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UC Santa Barbara Gauchos by Mark Salay

All eyes on the Big West this year are aimed at senior center Alan “Big Al” Williams and the UCSB men’s basketball team. After a strong performance during the non-conference season, Williams now leads a team that is a favorite to win the Big West title for the first time in four years.

Santa Barbara comes into tonight’s game with an overall record of 8-7 and 1-0 in conference. With Big West play still in the beginning stages, the mindset of the Gauchos is to keep improving towards the end of the regular season, where the team wants to be playing its best basketball in preparation for the Big West Tournament.

“I think in some aspects we’ve improved, and I think in a lot of aspects we still got a lot of work to do,” Williams said. “That’s the beauty of conference. It’s a brand new season, and it’s a brand new opportunity to continue to improve to where you’re playing your best basketball in March.”

UCSB has arguably the biggest stat-sheet stuffing big man in the nation with Big Al. Williams, last season’s Big West Player of the Year and AP All-American Honorable Mention, returns once again as the best player in the conference, without a doubt.

His 21.3 points per game last year ranked 12­­­­­­th in the country and third all-time in program history for a single season. His game has only improved as he is currently averaging a league-leading 12.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks; his 17.9 points per game rank him second in the conference as well.

Not only is Big Al posting monster numbers on a consistent basis, he is doing it against top-level competition. Against Kansas, he went off for 22 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. During the Gauchos’ trip to Oregon, he poured in 26 points and 12 rebounds on the Ducks.

Don’t get confused though, UCSB is more than a one-man show. Yes, the Gauchos will most likely go as far as Big Al takes them, but they can beat you with more than just one player. One of the reasons many predict the team will make the NCAA Tournament is because of the supporting cast around Williams and the talent those players bring.

Junior guard Michael Bryson is an athletic player that can play above the rim and has provided a few highlight reel dunks this season. As the team’s second-leading scorer averaging 13.5 points per game, Bryson is known for his three-point shooting prowess and is an important part of the inside-out game. UCSB will need him to be consistent as there are times he can be quiet from the floor.

A new face this season is freshman guard Gabe Vincent, who earned a spot in the starting lineup since the first game. Despite his class standing, Vincent plays with the edge of an experienced player and has gelled quickly with the team.

Vincent has showed a lot over the course of the non-conference season, at times even taking control of the scoring duties. Against Southern Methodist University, he nailed the clutch three-point shot with seconds left to force that game into overtime.

“I’ve been so high on Gabe since the day we got the commitment from him,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “He was a really good recruit for us. When we got him I said he’s going to be our starting off-guard … He’s everything we thought he was going to be.”

Vincent battled a blister injury that kept him out of the Great Alaska Shootout tournament earlier, but has remained healthy since and will be needed down the stretch in the off-guard position.

Playing alongside Vincent in the backcourt is senior guard Zalmico Harmon. Harmon commanded the point as well as any other player last season and ended with a 4.6-to-1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio, second-best in the entire Division I. So far, Harmon leads the squad in assists with 3.9.

Although he primarily looks to get his teammates involved first, Harmon is also one of the best shooters on the team and can hit the three-point shot. Against Washington State, he led the team with 17 points on 3-4 shooting from beyond the arc.
UCSB’s bench is one of the deepest in the Big West and will be a key factor.

“Being to be able to come off the bench with guys that go out there and put the ball in the basket is huge,” Big Al said. “I think they’re doing a good job to maintain or trying to elevate leads, and that’s what we need them to do.”

The Gauchos have waited three years to see junior guard John Green take the court, and it’s been worth the wait. Injuries to foot and wrist have limited Green to only four games his first three years, however, Green has avoided the injury bug this year and has contributed in immense ways.

Green is a versatile scorer that can attack the defense many different ways, either by facing up to shoot, attacking the basket or hitting the three. Think of Paul Pierce when comparing his game to an NBA player. His 10.5 points per game makes him one of three Gauchos to average in double-figures and third on the team overall. Defensively, Green will be relied to provide scrappy “D” and use his length to trouble opponents.

Despite being healthy, Green must now get accustomed to playing significant minutes during an entire season.

