Kevin Son / Daily Nexus

Kevin Son / Daily Nexus

A new year means a fresh start for everyone. And in some cases, a fresh start is exactly what some teams need now that conference play has come to the forefront of the action. With championship bragging rights and a NCAA invitation bid on the line, these nine Big West foes will be battling all season in order to prove they are the better team, at least for this year. Whether UC Riverside will repeat as champs, or another squad will dethrone them, one thing is for sure, these conference match-ups will be some of the most intense basketball these teams have faced all season. With that being said the Daily Nexus Sports Staff presents a preview of each Big West squad, enjoy! Note: With the exception of UCSB, who was ranked No. 4, the rest of the teams are ordered from first to last according to the Big West coaches preseason polls.

UC Santa Barbara – Sean White

Now two games into its Big West Conference schedule, currently 6-9 overall and 1-1 in conference play, the UCSB women’s basketball team is hoping to build upon last year’s postseason return.

The Gauchos returned to the Big West Conference Tournament for the first time since 2013 after a 12-20, 8-8 conference finish last season. Winners in four of its last six games, UCSB managed to gain some momentum after going on a three-game winning streak but was unable to sustain its momentum heading into conference play with a 64-60 loss in its final nonconference game to Yale.

Projected to finish seventh in the Big West Preseason Media Poll, the Gauchos are better geared for the conference schedule after an improved nonconference finish in year two with Head Coach Bonnie Henrickson. Santa Barbara improved by one win after a 4-12 nonconference finish during its 2015-16 campaign.

Set to begin a three-game home stand versus UC Riverside this Saturday, UCSB’s home stay at the Thunderdome is a pivotal opportunity for the Gauchos to move up in the conference rankings.

Thus far, the Gauchos allow an average of 60.2 points per game when playing at home. UCSB has crafted one of the toughest defenses in the Big West as it ranks second in points allowed per game (64.0) and third in opponent three-point percentage (28.8).

Although UCSB hasn’t found much consistency offensively, ranking third last in scoring with a PPG average of 60.1, the emergence of sophomore guard Coco Miller has been significant in the team’s performance.

Miller leads the Gauchos in scoring at 11.3 PPG. She has already tied her previous season-high mark of two 20-plus point games after recording a career-high 24 points versus Pepperdine and 23 points on the road at Cal Poly.

The addition of redshirt junior forward Drew Edelman has provided the Gauchos with a post presence, a feature that had been missing on both ends of the court.

Edelman’s 53.4 field goal percentage ranks third in the Big West. She has tallied three double-doubles thus far and recorded a career-high 20 points in the Gauchos’ victory over NAU earlier in the season.

UCSB will face UC Riverside this Saturday, Jan. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Thunderdome.

Long Beach State – Ryan Burns 

The Cal State Long Beach women’s basketball team has enjoyed an impressive start to their season at 10-6 overall, 1-0 Big West, including a pair of wins over LMU and Nevada, proving themselves as an early contender for the Big West Crown. The Niners have also been tested against the nation’s very top teams including Duke and Florida, gaining valuable experience on the biggest stage.

The team is led by senior forward Madison Montgomery who leads the team with 11.4 ppg on .456 shooting percentage, also a team high. The forward has shown marked improvement since last season when she finished the year with 8.6 points a game on .376 shooting. Behind Montgomery stand senior guard Raven Benton (10.2 ppg) and senior guard/forward Jewelyn Sawyer, the team’s leading rebounder with 6.9 boards per game.

The trio of seniors link up to form a strong core of a team with high ambitions, hoping to leave with titles to show for their 49ers careers following last year’s 24-9 finish (12-4 BWC). Coming off a loss to Hawaii in the conference tournament and Oregon in the WNIT, leaving them with a bit of revenge to seek as Big West play tips off.

UC Davis – Jorge Mercado

No doubt, one of the biggest threats in the Big West women’s conference this season is the UC Davis squad, which was expected to finish in second place behind LBSU in the Big West standings at season’s end.

The Aggies have put together a solid year thus far, boasting an 11-4 overall record and a 2-0 start in conference play after blowout wins against UC Irvine and Hawaii. They are also currently winners of five of their last six games.

