2001-02 Big West Conference Preview
by Don Weinstein
Apparently the West is just that . . . Big. There’s abundant collegiate talent from the Mountain time zone to the Pacific, and the Big West plays 120 of those players. While the Pac-10 is the picture of tradition and stability, the Big West, Mountain West, Big Sky, Big 12, Southwest Conference and the WAC have been trying to locate that same equilibrium only to re-shuffle the cards each year. For the ’01/’02 year, the Big West inserts previous year Big Sky darling Cal State Northridge and a first year Division I school, UC Riverside. To get to the magic ten count, they transfer out Boise State to the Western Athletic Conference. This year’s Big West should feature a tight race between UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Pacific and Utah St. Cal State Long Beach should shake off last year’s injury curse, and put pressure on the top half of the conference.
1. UC Irvine: What do the Anteaters have in common with Al Gore? Both suffered heartbreaking losses last year as they approached both of their respective contests as the clear favorites. UCI finished first at 15-1 in conference play, 25-4 overall. However, the Pacific Tigers upset them in the conference tourney semi-finals, and the NCAA was not forgiving in the recount. Even though the team was invited to the NIT, the sting of last year motivates them this year as one of the 4 teams in the conference to have a shot at the title. Lead by Senior Guard Jerry Green and returning starters Adam Parada, Dave Korfman and Stanislav Zuzak, the Anteaters look like a first or second place finisher in the Big West. They’re out to a 5-2 start this season, and Green has been on fire.
2. Pacific: The Pacific Tigers have much to build on in the ’01/’02 campaign. They have 8 returning seniors and 4 returning starters on a team that went 8-8 conference, 18-12 overall, and knocked off the UCI team on the way to losing to Utah State in the conference finals. Some media outlets pick the Tigers to edge out Utah State, UCI and UCSB as the Big West champs this year. The returning starters of Ross Mills, Mike Hahn, Tim Johnson are joined by junior college transfer Demetrius Jackson to give Bob Thomason’s team a great chance to make some magic in the post-season.
3. UC Santa Barbara: Gaucho coach Bob Williams’ hope must be ‘en fuego’ as is team returns all 5 starters, including junior forward Mark Hull who averaged 13.9 points per game last season. Hull is joined by double-digit scorers Mike Vukovich and center Adama Ndiaye, the top rebounder in the Big West. The Gauchos are off to a great start at 4-1 with their only loss to elite eight USC. UCSB will most likely finish in the top 4 somewhere in the pack with Utah State, UCI and the Pacific.
4. Utah State: The Aggies had a wonderful year in 2000/2001. They finished 13-3 in conference, won the conference title and represented the Big West in the NCAA’s. Most remembered for upsetting Ohio State in the first round, the team finished 28-6 overall. Coming into the season with a 23 game home win streak, the Aggies have gone undefeated this year thus far at 4-0. They bring back 1 starter and bring in hot shot junior college transfer Desmond Penigar. The 6’7″ forward Penigar has impressed the conference officials so much, he’s been voted the Big West player of the week in the first two weeks of the season.
5. Long Beach State: What do Tex Winter, Jerry Tarkanian, Lute Olson and Wayne Morgan have in common? They all coached the fighting 49ers of Long Beach State. Mr. Morgan is the current leader of a scrappy team hoping to make a dent in the top 5 Big West order. The 49ers bring back senior forward Rudy Williams and senior center and former UCLA Bruin Travis Reed. They also get back last year injured forward Lemi Williams for his senior season, and an ample recruiting class. So far, the team is 3-3 with tough losses against quality schools like USC and UN Charlotte. Look for the 49ers to gel later in the season and make a run for the Big West crown or tournament title.
6: Cal State Northridge: Bobby Braswell woke up from his 2000/2001 dream season to find himself not at the end of the rainbow, but the base of Mt. Everest. He loses 5 key players from his Big Sky champion team that went to the dance and finished 22-10. Highly tauted last year as one of the most talented coaches in the nation, Braswell will have to break out all the stops with this year’s team. Even though he returns point guard Marcus Carr, the rest of the team are a tad younger than MTV, and as green as Brittney Spears’ wallet. Count this as a rebuilding year for the Matadors, and a real test for Coach Braswell.
7. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo: Located in ‘SLO’ town, this team in the last five years has never been considered slow. Reminiscent of the high flying Lions of Loyola Marymount in the late 80’s, the Mustangs have galloped with the highest league scoring average 4 out of the last 5 years. It’s just too bad the team never discovered its defensive potential. Lead by returning senior forward Brandon Beeson and new coach Kevin Bromley, Cal Poly SLO is hoping to improve upon its last year record of 3-13 in conference, 9-19 overall.
8. Cal State Fullerton: Coming into the 3rd year of a 4 year NCAA probation, the Titans and coach Donny Daniels don’t have much to look forward to, but enough to improve upon the school’s ’00/’01 record of 3-13 conference, 5-23 overall. The team should show improvement, bringing back seniors Kevin Richardson and David Castleton, as well as junior center Babacar Camara. The surprise return of junior guard-forward Brandon Campbell from injury may lift the Titans to a few more victories this season than last season. The Titans are crawling out of the gate at 1-3, with the only win against the lowly Loyola Marymount Lions.
9. UC Riverside: This is the first year the Highlanders have been in Division I. According to the entry rules, that means UCR is not March Madness eligible until the ’03/’04 year. 22 year coach John Masi is perfectly OK with the rule though. Even though his team returns 4 starters and 2 seniors in the bunch, the coach recognizes the talent deficit relative to the other teams in the conference. They have a schedule to ‘cut their teeth’ with including match-ups with Fresno State, Arizona State and UCLA. They’re off to a disappointing yet predictable 0-4 start so far this season.
10. Idaho: The Vandals become the only Idaho entry in the conference with Boise State going to the WAC. As poor a team as Idaho is, it was probably a good idea to take the Boise state dominated rivalry attention away from the UI. The school tried to revive the program by hiring former Vandal star Leonard Perry. Mr. Perry will try and take a team with no one taller than 6’6″, and a record of 3-13 conference, 6-21 overall last year to a respectable finish. Read: let’s hope the Vandals can knock UCR into the cellar, and be the ninth place team.