“Now there’s a grind of a season that he’s never been through before,” coach Williams said. “I think he’s learning to handle the grind of a season and that he has to learn to play through fatigue, and monotony of everyday practice is a new experience for him.”

Point guard is a position of depth for UCSB. Besides Harmon, the Gauchos can experiment playing junior T.J. Taylor and sophomore Eric Childress. Taylor missed out all of last season after having surgery on both hips; prior to injury, he started 33 games his first two seasons and brings experience to the one. When left open, Taylor is a threat from the perimeter.

Childress is a speedy player with handles. He can get to the basket and knock down floaters or even dunk the ball. He had a stellar game last Monday against Florida Gulf Coast where he provided a huge lift off the bench with his solid overall play.

Two forwards on the roster that play complementary, yet important roles are juniors Mitch Brewe and Sam Beeler. Brewe starts in the front court with Big Al while Beeler plays a backup role to Williams.

The Gauchos enter Big West play battle-tested, playing the 22nd hardest schedule in the nation before non-conference season ended . UCSB’s first game of the year was against then-No. 5 Kansas on the road. In front of a raucous crowd, the Gauchos went neck-and-neck with the Jayhawks and were down by two points midway through the second half before eventually losing.

UCSB then travelled for the Great Alaska Shootout during the Thanksgiving break, where they finished runner-up to Colorado St. in a game that went down to the wire.

The team has definitely learned from its tough schedule what it takes to win, as evident in the Gauchos victory over rival Cal Poly in their Big West opener last Saturday.

Down by 10 points with seven minutes left, Santa Barbara closed the game on a 20-5 run to steal the victory from Cal Poly.

“The last six minutes of basketball is when we really started to make a dent to what they were doing,” Bryson said. “I think that speaks a lot about the non-conference games really just teaching us a lesson.”

After tonight’s game against Cal State Northridge, the schedule doesn’t get easier for UCSB. They play Saturday on the road versus Long Beach State before returning home next week for two home games.

Tonight’s home game against CSUN is scheduled for 7 p.m. with Saturday’s contest versus Long Beach beginning at 4 p.m., and will be available to view on ESPN 3.


UC Irvine Anteaters by Mark Salay

The UC Irvine men’s basketball team was all but a lock to win the Big West last season. They entered as the No. 1 seed and poised to make the program’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

That dream was put on pause as the eventual league champions, Cal Poly, upset the Anteaters in the semifinals. Flash-forward to now: Irvine returns four starters and the conference’s defensive player of the year with hopes of finishing off what it couldn’t last season.

UCI has been picked to win the Big West again, but has split two games to start conference, losing to Long Beach State and cruising to an easy win versus UC Riverside. During non-conference, UCI went 8-8.

A significant reason for the team’s losses can be attributed to two key injuries in sophomore center Mamadou Ndiaye and sophomore guard Luke Nelson.
Listed at 7’6”, 300 lbs., Ndiaye is the tallest active player in Division I and the conference’s reigning defensive player of the year after setting the league record for most blocks in a season with 106. His presence in the paint is enough to change the game because of his height and length (his wingspan is over 8’3”).

Ndiaye has missed nine games this year, including the conference opener, but returned last Saturday against UC Riverside in a 10 point, three rebound performance. Ndiaye is not the best option on offense since his lack of coordination causes him to turn the ball over. However, he comes into the season with many facets of his game much improved.

Nelson, last season’s Big West Conference Freshman of the Year, has played in only 10 games so far because of injury.

He is coming off a season where he averaged 11.1 points per game and can potentially make huge strides on the offensive end when he comes back. For the Anteaters, it will be imperative for Nelson to continue improving his efficiency on that end.

Playing in the backcourt alongside Nelson is junior Alex Young, Big West Conference Freshman of the Year in the year prior to Nelson. Both Nelson and Young competed for Great Britain in the European U20 Championship during the summer and had time to develop more chemistry on the floor. Together, the two form one of the strongest duos in the Big West.

UCI’s next game is tonight versus Cal State Fullerton.


Long Beach 49ers by Sarah Stigers

A rich history of Long Beach State men’s basketball is hoping to be salvaged as this year’s team attempts to climb out of its preseason hole entering Big West play this month.

