After finishing third in the Big West, Cal State Northridge looks to translate their pre-season conference crowning and returning veterans into the success they failed to achieve last year.

Speaking of last year, Northridge (4-7 overall, 1-0 in conference) wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a possible contender, but that was before they won eight of their first 11 non-conference games and opened Big West play with seven consecutive wins. However, just when a few more wins could have sealed the regular season title, the red-hot Matadors cooled off, going 7-5 to close out the regular season and was forced to share the crown with UCSB after a forgettable 77-66 loss at home to the Gauchos. Northridge earned the Big West tournament’s three seed, but could not overcome a talented Cal State Fullerton squad who handed the Matadors their worst conference loss all season by a score of 83-68.

Fast-forwarding to the 2008-2009 season, Northridge’s non-conference schedule ranked among the most difficult in the Big West. Trying to build off of last year’s positives, Head Coach Bobby Braswell upped the ante in scheduling games at Stanford, New Mexico, Rider, Drexel, San Diego State and UCLA. Unfortunately for his team, the Matadors were unable to win any of them, losing by an average 13.2 points. While this approach to scheduling no doubt improves the team mentally, it remains to be seen if Northridge will be at all fatigued near the end of a grueling conference schedule.

“We played a very challenging non-conference schedule,” said Assistant Coach Louis Wilson said, “Including six consecutive road games to challenge our team, and we think we certainly got that accomplished going to places like UCLA, San Diego State, New Mexico and Stanford.”

CSUN certainly began conference play off on the right foot, beating Fullerton 90-64 on Dec. 29 at Fullerton. Northridge shot 59.6 percent from the floor and 63.6 percent behind the arc while holding the Titians to a remarkable 35.9 percent shooting for the game. Braswell has always preached a defense-first philosophy, and was pleased to see Fullerton’s star senior guard Josh Akognon, who was defended doggedly all night by senior guard Rob Haynes, finish with eight points on 3-13 shooting.

“Give Rob Haynes a lot of credit,” Braswell told “[Haynes] did a great job of not allowing [Akognon] to catch the basketball. That is one of the best defensive efforts we’ve had in this gym in many years. We felt we needed to take Josh out of the game and [Haynes] accepted the assignment and did a really good job.”

After dismantling the Titans on the road, Northridge split a two-game home stand, losing 84-78 to Pacific in overtime before securing a narrow 84-81 win over UC Davis on Monday.

“We were very fortunate [on Monday] to beat Davis,” Wilson said, “Which is a much improved basketball team, a lot of young talent with a very difficult-to-guard system in their offense, the Princeton Offense, which has a lot of back-cuts. It really challenged our defenders [on Monday]. They hit some big shots, played hard, and were very well coached. I think it was indicative of what the league is going to be, a very balanced league…there are no easy nights.”

Looking closer at their roster, Northridge boasts one of the best backcourts in the Big West. The Matadors return three gifted senior guards from last year’s 20-win team in Haynes, Deon Tresvant and Josh Jenkins. This trio accounts for 42 percent of Northridge’s scoring, averaging 30.7 per game and just over 60 percent of the team’s assists with 95. 66 of which come from Jenkins, who leads the conference in that category. Tresvant, perhaps Northridge’s most talented player, has averaged a team high 12.6 points per game coming off the bench, good enough for fifth in the Big West, and is second on the team in steals with 16. Tresvant earned All Big-West Second-Team honors last year, and this year was named to the Preseason All-Conference team. Haynes, who is widely regarded as the Matador’s top on-ball defender, still averages just under 10 points per game, and is shooting a team-high 44.4 percent beyond the arc.

While Northridge is loaded with talent in the backcourt, its frontcourt may turn out to be no less formidable. Senior forward Tremaine Townsend also was named Preseason All-Conference, and he has the numbers to prove it. Last year Townsend led the conference in both rebounding and blocks per game while finishing second in field goal percentage at 52.5. The former Saddleback College transfer recorded 10 double-doubles in his first year as a Matador, and was voted to the All-Big West Second Team for his efforts. So far Townsend has averaged 11 points and just under seven rebounds per game in a starting role. Redshirt junior forward and fellow starter Willie Galick will be assisting Townsend down low, having posted almost identical numbers with 11 points and seven rebounds per game. Fellow junior Jermaine Smith also looks to contribute significant minutes off the bench, ranking second on the team in blocks with nine.

If Northridge is to win it all this year, they will have to improve a defense that ranks seventh out of nine Big West squads in points allowed. If the Fullerton game is any indication, Northridge is well on their way to solving that problem, yet it remains to be seen if they can sustain their intensity throughout conference play. Offense has never been a problem for Braswell’s squad and that hasn’t changed this year with the Matadors ranking second in field goal percentage and scoring offense. With athleticism and experience at virtually every position, Northridge looks to make amends for last year’s underachievement, and is without a doubt the team to beat in 2008.