A new year means a fresh start for everyone. And in some cases, a fresh start is exactly what some teams need now that conference play has come to the forefront of the action. With championship bragging rights and a NCAA invitation bid on the line, these nine Big West foes will be battling all season in order to prove they are the better team, at least for this year. Whether Hawaii will repeat as champs, or another squad will dethrone them, one thing is for sure, these conference match-ups will be some of the most intense basketball these teams have faced all season. With that being said the Daily Nexus Sports Staff presents a preview of each Big West squad, enjoy! Note: With the exception of UCSB, who was ranked No. 4, the rest of the teams are ordered from first to last according to the Big West media preseason polls.
UC Santa Barbara – Jorge Mercado
The 2016-17 campaign has not been off to an ideal start for the UCSB men’s basketball team, which currently sits at 2-11 overall and 0-1 in the Big West after a blowout loss at UC Davis last Wednesday 73-47. However, one could only hope that now that conference play is in full effect, the Gauchos can look to turn around their tough start to the season.
Santa Barbara has two big pieces that could help change the fortune of the season in guards Eric Childress and Gabe Vincent. Vincent, a junior, is currently second in the Big West in points per game with 15.8, while Childress, the team’s only senior, ranks third in the conference in assists 3.7.
Unfortunately for the Gauchos, they have lost two of their best big men down low in forwards Ami Lakoju and Jalen Canty. Canty, a junior transfer, was supposed to be a big force on the rebounding side of things, and he was ranking first on the team, grabbing seven boards per game, but he has been ruled out indefinitely due to academics. The same goes for Lakoju, who was leading the team in field goal percentage with a solid 61.2.
UCSB’s next game will be against UC Irvine at the Thunderdome tonight at 7 p.m. in what could be a turnaround game for it as a squad.
Long Beach State – Elliot Thornton
What stood as a promising yet empty-handed conclusion last season for Long Beach State, experiencing a narrow 107-102 loss to Washington in the first round of the NIT, has only added fuel to the fire and makes for a hungrier 49er squad.
With nine returners possessing much experience, Head Coach Dan Monson looks to build on his team’s 20-15 record and heartbreaking 64-60 Big West Championship loss to UC Irvine.
After a rigorous non-conference schedule, facing off against three of the top-10 AP ranked teams, the Beach stands at 6-12 overall and 1-1 in conference play.
Similar to last year, the 49ers’ rough preseason schedule will likely be beneficial for them in their journey to the Big West Tournament.
An even more jam-packed schedule this year compared to last could enable his team to get over the hump and make it to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012.
The trio of junior forward Gabe Levin, junior guard Evan Payne, and junior guard Justin Bibbins have been the focal points for the 49ers’ offense.
As two Preseason All-Conference selections this year, Bibbins and Levin have taken over the reins of former senior and scoring standout Nick Faust, combining for 22.9 ppg.
Payne, a redshirt transfer from Loyola Marymount, has blossomed into his starting role starting 12 of the last 15 games for the Beach and averaging a team-high 14.8 ppg.
Long Beach will face off against UC Riverside this Saturday, Jan. 14 at 4 p.m. The game will be aired live on ESPN3.
UC Irvine – Will Bodendorfer
UC Irvine men’s basketball team and Head Coach Russell Turner, who is in his seventh year at the helm, are coming off an impressive 2016 season in which the team won a school record 28 games.
The team returned just one starter from last season in senior guard Luke Nelson. Among the four starters to leave was 7’6” phenomenon center Mamadou N’Diaye whose tough defensive presence has been hard to replace.
After opening the season ranked second in the Big West preseason poll, UC Irvine ended with a disappointing 5-9 non-conference record.
Despite their slow start, the Anteaters have recently been able to right the ship, winning their last four games and boasting a perfect 2-0 conference record. UCI’s most recent victory came in a commanding 84-56 drudging of defending Big West Champions Hawaii.
Senior guard Jaron Martin has been the team’s standout player thus far, leading the team in both scoring (14.0 PPG) and assists (3.2 APG). After coming off the bench last year, Martin has solidified himself as a starter in Turner’s lineup during the 2017 campaign.
UC Irvine’s next game will be a Big West conference matchup at UC Santa Barbara tonight, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m.
Cal State Northridge – Richard Benites
Prior to conference play, CSUN was at a subpar 4-9 by the end of its non-conference schedule. However, the Matadors now stand at 6-9 after their 2-0 start to Big West play as they are in a three-team tie for first place in the conference standings.
Led by Head Coach Reggie Theus, the former NBA All-Star, and NCAA All-American is now in his fourth year at the head position. He and the Matadors will look to continue their winning ways as the regular season progresses.
Northridge is powered by four Matadors who rank as some of the top individual offensive leaders in the conference.
Ranking third in points per game in the Big West (15.5) is redshirt junior guard Kendall Smith. Complementing Smith is junior forward Tavrion Dawson. The Matadors’ big man ranks fourth in field goal percentage, boasting an impressive 56.8 percentage.
Lastly, two Matadors top the three-point percentage rankings. At first place is junior guard Michael Warren with a 51.9 percentage. Meanwhile, redshirt junior guard Darin Johnson barely trails at a 50.0 percentage. Both sit comfortably as the only two Big West athletes that average a 50 or above percentage.
It is evident that the experienced juniors are leading this team through their current streak. It will depend on their aptitude and willingness to get their younger teammates involved in order for the basketball program to continue thriving as it has been throughout the early stages of conference play.