Starting the conference season with a 7-11 overall record, the team looks forward to a more fruitful January coming off a seven-game losing streak following in December. However, Long Beach has already won two of its three games this month, landing it the seventh seed in the Big West so far with a 1-1 record. One of the team’s losses included a one-point loss to nationally ranked San Diego State.

Coming off of not only a third-place 2014 season finish, but three previously consecutive first-place conference titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013, players like senior guard Mike Caffey started to turn it on in past weeks to climb the conference ladder.

Caffey is starting the Big West season off with a Big West Player of the Week award this week. He is coming off a successful 2014 campaign in which he received Big West first team recognition.

Though Caffey’s recent success translated into a win over UC Irvine and a close overtime loss against UC Davis, the team is still feeling the loss of 2014 Big West honorable mention Dan Jennings. Eleven of the 18 49er players on this year’s roster are either sophomores or freshmen.

Though the team’s youth may be seen as a set back, the 49ers still maintain an undefeated 4-0 record at home, but fall short on the road, only winning one of 11 road games. However, even after an up-and-down November, alternating between a win and loss every other game, half of the team’s final scores have ended in a 10-point margin — five of which ended in a Long Beach loss.

Growing experience will be an important aspect of this season for the 49ers. With more time spent on the court, the young team will only get better as it adjusts to road play and learns how to finish crucial plays during those close matches, something they are showing signs of so far this January.

Long Beach is currently fourth in the conference in field goal percentage, just trailing UC Santa Barbara, with a 43.6 percent average. They also fall just behind the Gauchos in three-point percentage, again ranking fourth in the conference with a 37.5 percent average.

As for this past year’s Big West tournament, the 49ers entered at the third seed. During the first round quarterfinals. LBSU defeated Cal State Fullerton 66-56, but ultimately the Niners fell to CSUN in the second round semi-finals 82-77.

The 49ers will play at home the next two games against Cal Poly on Thursday and UC Santa Barbara on Saturday.


Cal Poly Mustangs by Edward Moss

Coming off its unexpected berth in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Cal Poly men’s basketball team hopes to repeat its success and make it back to the “Big Dance” in 2015.

Last season was the greatest in Mustang basketball history. The team became the first No. 7 seed to win the men’s Big West Conference Tournament, and then the team continued its run with a victory over fellow No. 16 seed Texas Southern before losing to No. 1 seed Wichita State. Last season’s success has made the team hungry to make it back to the NCAA Tournament this year.

“It was our goal last year to make it to the NCAA [Tournament],” Head Coach Joe Callero said. “It helped us with recruiting and it is our goal to make it back to the ‘Dance’ this year.”

The Mustangs comes into today with an 8-6 record after going 7-5 in preseason games and 1-1 in conference play. Their biggest match from the preseason was a loss at the hands of No. 8 Gonzaga, 63-50. Cal Poly’s next match is tomorrow night against Long Beach State.

In their first game against a Big West opponent, the Mustangs defeated Hawaii 61-57 in overtime. Junior forward Brian Bennett scored a season-high 20 points to lead Cal Poly in a game where the team led by seven at halftime, but allowed Hawaii to get back into the game before winning in overtime.

Cal Poly then hosted rival UCSB and lost 50-45 in a scrappy game where each team played very tough defense. Junior forward Joel Awich lead the Mustangs with 13 points, but they were not able to contain the Gauchos in the second half while attempting to switch from a zone defense to a man-to-man defense.

Cal Poly prides itself on its defense and taking care of the ball well. Nationally, the squad ranks No. 1 in fewest turnovers and statistically it has the best defense in the Big West so far this season.

“I’m really pleased with this team. They’re tough and they like each other,” Callero said. “We have a really good individual and team defense, but we have to be able to shoot the ball well in order to win.”

With the experience this team gained from making it to the NCAA Tournament last season, the Mustangs should be included in the conversation as contenders to win the Big West again this year. With Bennett, the leading scorer in the conference thus far, Awich and junior guards David Nwaba and Reese Morgan, this squad looks formidable as conference play picks up.

“The most important thing is to keep improving,” Callero said. “We are a very balanced team and we hope to improve every week and make it back to the ‘Big Dance.’”


