we need to fine-tune and tweak, but you need to be playing your best basketball in February,” Theus said. “Going into the end of the season we’ll be playing our best basketball. That’s the goal.”
After an eighth place finish last year, with Smith and Parks being one of the stronger backcourts in the Big West, that can be enough to lead the Matador charge up the Big West standings.
UC Davis- Sinead Leon
After a historic 2014-2015 season, the reigning Big West Conference regular season champion UC Davis men’s basketball team is looking to repeat its success from last year.
With a perfect 14-0 home record, the Aggies finished with the best record in conference play for the first time in school history. They also went on to claim the No. 2 spot for most overall victories in school history with 25 in total.
However, this season has not looked too great so far for the Aggies, who are ranked second to last with a 5-8 overall record in non-conference games and tied to finish seventh according to this year’s preseason media poll.
The beauty of the game is that things can turn around at any time, and what better time than a clean slate heading into Big West play.
UC Davis will count on senior forward Josh Fox, a returning veteran from last year’s successful squad, to be a key asset not only with his play on the court, but also as a leader. Fox was named Big West Conference Sixth Man of the Year, along with All-Big West
Honorable Mention. His preseason performance has only shown why he deserved such awards as he opened up the season with double-doubles against North Dakota State and has continued to lead the charts in several games.
Other players to keep an eye out for are junior center Neal Monson and freshman Siler Schneider. Monson had nine rebounds in his first reserve appearance against Seattle, and with an average of 8.8, he is now ranked No. 2 in the Big West in rebounds per game.
While Schneider has had three double-digit scoring games out of his last four appearances.
Head Coach Jim Les has expressed how excited he is for the new players this season, as he considers it to be one of the most talented recruiting classes in years.
Although they could be considered the underdogs looking at their record so far, the Aggies should not be underestimated as they have rebounded from being the last place team one season to being regular season champs the following year.
Cal State Fullerton- Xavier Cardenas
With preseason play now in the books, the Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball team looks ahead to its conference season opener tonight against UC Riverside. With the help of key veteran guard play from redshirt junior Tre’ Coggins, the Titans hope to surpass their projected ninth place finish in the Big West Conference.
This veteran roster brings in the fourth best overall record coming into conference play at 7-6 with key victories against University of Pacific, Nevada and Cal State East Bay.
Currently, the Titans are shooting 42.3 percent from the field along with a 37.2 percent mark from outside the arc, good for ninth and third in the conference, respectively. They are also second in rebounds, averaging 38.3 rpg, and are 4th in ppg at 73.5. The efforts of a determined Fullerton team have been reflected in the production of Coggins. The junior is averaging 16.3 ppg shooting at a 40.8 percent clip while picking up 1.8 assists per game. However, his scoring ability has placed him as the fourth highest scorer in the Big West this season.
Last year, the Titans wrapped up the season at 9-22 overall, but finished just 1-15 in conference play. Yet, if the preseason progression of this mixture of young and experienced roster is any indication of what to expect, then Cal State Fullerton can have a good run in conference play, as it is currently outperforming other Big West teams statistically.
Cal State Fullerton travels to Riverside to tip off against the Highlanders tonight at 8 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN3.
*All statistics accurate as of 1/6/16
A version of this article appeared on page 9, 10, and 11 of January 7, 2016’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.