CSUN will be away from home once again this week, as it will look to extend its streak against Long Beach State this Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 7 p.m.
UC Davis – Tommy Pardini
The UC Davis men’s basketball team came away from its nonconference schedule with the most wins in the Big West.
Ending nonconference play with at 8-7, the Aggies’ record includes an undefeated 5-0 record at home. UC Davis also ranks third in the conference in RPI – a stat that measures a team’s strength of schedule and how they perform against that schedule.
The Aggies are an experienced bunch-backed by standout junior forward Chima Moneke and senior guard Brynton Lemar, who are both top 10 in points per game among Big West players, each averaging 14 per contest. Moneke ranks first in both double-doubles and rebounds per game among Big West players.
The last time the Aggies had a winning record going into conference play, they won the Big West regular-season title in 2015. The preseason media poll had the Aggies finishing in fifth place in the conference, but based on their performance thus far, they look like they are ready to possibly prove the polls wrong.
Cal State Fullerton – DJ Ruvalcava
The Cal State Fullerton men’s basketball team posted a 7 – 8 record in non-conference play and currently has a 1-1 record in the Big West standings.
Senior guard Tre’ Coggins is averaging a Big West-leading 18.6 points per game and is accounting for almost 25 percent of the team’s offense. The Titans are relying on him and his supporting cast to propel them through the rest of their tough Big West schedule.
With four seniors, four juniors and a large freshman class consisting of seven first-year players, the Titans are relying heavily on their mixture of youth and experience this conference season.
By having preseason all-conference guards Coggins and sophomore guard Khalil Ahmad, the Titans look to finish conference play with a much better record than their dismal 2015-16 season in which they went 3-13 in conference and underperformed expectations.
Head Coach Dedrique Taylor and his team hope to improve on a recent surge, during which they won three out of their last four games before eventually falling to Cal State Northridge Saturday in a close finish of 70-65.
Despite their 7 -8- record, the Titans are hopeful of their chances in conference play as they boast a 7-2 home record with eight of their last 14 games being played in Titan Gym.
Cal State Fullerton looks to build on their recent success against Cal Poly at Mott Athletics Center this Thursday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m.
UC Riverside – Liam Bailey
UC Riverside dropped eight of its final nine games to end the 2015-16 season, and the Highlanders appear to have been unable to overcome their slump in the 2016-17 campaign, where they now stand at 2-11 overall and 0-2 in the Big West.
UCR began its season with two wins in four games by a combined 82 points, suggesting that a bright future was on the horizon for the belabored squad. Instead, the Highlanders have now lost nine of 10 and sit at the bottom of the Big West standings as one of four teams without a conference win.
Forced to rely heavily on its young talent with just three seniors on its roster, Riverside’s trio of senior forward Secean Johnson, redshirt junior guard Chance Murray, and senior guard Gentrey Thomas has been the biggest positive.
The three combine for 32.3 points per game, with each individual averaging double-digit points per contest, while also being the Highlanders’ three most prolific rebounders.
The Highlanders have been woefully bad on the road this season, going winless in nine games. With four of the next six games at home, however, there is hope UC Riverside will be able to end its drought and mount a competitive comeback in the conference season.
Hawaii – Jorge Mercado
Despite winning both the Big West regular season title and the Big West Conference Tournament crown just last year, the Hawaii men’s basketball team is expected to finish in eighth place in the Big West this season in the annual media preseason poll due to the loss of four perennial starters.
Last year was a big year for the Rainbow Warriors, finishing the year 28-6 overall. However, part of the reason for the lack of excitement surrounding this years’ team is due to the fact that even their one returning starter, senior forward Mike Thomas, is redshirting this year after having to undergo wrist surgery this offseason.
Because of Thomas’s absence, Hawaii is only returning a total production of just 66 points, 41 rebounds and 22 assists from last year’s team and has been a huge factor in the team being only 6-9 overall and 0-2 in the Big West to this point.
While this year might turn out to be a wash, the Rainbow Warriors still have a bright future after adding five high school recruits and four CC transfers this offseason. In fact, junior transfer forward Gibson Johnson has already made an impact for Hawaii this season, averaging 10.8 points per game, a team-high and 4.8 rebounds per game.
Although Hawaii will most likely not be able to defend both its regular season and conference tournament crown from a year ago, the pieces are in place to make a much more successful run in the 2017-18 season.
Cal Poly – Ryan Burns
Cal Poly’s men’s basketball team began the season on the right foot, establishing itself as a well-organized unit heading into Big West play. However, the Mustangs have struggled through the toughest part of their schedule and sit at 5-10 overall and 0-1 in the Big West after a close loss in their first conference matchup at UC Davis.
Losses to key players at a crucial time in the season seem to be, unfortunately, following one after another due to injuries and transfers. True sophomore guard Jaylen Shead — who recently decided to leave Poly at the end of the fall quarter — the team’s assist leader with 5.2 per game, is going to be a hard loss to deal with as league play continues. Shead started all nine games he played before transferring, and the promising guard is yet to declare his next school after leading the Big West in helpers.
Junior forward Josh Martin, who was second for the ’Stangs with 10.4 points per game — behind redshirt senior guard Kyle Toth who leads the squad with 11.4 PPG — has experienced the biggest loss since his injury five games into the new season. Still, he has been at work on the boards with 8.4 RPG, nearly double the second-highest on the team.
In the annual Big West media preseason poll, Cal Poly was projected to finish in last place in the conference standings at seasons end, and due to some unfortunate setbacks, the projection will most likely come to fruition.