Cal State Northridge Matadors by Daniel Moebus-Bowles

Led by an experienced basketball mind in second-year Head Coach Reggie Theus, the Cal State Northridge Matadors came into Big West Conference play last weekend with a record of just 4-13 overall. They have since taken two more losses to start off conference play 0-2.

The Matadors’ record, being well under .500, is not an extremely accurate representation of their strength, as they have played tough teams including then No. 16 San Diego State, No. 4 Louisville and No. 2 Arizona. Preseason Big West polls had this squad finishing fourth overall in conference with one first-place vote received as well.

This team is one that clearly struggles when it is away from The Matadome with a record of 0-9 as the away team this season.

The Matadors started Big West play with a pair of losses on the road to UC Davis and Hawai’i University and will end their three-game trip looking for their first road win with a matchup at Santa Barbara tomorrow. They will not be a team to pass over by any means when they return home for a four-game homestand, which should definitely boost their Big West standing.

Northridge possesses an all-around team, scoring an average of 65.4 points a game and allowing just about 72.5 points. Theus runs a system that favors inside looks, which is made evident by their microscopic 9.3 3-point attempt average over the course of this season.

Rather than settling for long distance shots, the Matadors’ patience on the offensive leads to more high percentage shots and it shows with their 42.4% field goal efficiency. However, they do not always get to take these good looks as they average 14.1 turnovers a game.

Needless to say, this is a dangerous team to face if the Matadors can find themselves in rhythm and are able to take care of the ball. On the defensive end, they allow a comparable field goal percentage as their opponents clock in around 42.8 percent and can be an exhausting team to play against as they push just over 6.4 steals and blocks every game. For this team, winning games seems to be more about not beating themselves as opposed to just beating the other team.

On the court, the Matadors are led by a pair of seniors named Steve. Seniors Stephan Hicks and Stephen Maxwell top the team in scoring, dropping averages of 17.4 and 15.9 points per game. The guard-forward mix works out perfectly for Northridge as it has true threats on both parts of the offense, in a system that is designed to get high percentage looks at all costs. They are the only two players that on average take over 10 attempts a game but both of them are near or above 50 percent shooting as well with the inside and mid-range looks that they take.

Maxwell serves a second purpose on the floor as well as he leads the team in rebounding, reeling in around eight boards per game. As a guard, Hicks ranks third on this list with 5.2 per game.


Hawaii Rainbow Warriors by Martin Cobos

As conference play begins, the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team will look to improve upon its fourth-place finish in the Big West last year.

The Rainbow Warriors have been no strangers to adversity this season as the program announced in October that Head Coach Gib Arnold and Assistant Coach Brandyn Akana would be relieved of their coaching duties immediately. Assistant Coach Benjy Taylor would come to be named the interim head coach three days after the initial announcement.

In Taylor’s first year as Head Coach, he has led Hawaii to an impressive non-conference record of 13-5. This marks the most non-conference victories in the school’s history and the record sits at the top of the Big West entering into conference play.

“It has been a whirlwind experience for me as well as the team,” Coach Taylor said. “I got the job about a week before our first exhibition game and didn’t have the benefit of the full type of season. It was a tough transition, but we have all adjusted and responded.”

Hawaii has gone 1-1 so far in conference play, losing to Cal Poly 57-61 last Wednesday in an overtime thriller before defeating Cal State University Northridge on Saturday by a score of 83-68.

“Cal Poly was such a tough physical game,” Coach Taylor said. “In over 20 years of coaching, I don’t think I’ve been involved in such a physical game. We are beat up, but have a young team with a short memory, so we are going to bounce back and we don’t have time to dwell on this.”

Hawaii owes a large portion of its success this season to its strong physical defense. Their opponents have averaged a mere 67.3 points a game and post a shooting percentage just above .400.

Hawaii also thrives off creating turnovers and forcing its opponent to make mistakes. Their opponents are averaging 17.3 turnovers per contest and Hawaii holds a turnover margin of +3.4. In addition, the Rainbow Warriors average an outstanding 9.6 steals per game.