Although UC Davis only has five upperclassmen on the roster, the team is not short on talent. One example of this is redshirt sophomore Morgan Bertsch, who is following up an excellent rookie campaign with an even better second year as she is leading the Big West in points per game with 17.5. She also leads her squad in rebounding with 5.6 boards per game.

This year, the Aggies have been great on the offensive end as a team outscoring their opponents by over 100 points at 1097-969. They currently lead the Big West in points per game with 73.1 and currently hold the best assists per game as well at 17.1.

UC Davis will face off against Long Beach State in what could be the game that decides the Big West winner on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m.

UC Riverside – Andrew Hernandez

Coming off of a disappointing early playoff exit in the 2016 Big West Conference tournament, the UC Riverside Highlanders look to repeat as Big West Conference regular season champions despite losing two-time Big West Player of the Year Brittany Crain.

The Highlanders won their home Big West opener and are currently 1-0 in conference play, looking to leave behind a 7-7 record in nonconference play. The Highlanders’ win increased their regular season game winning streak — which dates back to last season — to 17.

The Highlanders have been depending on seniors Réjane Vérin and Simone DeCoud, who were on the 2016 Big West Conference First and Second Teams, respectively, to lead their offense.

“Vérin and DeCoud are the engines that drives our team’s success,” Head Coach John Margaritis said. “We need them to produce with consistency for us to be successful and to allow our role players to fill in and contribute.”

Vèrin, the team’s starting forward, scored 21 points, hauled in 10 rebounds and had seven assists in the Highlanders’ last game. The talented senior is currently leading the team in the blocks, points, assists and rebounds per game categories. Senior guard DeCoud is right behind Vérin as she is second in those same categories.

UCR continues its road to Big West dominance when it faces Cal Poly in its second conference game of the season tonight at 5 p.m.

Hawaii – Elliot Thornton

Capturing its seventh NCAA Tournament bid and first Big West Championship title since 1996 last season, the University of Hawaii has big shoes to fill following the departure of its five seniors and a 21-11 finish.

Projected to land in the middle of the pack, selected to finish in fifth place in the preseason coaches’ poll, Head Coach Laura Beeman is mindful of the time it takes young teams like hers to develop and replicate a winning culture.

“We’ve put last year behind us,” Beeman said. “We’re a totally different team now with new players looking to establish their own identity. We want to formulate our own traditions and use that as a springboard for this season and the next.”

The Rainbow Wahine sit at 4-10 on the year and 0-2 in conference play following a 68-57 loss to league favorite Long Beach State last Thursday.

With a team that featured three All-Big West selections last year including Big West All-Tournament MVP Ashleigh Karaitiana, the pressure is on for upperclassmen junior guard Sarah Toeaina and senior point guard Briana Harris. Toeaina has emerged as an offensive catalyst for the Rainbow Wahine averaging 11.8 ppg. Hawaii will face Fullerton this Thursday at 7 p.m. HT.

Cal State Northridge – Liam Bailey

Since winning back-to-back Big West tournament titles in 2014 and 2015, Cal State Northridge’s reign at the top of the conference has gradually diminished. The loss of talent after winning its pair of conference titles is what influenced CSUN’s downward spiral last season.

After a fairly dreadful 2015-16 season in which the Matadors finished 7-24 and 5-11 in conference play, this season has certainly been an improvement for a young team featuring only one senior.

Sitting at 8-8, 1-1 in the Big West, the Matadors are up showing many naysayers by being at the .500 mark. Despite not being consistent enough to achieve a winning streak beyond two games, Northridge has still played strong following its losses. Only twice this season has the team lost consecutive games.

The beginning of the Mustangs’ Big West slate saw them handle Cal State Fullerton 58-41, before falling to Cal Poly 79-68. Sophomore center Channon Fluker has paced her team in points, scoring 15.3 per game on 49.3 percent shooting in just over 24 minutes per contest. She also averages a double-double, raking in a conference leading 11.1 rebounds a game, which also ranks as the most on her team by a sizable margin.

Fluker’s post game is accompanied by redshirt junior guard Serafina Maulupe’s perimeter shooting ability, as her 39 three-pointers made leads for the team and contributed to her average of 11.5 points per contest.Maulupe is the team’s second-highest scorer and only other Matador scoring in double figures besides Fluker.

