As the Big West basketball season nears the midway point, the time has come to reflect on what we’ve learned through the first few weeks of the conference slate.
The thing that jumps out the most is that UCSB’s 11-2 nonconference showing was a bit of an aberration. Wins against the likes of Cal Poly Pomona, Ball State and Pepperdine inflated the record, as well as the homes of the Gaucho faithful. But on the bright side, slipping a bit at the beginning of league play should serve as a wakeup call for SB in time for them to right the ship in time for the Big West Tournament.
Two of the best stories in the conference come from the teams ranked at the top in Cal State Northridge and Pacific. As skeptical as I was at the outset of the season, I’ve come to realize that the Matadors are the real deal, demonstrated by its 88-84 road victory over the Gauchos, the first team to down UCSB in the Thunderdome this season. CSUN’s dominance was further displayed in last weekend’s 100-61 shellacking of Long Beach State, a solid bounce-back win after a close victory over UC Riverside and road loss to Chicago State.
The Tigers were perhaps the hardest team to gauge coming into the season, as it was unknown exactly how high junior guards Steffan Johnson and Chad Troyer could carry the squad, but that question has now been partially answered. Head Coach Bob Thomason has long been the premier sideline general in the Big West and is turning in one of his the best coaching performances of his 20-year career before our eyes. Just ask anyone who was at last Thursday’s men’s basketball game, where the Tigers dismantled UCSB 71-58. Heck, Pacific was even awarded a game on ESPN last night, even though if anyone in the conference is going to have a home game on the network, it should be the Gauchos.
On the women’s side, things have shaped up more or less as fans and media alike predicted at the outset. The Highlanders and UCSB have, for the third straight year, separated themselves from the pack in the conference standings, setting the stage for this Saturday’s showdown in the Thunderdome. Cal Poly and UC Davis have shown that they are not quite in the UCSB-UCR echelon, but still own the rest of the league, which is especially good news for the Aggies in their first season in Division I. And as hard to believe as it is, UC Irvine and CSUN are actually worse than anyone could have imagined.
With UCSB’s loss of senior center Jenna Green and UCR’s loss of senior center Kemie Nkele, the quest for conference supremacy was immediately boiled down to which squad could cope with the loss of its star the best. Both have done a respectable job in conference play thus far, posting a combined 12-1 record, but the Gauchos have been a little better. Riverside was surprised at home 62-54 by fourth-place Cal State Fullerton, while UCSB took down the Titans in overtime, before going on to defeat Davis in the extra session also. The Gauchos have shown the ability and desire to grind out a late victory, something that will come in handy if the past two Big West Tournament Championship games are any indication.