“The key to putting up this record was, for the most part, that we defended every night and played hard every night,” Taylor said. “We have struggled at times offensively, but our defense has really kept us in games.”

On the offensive side of the ball, Hawaii is led by sophomore guard Aaron Valdes. Valdes has posted an average of 16.3 points per game and is shooting above .500 through 18 games this season.

Senior guard Garrett Nevels is also a main contributor to Hawaii’s offensive attack. Nevels is averaging 11.4 points per game and posts a shooting percentage of .400 though 16 games. Both Nevels and Valdes average over 30 minutes per game and make up the core foundation of this Hawaii team.

The key for Hawaii in conference play will be to generate offense and convert on easy looks. While Hawaii boasts a rather impressive shooting roster, missed shots from close range have hindered this offense in close games.

“When you head into conference play, you have to be more in tune with personnel and scouting,” Taylor said. “You just have to be focused and we are going to have to play better offensively.”

Hawaii will face UC Riverside on Saturday at 8:30 pm.


UC Davis by Ryan Martin

After posting a 28-65 record in his first three seasons at UC Davis, men’s head basketball coach Jim Les may have finally found the winning formula. The team has been phenomenal stringing together a 12-3 record to start the season.

The Aggie’s also opened up Big West play by defeating Northridge and powerhouse Long Beach State to claim sole possession of first place in the conference.
UCD has talent all over the court, but this team will go only as far as senior guard Corey Hawkins takes them. Through 15 games, the 6’3” Hawkins is leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals while shooting an uncanny 49 percent on three-pointers. Hawkins, son of former NBA All-Star Hersey Hawkins, also leads the entire Big West conference in scoring and three-point percentage, while his numbers in assists, steals, field-goal percentage, and free throw percentage all rank amongst the top five.

While Hawkins has been consistently great throughout his career at Davis, the return of senior forward Josh Ritchart has proven to be crucial to the team’s success. Last year, the 6’9” Ritchart led the team in scoring and rebounding before a lower leg injury ended his season, leaving the team without a viable second option on offense. With Ritchart fully healthy and Hawkins firing on all cylinders, the Aggies have been virtually unstoppable thus far.

If opponents are somehow able to subdue the one-two punch of Hawkins and Ritchart, they must then find a way to deal with junior forwards J.T. Adenrele and Josh Fox. Adenrele, the Aggie’s bona-fide rim protector, missed all of last season due to injury.

As a freshman, Adenrele tied Davis’s single season record for blocked shots with 46, and his return has fortified the team’s interior defense.

Fox, a transfer student from San Francisco City College, has emerged as the team’s third scoring option behind Hawkins and Ritchart. Although he is not a threat to score from distance, the 6’6” junior consistently finds ways to get to the rim, averaging 10 points per game while shooting 66 percent from the field.

Davis has always been able to put points on the board, but defense will be key in determining this team’s fate. With the return of Adenrele and Ritchart, it is no surprise opponents are scoring a mere 62 points per game on the Aggie’s this year, down from 72.2 last season.

One area in which the Aggie’s will look to improve is playing on the road. While the team has gone undefeated at home (8-0), their play has been somewhat mediocre on the road (4-3). Following last season’s 1-13 away record, performing outside of their home confines will be a primary focus of head coach Les.

For a team that has finished in last place in the Big West three out of the last four seasons, the 12-3 start may look like a fluke. But with the return of key veterans and Hawkins playing at an elite level in his final season, the Aggie’s certainly have a chance to do something special.

Davis will look to remain unbeaten in the Big West Thursday, when they travel to Riverside.


UC Riverside Highlanders by Sean White

The questionable aspect of UC Riverside men’s basketball team this season has been its consistency. The Highlanders have won some key games, but the team’s inability to finish has cost them in the second half.

UC Riverside is currently 8-8, with a 1-1 Big West conference record. Home games have been an advantage for Riverside this season, as the Highlanders are 7-1 when playing on their home court, but have struggled while playing on the road, going 1-7.

“I think if you look at college basketball all over the country, it’s difficult to go on the road and win,” Head Coach Dennis Cutts said. “Five of those eight games have been right down to a possession or two.”

