Big West Conference Preview
by Shaan Hassan
The Big West Conference lost two valuable players in guards from UC Irvine, Jerry Green, and Utah State, Tony Brown, but the departure of those two leaders, along with some resurgence from unproven, young talent only paves the way for what should be a three-way battle for first place between UCI, Utah State and the defending conference champions UC Santa Barbara.
This is where the Bill Simmons’ Patrick Ewing Theory comes into play: a team is better off without its best player (and associated distractions). The New York Knicks actually performed better once their biggest star was on injured reserve – and fans believed they were better off without Ewing. The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl without Bledsoe and Terry Glenn, and the Seattle Mariners proved they were better off without Alex Rodriguez…and Ken Griffey Jr….and Randy Johnson. Other players stepped up in their place. The question is, “Are UC Irvine and Utah State better off without their best players?” Yes, or no, no one knows for sure just yet, but both teams are going to try and prove not all is lost.
The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (20-10, 11-7, fourth) return all but one starter (center Adama Ndiaye) from their Cinderella run of last year and there’s no reason to believe their wicked conference foes can wipe the floor with them this year. The Gauchos have only one player above 6-foot-9 and that’s 6-foot-10 freshman Scott Rainey, who they can’t afford to redshirt if they want to compete in the middle with other Big West big men. They may not have the size, but that didn’t seem to matter last season. Guard Nick Jones has enough heart to match any big man.
One of those big men is 7-foot Adam Parada from the UC Irvine Anteaters (21-10, 13-5, second) who returns for his third year and joins forwards Jordan Harris and Stanislav Zuzak as UCI’s returning starters. The absence of Green will be most notable down the stretch in games, but expect Harris and Parada to carry the load. And you better believe head coach Pat Douglass will have his team ready to play. Along with those three, UCI welcomes four redshirters onto the squad who figure to contribute immediately.
The Utah State Aggies (23-7, 13-5, first) did lose Brown, but they still return big play forward Desmond Penigar who strikes fear into any forward assigned the job of “defending” him. They will miss Brown, as the Anteaters will miss Green, but head coach Stew Morrill will have his team ready once the season begins.
The Cal State Northridge Matadors (12-16, 11-7, fifth) return four of their top six scorers, but will definitely miss the scoring of guard Markus Carr, who was the only Matador to average double-digit points (16.0). Forward Lionel Benjamin returns as their leading rebounder (5.6) and guard Curtis Slaughter comes back as the team’s best three-point shooter (.384). Carr will be missed, but there are others who can help drive the Matadors towards another good conference season.
The Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Mustangs (15-12, 9-9, sixth) lose forwards Brandon Beeson and David Henry, but return nearly everyone else from a squad that finished sixth last year in the conference. They bring in just two freshmen, which leaves the Mustangs with several players who have valuable experience. That experience should pay off.
The University of the Pacific Tigers (20-10, 11-7, third) lose a lot of valuable leadership from last season’s third place squad and the question they’ll be facing is whether or not the crew left behind can step up in their place. Guard Demetrius Jackson returns and will have to put this team on his shoulders. But how much weight can he bear?
The UC Riverside Highlanders (8-18, 5-13, ninth) had just one player average double-digit scoring last season and that was forward Vili Morton (10.9). He was also their only player to average above five rebounds per game (9.3). To aid Morton in the paint, the Highlanders brought in German 6-foot-11 center Klaus Schille. That should help pick up their scoring, rebounding and winning.
The Cal State Fullerton Titans (5-22, 2-16, last) had a pitiful 2001-02 season and only two good things came from that season: the emergence of forward Pape Sow, whom Fullerton tabs as a potential first round NBA draft pick, and the fact that the season did indeed come to an end. To help seal the wounds, the Titans signed five junior college transfers who they figure to help immediately. But again, a majority of the players remain from the two-conference-win team. They’ll have to prove they belong in the top five.
The Long Beach State 49ers (13-7, 9-9, seventh) lose their top three scorers including their top two rebounders in centers Travis Reed (7.8) and James Williams (7.1). That leaves behind forward Lemi Williams as their best rebounder (7.0) and only player who averaged more than 4.5 rebounds per game last season. The hard bodies inside will be hard to replace for the 49ers.
With several big men in the Big West, such as Parada, Sow, Morton and now Schille, the Idaho Vandals (9-19, 6-12, eighth) will counter with…just three players above 6-foot-4…and just four players above 200 pounds? The Vandals are guard-heavy with seven and that shouldn’t help them too much in the Big “Man” West, unless they plan on pulling a “UCSB,” but don’t expect that to happen. Idaho will be tasting plenty of wine at the end of the season, but only because they’ll be parked in the cellar.
Preseason All-Big West Conference team:
Center: Adam Parada (Irvine)
Power forward: Pape Sow (Fullerton)
Small forward: Desmond Penigar (Utah St.)
Shooting guard: Nick Jones (UCSB)
Point guard: Demetrius Jackson (Pacific)
Honorable mention: forward Mark Hull (UCSB), forward Jordan Harris (Irvine), forward Vili Morton (Riverside)
Co-Most Valuable Players: Nick Jones (UCSB) and Adam Parada (Irvine)
Newcomer of the year: Anthony Bolton (Fullerton). He displays great size at the swingman position at 6-foot-7 and is an excellent three-point marksman.
Coach on the hot seat: Donny Daniels (Fullerton). Another last place finish and his rear will be scorching.
Surprise team of the year: Fullerton. Five junior college transfers gives the team hope for a surprising season. This is the team to watch this season, for better or worse.
Disappointing team of the year: CSUN. With Markus Carr gone, the Matadors are left with no one who averaged double-digit points. They’ll be desperate for someone to take charge.
UCSB, Irvine and Utah State will be the front-runners for the conference and the teams looking to provide some pressure will be CSUN, Cal Poly and Pacific. But several questions remain. Will the loss of Tony Brown from Utah State, Jerry Green from UC Irvine and Markus Carr from CSUN dramatically affect those respective teams, or will each team’s supporting cast step up? Will Fullerton’s new JC transfers push them into the upper echelon of the conference? Can Idaho out-quick the rest of the conference with seven guards? We’ll just have to pull up a chair, sit back and enjoy the show. And what a show it’ll be.