UC Riverside (19-10 overall, 12-2 in the Big West)
Why they can win: The Highlanders have been the class of the Big West the entire season. The key to Riverside’s success has been a crushing defense; they only allow opponents 59 points per game, which leads the league by a wide margin. However, their offense is sixth in the league in total output. Led by junior guard Kemie Nkele, who is tied for third in the Big West with 16 points per game, UCR is only putting up 61.4 points per outing. With the team leading almost every defensive stat, Riverside is going to force coaches to find new strategies for scoring.
Why they won’t: It only happened twice, but Big West teams have been able to beat UCR. The only way to beat the team is to score; Nkele is the Highlanders’ only scorer averaging in double digits, and if their opponents force them to speed up the game, Riverside won’t be able to keep up.
UC Santa Barbara (17-12, 10-4 Big West)
Why they can win: UCSB’s strong postseason chances are due to one man: Head Coach Mark French. Any team looking to make a tournament run will need an experienced coach to run the team as the pressure builds, and no one fits the bill better than French. Despite breaking his streak of 12 straight championships this year, the over-500 game winner can certainly be counted on to have the Gauchos prepared. Of course, it is the players that actually have to win the game, and Santa Barbara has plenty of excellent young talent. In contrast to UCR, UCSB wins games with its powerful team offense. The Gauchos are 12-2 when they have four or more players in double digits, and they have done that the last two games, with six players over 10 in their last game of the season. Led by junior center Jenna Green, Santa Barbara has three players averaging double digits, and they lead the league in field goal percentage. On the other end of the court, UCSB – arguably the most athletic team in the league – is able to run a very aggressive press that breaks down offenses.
Why they won’t: The Gauchos have had two reasons for their losses: They start slow, or they have trouble getting the whole team in the game. UCSB has to move the ball and have a whole team effort to be successful at both ends of the court, especially when they run the press. If the Gauchos don’t have a bunch of players scoring in double digits, they suffer at all aspects of the game.
Cal Poly (14-14, 9-5 Big West)
Why they can win: One word: momentum. The Mustangs came back from a sure place at the bottom of the Big West after losing five of their first six league games to win eight games in a row, and nine of their last 11. Cal Poly was counted out early in the season, and a team with something to prove is always something dangerous, especially at tournament time. Led by senior guard Jessica Eggleston, who averages 13.8 points per game, the Mustangs sit near the top of most Big West stats despite their poor start. Cal Poly will have to keep their momentum going for them, and continue to have their offense put up as big of numbers like it has of late. The Mustangs have also beaten UC Riverside, a win on their resume that proves that they are true contenders.
Why they won’t: Being the third seed means that the Mustangs will have to win three nights in a row to grab a Big West trophy. Without a truly explosive scorer, Cal Poly will suffer if they get tired late in a close game, and despite being so hot lately, it certainly will not be able to surprise any of the teams they will face late in the tournament. If the Mustangs can’t keep their momentum and energy up for three straight days, they simply don’t have enough standout talent to carry the team.
Cal State Northridge (13-16, 9-5 Big West)
Why they can win: To put it simply, Northridge can win because they can score. They are the only team in the Big West to average more than 70 points a game. They also are the only team with four players scoring in double digits, and three of those players are averaging above 13. They also lead the league in such key postseason areas as turnover margin, assists and rebounds. Led by senior guard Ofa Tulikihihifo, the Matador offense is going be extremely tough for any team to shut down, and late in a close game they certainly have the muscle to pull out a win.
Why they won’t: Of course, there is the old saying that defense wins championships, and for CSUN, defense does not really exist. Despite being the highest scoring team in the league, Northridge is the only team in the top four to have a negative scoring margin. They are also the only top-four team to be out-rebounded on the season. If Northridge has any trouble at all shooting the ball, they certainly won’t have much a defense to fall back on.