Despite the team’s performance on the road this season, junior forward Taylor Johns and junior guard Jaylen Bland have emerged as UCR’s primary role players. Nearly averaging a double-double, Johns serves as the team’s focal point of its offensive game plan. He ranks fifth in scoring in the Big West, averaging 17.1 points per game and ranks second in both rebounding and blocks in the league with 8.7 rebounds per game and 1.9 blocks per game.

As UC Riverside’s big man in the paint, Johns earned his first career Big West Men’s Basketball Athlete of the Week award in the week of Dec. 1-7, 2014. During that week of games, he averaged 20.5 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game, and 2.0 blocks per game while shooting 73.9 percent from the field.

Jaylen Bland is a transfer guard from College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California where he was selected to first team all-league and first team all-state. Bland has been a nice addition to the UC Riverside roster. Averaging 14.3 points per game, shooting 39.2 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from behind the three-point line, while leading the Highlanders in total steals with 17 this season.

UC Riverside averages 68.3 points per game, shoots 43.2 percent from the field, and 36.1 percent from behind the perimeter. Defensively, the Highlanders allow 66.2 points per game, but play great on-ball defense ranking second in steals in the Big West averaging 6.8 steals per game.

“We have got a team that will play through every possession, play you for 40 minutes and never feel like we’re really out of a game,” Cutts said. “I think at times when we have both ends of the floor together we can be a very good basketball team.”

Last season the Highlanders ended with a 10-21 overall record and were 5-11 in conference games. They earned the No. 8 seed in the Big West Tournament but were knocked out of contention by the No. 1 seeded Anteaters in the quarterfinals.

“This team is built a little differently than last year,” Cutts said. “We have the ability to shoot it better off multiple spots, more versatility defensively, can switch and do things more at the other end of the floor.”

In just his second year as head coach, Dennis Cutts is confident and hopeful that his team will continue to progress throughout the rest of the season.

“We’ve got a ways to go,” Cutts said. “This program is chipping away and trying to find a way to get better players and add more players to the program. I think it’s just a process.”

UC Riverside will host UC Davis tonight at 7 p.m.


Cal State Fullerton Titans by Jack Mathews

In an up-and-down preseason characterized by multiple winning streaks and losing streaks, the Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball team finds itself in eighth place in the conference and winners of five of its last six games.

Fullerton was projected to finish eighth in the Big West Preseason Media Poll; however, they look to be a dark horse headed into conference as they are playing like anything but underdogs.

After a subpar 2013-14 campaign in which the Titans finished 11-20 and lost in the first round of the Big West tournament, Fullerton is on the upswing with a record of 8-8 under second-year Head Coach Dedrique Taylor.

The Titans are led by the electrifying play of senior guard Alex Harris who was honored as a Big West Honorable Mention player last season. Harris currently leads the Titans with 16.1 points, 3.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game.

“Alex is everything,” Taylor said. “His energy, effort and basketball IQ offensively and defensively dictate how we play and he is rubbing off on other players and giving them purpose.”

Harris is complemented by two of the Titans’ key transfers in junior guard Lanerryl Johnson and senior forward Moses Morgan. Morgan transferred from DePaul after the 2013-14 season and Johnson transferred from Central Arizona Junior College where he averaged 18.3 points per game.

“Putting Alex at point guard has changed how our entire team has been playing as a whole,” Taylor said. “Role players like Laneryl and Moses are beginning to develop and understand their roles to help us win games.”

Experience is certainly not a weakness of this team as seven of the 11 Titans to play this year are upperclassmen, although sophomore forward Joe Boyd has been a key player as well for Fullerton, as he has started all but one game this year.

With six different players listed at 6’7” or taller, the Titans have been able to rely heavily on stingy defense and rebounding to propel them to success.

The Titans averaged 72.6 points during a five-game winning streak heading into conference play, while only allowing opponents to score 56.4 points over that same span. The cohesion of CSFU on both sides of the ball has been key as it looks to lock down very tough Big West opponents throughout conference play.

Cal State Fullerton opened Big West play against UC Riverside in an 84-78 overtime loss. The Titans play UC Irvine tonight.


Versions of these articles appeared on pages 1, 9, 10, 11 and 12 of January 15, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.