Last season, the Cal State Northridge men’s basketball team took a 7-7 record into Big West play, but finished the year with a 4-10 run that left the team seventh in the conference. This year, the Matadors again have a .500 nonconference record, but are looking to their nine returning players for the experience needed to avoid repeating their 2005-2006 calamity.

In the offseason, Head Coach Bobby Braswell recruited four junior college transfer students, adding more experience to a team that now boasts 10 upperclassmen.

Of the four recruits, junior guard Jordan Noblitt has had the biggest impact. Noblitt is averaging 16.4 minutes a game off of the bench while contributing an average of 8.5 points per game and 39.2 percent shooting from the field. He also leads the team from beyond the arc, averaging 2.1 three-pointers per game. With such depth coming off their bench, the Matadors (7-7 overall, 1-2 in the Big West) should not flounder late in the season like they did last year.

“We are excited about what [Noblitt] brings to our program,” Braswell said. “He brings a different dimension than what we’ve had the last couple of years. He’s a great shooter who can knock down shots from the deep three. His presence and skill level will help stretch defenses and open up our inside game.”

This is Braswell’s 11th season as head coach of his alma mater and he is highly respected by the entire Northridge program. Braswell has led his team to conference championships a total of four times, and in 2001 the Matadors won both the Big Sky Conference and the Big Sky Tournament. Their championship run led to Braswell being named Big Sky Coach of the Year.

Braswell entered the 2006-2007 season with an overall record of 154-140, despite only having four winning seasons. Traditionally, Braswell’s teams have been far better at home than away, with an 80-33 record at the Matadome and a 51-79 record on the road.

The tradition has continued so far this year as the high-powered Northridge offense is averaging 100.8 points per game at home, but only 62.2 points per game away from the Matadome. Overall, the Matadors’ 79.1 points per game average ranks 22nd in the nation.

This season, the Matador offense is led by junior guard Jonathan Heard and junior forward Calvin Chitwood. Both were All-Big West Honorable Mentions [[ok]] last year and have continued their pace as their leadership roles on the team have increased. Heard leads the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game, and Chitwood is a close second with 13.2. Chitwood leads the team in double-digit games with nine, including eight of the last 11 contests.

“Heard’s their best player, he’s been tough when I’ve had to guard him, and Chitwood is really good too,” UCSB sophomore forward Tom Garlepp said. “They are so good because they have played together so much.”

Heard leads a backcourt that has had to make up for the loss of their point guard Bakari Altheimer as well as last year’s leading scorer, guard Mike Efevberha. Sophomore guard Jason Hill shared time as a true freshman last year with Altheimer and is now controlling the offense full time.

In addition to Heard, the Matador perimeter is beefed up defensively by senior guard Terrell Jones and sophomore guard Rob Haynes, who was named the Matador’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2005-2006.

The Matadors lacked a deep shooting threat last year, but Braswell has corrected the issue with the recruiting of Noblitt, who shot 47 percent from three-point line last season at Feather River College.

The frontcourt, led by Chitwood, sees the return of senior center Thomas Shewmake. Shewmake led Northridge last season with 5.6 rebounds per game and his 32 blocks on the season set a new team record. Junior forward Jayme Miller has returned for a full season after playing only six games last year, and is shooting 52.5 percent from the field.

The Matadors have always played tough nonconference schedules under Braswell, and their .500 preseason record may prove to be deceiving once the Big West begins. They should be a force in the league this year as they attempt to climb back up into the upper half of the standings.

In the most recent Big West conference games, Northridge opened up 2007 play by dropping a very close decision to Fullerton (12-3 overall, 3-1 Big West) at 76-72 on Jan. 4.

The Matadors were able to rebound from that decision four nights later in Riverside, defeating the Highlanders (3-13 overall, 0-4 Big West) 67-60 for their first conference win of 2007. In that game, Jones led all players with 18 points, completing the double-double with 11 rebounds. Heard also notched a double-double of his own with 10 points and rebounds against Riverside — the seventh-straight game in which Heard reached double offensive figures. Shewmake rounded out the top three with eight points and a season-high 12 rebounds.

Northridge’s 1-2 conference record in the young season is good for sixth in the Big West Conference, only a few wins away from first-place Long Beach (11-4 overall, 2-0 Big West) \and second-place Fullerton, the squad that barely defeated Northridge early last week.

“[Northridge] is pretty good,” Garlepp said. “I’d pick them to finish fourth. They’re experienced with each other and because of that I think they will do well.”