Maulupe is the team’s second-highest scorer and only other Matador scoring in double figures besides Fluker.

Despite several impressive performances on the year, including losing to Michigan State (12-4) by only four points, two-time Big West Coach of the Year Jason Flowers, and the Matadors seem to have a viable chance to return to their winning ways in 2017.

Cal Poly – Richard Benites

Cal Poly women’s basketball may not have begun their 2016-2017 season the way they wanted to, but they are now currently tied with UC Davis for first place in the Big West Conference standings.

After Saturday’s 79-68 win over the visiting CSUN Matadors, Cal Poly is off to an impressive 2-0 start in Conference play. This turnaround mentality is exactly what the Mustangs were looking for as they exited the preseason at a meager 4-8.

“Our pre-season had quite a few challenges. I would have hoped that we would have learned at a quicker pace considering that we had so many returners,” Head Coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “The good news is that we have been learning and improving.”

The improvements are evident as three different players have found themselves in the top 5 of the Big West’s Individual Offense Leaders category.

Junior guard Dynn Leaupepe places fifth overall points per game for the Big West (14.9), just as her sister, junior guard Lynn Leaupepe, is second overall in Rebounds per Game (8.1). Coach Mimnaugh is impressed with the initiative these twins convey and how their talent complements the skills of fellow teammates.

The third offensive leader is senior forward Hannah Gilbert, who is also praised for her defensive ability. Coach Mimnaugh also believes that Gilbert’s performance so far should warrant her consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

Overall, the Mustangs current showing promotes the notion that the team is headed in the right direction whilst being led by a splendid coaching staff.

“We have an unselfish, hard-working group who have bought into the roles they play … a great sign for continuing to strengthen chemistry and teamwork,” Mimnaugh said.

This week, Cal Poly will look to extend their undefeated streak on Thursday, Jan. 12, on the road against UC Riverside at 5 p.m.

UC Irvine – Spencer Ault

It was only three years ago that the UC Irvine women’s basketball team picked to finish eighth in the Big West preseason poll, surprised everyone by going 9-7 in conference play and managing to pick up a postseason victory in an overtime game against UC Davis in the Big West Tournament.

Picked again to finish eighth this year, that recent history suggests it would be foolish to assume that the Anteaters will meekly fall into their predicted position.

Early returns indicate that if UC Irvine does indeed defy this year’s preseason predictions, it might be in the opposite direction of what they did in 2013-14. The Anteaters entered conference play sporting a conference-worst 2-12 record and two ugly losses to UC Davis by a score of 89-48 and UC Riverside 76-58 haven’t helped matters.

If Irvine stands a chance of turning things around and emulating that 2013-14 season, it will be on the strength of senior Shereen Sutherland, junior Sabrina Engelstad and sophomore Andee Ritter who are all averaging double digits in points per game.

Sutherland, a 6’2” forward, is averaging a team-high 6.9 rebounds per game, while Engelstad leads the squad in blocks. Rounding out the trio, Ritter has come up with a team-leading 2.3 steals per game.

These three players will be the key to a massive turnaround for first-year Head Coach Tamara Inoue’s team. The Anteaters have not helped themselves much so far this year, but UC Irvine of all teams should know that it’s still possible to defy expectations.

Cal State Fullerton – Quinn Moslander

After a tough 2015-16 season, the Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball team has entered conference play with a two-game losing streak but looks to improve as the season progresses. So far, they sit at a 3-12 record, similar to their overall record of 3-27 last year.

Despite recent losses, the team has increased their average points scored per game from 55.8 to 60.7 and improved their field goal percentage from 35.5 to 37.9 since last year.

The Titans’ top scorers — senior guard Iman Lathan, junior center Daeja Smith, and senior guard Jordan Jackson — lead their team despite having not played last season. Grabbing a combined score of 38 points in their most recent conference game against the Gauchos, they also have the most playing time alongside sophomore guard Jade Vega and senior guard China Henderson.

With only three wins under their belt this season, the Cal State Fullerton Titans have room to improve their record and play on the court. Their next game will be at the University of Hawaii on Thursday, Jan. 12.

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