While six teams remain in the Big West Tournament, the hunt for the conference title has realistically been a four-team race for some time now. Top-seeded Long Beach State, second-seed Cal Poly, third-seed Cal State Fullerton and fourth-seed UCSB separated themselves from the pack during the regular season, and, barring a major upset, one of those four teams will earn the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. With the second round of the Big West Tournament tipping off tonight, here’s a look at why each of the top four teams can win it all, and why they might not:
Long Beach State (22-7 overall, 12-2 in the Big West)
Why They Can Win: The 49ers enter the tourney as heavy favorites, having won their final eight conference games behind Player of the Year Aaron Nixon. The senior guard leads a sharp-shooting attack that outscored Big West opponents by 10.9 points per game. Nixon and fellow senior guard Kejuan Johnson combined for 38 points per game in league games, and unless one of them struggles, the senior laden 49ers will probably be preparing for the Big Dance by this time of next week.
Why They Won’t: Truthfully, they’ll be extremely tough to beat, but UCSB and Cal Poly have both come close in recent weeks. If a team can keep the game close and keep the ball out of Nixon’s clutch hands in the final seconds, the 49ers may just be ripe for an upset.
Cal Poly (18-10 overall, 9-5 in the Big West)
Why They Can Win: The Mustangs are the hottest team around, having won seven straight. With strength on the inside and stellar three-point shooters on the wings, Cal Poly is capable of playing in any kind of game. The Mustangs also have a deep lineup that will help them deal with the tournament’s compacted schedule.
Why They Won’t: Senior Derek Stockalper is a great all-around player, but the Mustangs don’t have a true go-to scorer to compete with the likes of Nixon, UCSB’s Alex Harris, or Cal State Fullerton’s Bobby Brown. In a close game, who’s going to make a game winning shot for these guys?
Cal State Fullerton (19-9 overall, 9-5 in the Big West)
Why They Can Win: Bobby Brown, Bobby Brown, Bobby Brown. The Titans have the best player in the conference, and a couple of unbelievable performances from Brown would go a long way toward improving his NBA draft stock. The senior guard scored 28 points five times this season — including a 47-point performance — so the Titans definitely have a star that can carry them all the way. Throw in junior forward Scott Cutley, and Fullerton has the Mid-Major version of DWade and Shaq.
Why They Won’t: The Titans lost four out of five games to finish the season, including an embarrassing loss at UC Davis in the season finale. Tournament games tend to be close, and close games tend to be decided by free throws; which isn’t a good sign for a Fullerton team that is shooting a conference worst 64.8 percent at the charity stripe.
UCSB (18-10 overall, 9-5 in the Big West)
Why They Can Win: With seniors Cecil Brown and Glenn Turner finally returning to form, the Gauchos might have the best starting lineup in the Big West. If defense does indeed win championships, then UCSB’s conference leading defense should be in pretty good shape. Plus it never hurts to have the countries 12th best scorer (Harris) on your side.
Why They Won’t: UCSB struggled against the upper tier of the conference, going 1-5 against the 49ers, Mustangs and Titans. If the Gauchos make it all the way to Saturday’s championship game, they’ll need to expand their recent eight-man rotation. Coach Bob Williams will need to dust off his backups if this team wants any chance at winning three games in three nights.