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Big West Preview

November 6, 2007 Conference Notes No Comments

Big West Conference 2007-08 Preview

by Phil Kasiecki

For several years, the Big West was ruled by Pacific, as Bob Thomason’s team was consistently at or near the top of the conference standings. Even in years after they lost key starters, they had other players who were ready to step up and did just that. But last season, that was no longer the case, as the young Tigers gave way to some veteran teams, including champion Long Beach State.

This season, the Tigers figure to be at least a dark horse again, but they will have plenty of company in that regard. Three teams located south of Stockton look to be favored, each fresh off a campaign in which they tied for second place behind Long Beach State.

Recent years have also seen changes with the makeup of the conference, as teams have exited and entered of late. This year, the conference welcomes another school in the University of California system, UC Davis, as a full member, and the Aggies are eligible for the conference tournament. They played a full Big West schedule last season and went 3-13 in those games, which did not officially count in the conference standings. Now a year older and with good size all around, the Aggies don’t figure to be an easy out, although they don’t project to contend just yet.

While many conferences tend to be guard-oriented, the best players in the Big West tend to have a little more balance between the perimeter and the interior. There are still plenty of good guards, but further evidence beyond the top players in the conference can be seen in UC Irvine’s frontcourt being the strength of their team and Long Beach State now possessing some good size, while UC Davis has good size at just about every position and have eight players who stand 6’7″ or taller.

Two teams changed coaches after last season, including defending champion Long Beach State. The 49ers didn’t renew the contract of Larry Reynolds amid an NCAA investigation of recruiting violations that also led the school to put assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Reggie Howard on indefinite leave during the NCAA Tournament. Former Gonzaga and Minnesota head coach Dan Monson replaces Reynolds and inherits a team that looks almost nothing like the one that went to the NCAA Tournament. The other coaching change also involved a former head coach at a high-major school, as David Spencer resigned due to health concerns and the school hired former Kansas State head coach Jim Wooldridge to replace him. Spencer was unable to be with the team for much of the season because of his health concerns.

Preseason Awards
Player of the Year:
Alex Harris, UC Santa Barbara
Top Newcomer: Donovan Morris, Long Beach State
Top Freshman: Greg Plater, Long Beach State
Defensive Player of the Year: Ray Reed, Cal State Fullerton
Best NBA Prospect: Alex Harris, UC Santa Barbara

All-Big West Team
Anthony Brown, Jr. F, Pacific
Chris Devine, Jr. F, UC Santa Barbara
Dawin Whiten, Sr. G, Cal Poly
Scott Cutley, Sr. F, Cal State Fullerton
Alex Harris, Sr. G, UC Santa Barbara

UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (18-11, 9-5 Big West)
Projected Starters:

So. G Justin Joyner (4.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.3 spg)
So. G James Powell (8.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.2 apg)
Sr. G-F Alex Harris (21.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.1 apg)
Jr. F Chris Devine (14.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.3 apg)
Sr. F Ivan Elliott (6.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Gauchos have six home games in a non-conference slate that has some challenges. They begin in the Basketball Travelers Classic at Stanford, where they will play Southland contender Northwestern State, Harvard and the host school. Then they come home for four games, highlighted by West Coast contender San Francisco and UNLV, then later have two straight at home. A road date with North Carolina highlights the road games, which also include a BracketBusters game. Early in Big West play, they play three straight on the road in part of a tough stretch. The last two on the road are at Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly, then they come home to play Pacific. The regular season ends with five of six on the road, including the BracketBusters game.
Outlook: The Gauchos are fresh off a strong season last year and look like the favorites this year with a strong group of holdovers. Harris leads the way as the best player in the conference and one of the best hidden gems in the country. He led the conference in scoring and double-doubles and was second in three-point shooting. If there’s one concern, it’s replacing point guard Cecil Brown, who led the conference in assist/turnover ratio, with either of two sophomores in Joyner and Powell, both of whom are capable players. Devine and Elliott are a solid, if unspectacular duo inside, with Devine being the better offensive player. The Gauchos led the Big West in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense last year, and a repeat of that would go a long way towards getting the title this time around.

Cal State Fullerton Titans (20-10, 9-5 Big West)
Projected Starters:

Sr. G Marcus Crenshaw (11.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 2.3 apg)
Sr. G Ray Reed (7.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.7 spg)
Sr. G-F Frank Robinson (11.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.3 spg)
Sr. F Scott Cutley (15.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.7 apg)
Sr. F-C Andrew Green (3.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Six home games are on tap for the Titans, including a BracketBusters game in February. The home slate is highlighted by Big Sky favorite Montana and Horizon contender Wright State to end a three-game stretch. Road games of note include Arizona, Montana and MAC contender Central Michigan. They play two home-and-homes in non-conference play, against Montana and Southern Utah. In Big West play, they get an early test at home with Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara before a road date with Pacific, then trade off important stretches late in the month. First is a four-game road stretch that ends at UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly, then a five-game homestand follows it.
Outlook: Bobby Brown may be gone, but the Titans have a plethora of guards to throw at opponents and one of the best players in the conference to complement them. Crenshaw, Reed and Robinson form as good a trio as there is in the conference, with Robinson being the best all-around player, Reed being one of the best defenders in the conference and Crenshaw the likely floor leader. They will get deeper with the addition of Washington State transfer Josh Akognon, who will likely play significant minutes and could also start. There is a concern in the backcourt, and that is taking care of the ball since the Titans averaged over 15 turnovers per game last season. Cutley is one of the best players in the league and anchors a frontcourt that may be small since its tallest players are also its least proven. But they will have to go without him to start the season, as he broke a bone in his ankle in an early practice and will be out until December. Junior college transfer Eddie Lima could get some minutes right away, as he’s 6’9″, and he could keep Green out of the starting lineup. There’s plenty of offensive firepower, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Titans led the conference in scoring again. If they want to take home the title, however, it’s a the defensive end that they must improve the most as no one allowed more points and opponents shot nearly 46 percent from the field against them last season.

Cal Poly Mustangs (19-11, 9-5 Big West)
Projected Starters:

Jr. G Trae Clark (9.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.3 spg)
Jr. G Chaz Thomas (8.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.2 spg)
Sr. G Dawin Whiten (11.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.2 spg)
Jr. F Titus Shelton (8.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg)
Sr. F Dreshawn Vance (6.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Mustangs have four home games on tap in non-conference play, highlighted by a visit from former Big West member Utah State. They open the season in the BTI Tipoff Tournament at Northern Iowa, where they will play UMass, the host school and Northern Illinois. Notable road games later in non-conference play include Arizona State and USC, as well as a BracketBusters game. Big West play gives them a chance to get some momentum early, as they open with four of the first six at home. A notable stretch in February starts with Cal State Fullerton at home before three straight on the road, starting with UC Santa Barbara and ending with their BracketBusters game.
Outlook: The Mustangs bring back three starters among their 11 letterwinners, making them one of the most experienced teams in the conference. The perimeter is small but very good, with Clark running the show and Whiten being the big marksman, while Thomas could break out if his 31-point effort in the conference title game last year is any indication. Whiten also makes his mark at the defensive end as one of the conference’s best defenders. Shelton and Vance are serviceable inside. There isn’t great proven depth inside, but there are bodies with some potential such as injury-plagued junior Coby Leavitt. Inside play is a key area for improvement, as the Mustangs were out-rebounded last season.

Pacific Tigers (12-19, 5-9 Big West)
Projected Starters:

Jr. G Steffan Johnson (9.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.2 spg)
So. G C.J. Morgan (6.1 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.2 apg)
Sr. G Solomon Horsechief (6.8 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 2.6 apg)
Jr. F Anthony Brown (14.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 1.6 apg)
Jr. F Michael Nunnally (junior college transfer)
Schedule Highlights: The Tigers will play six home games in a challenging non-conference slate, highlighted by visits from Nevada, improving Pepperdine and Big Sky favorite Montana, as well as a BracketBusters game. They open the season in the World Vision Invitational at Oregon, where they play MAC favorite Western Michigan, host Oregon and Pepperdine. They also go on the road to play Saint Louis, Fresno State and West Coast contenders San Francisco and Santa Clara. On two occasions in Big West play, they have consecutive games against two good contenders: at UC Santa Barbara and at home against Cal Poly to close out January, then at Cal State Fullerton and at home against UC Santa Barbara in February right before the BracketBusters game.
Outlook: The Tigers were young and inexperienced last season, but don’t expect them to be down for long. Although just two starters return, they return four of their top seven scorers and tried to address frontcourt needs to complement star junior Anthony Brown. Brown will lead the way, while Johnson is a steady floor leader and Morgan and HorseChief need to improve as complements on the perimeter. One player who will help there is Miami (Ohio) transfer Chad Troyer. Junior college transfers Nunnally and Bryan LeDuc were brought in to help inside, where the Tigers had some struggles as they were last in the Big West in rebounding. The biggest area for improvement is at the defensive end, where opponents shot over 47 percent from the field against them last season, including nearly 40 percent from long range, both of which placed last in the conference. HorseChief is the only senior on the team, so the Tigers might be a year away.

UC Irvine Anteaters (15-18, 6-8 Big West)
Projected Starters:

So. G Michael Hunter (6.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.0 spg)
Sr. G Chuma Awaji (7.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.9 apg)
So. G Chad DeCasas (4.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg)
Sr. F Patrick Sanders (11.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.5 bpg)
Sr. F-C Darren Fells (10.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.0 apg)
Schedule Highlights: Six home games are on tap in non-conference play, plus a date with Nevada at the Anaheim Convention Center. Former Big West member Utah State and West Coast contender San Francisco highlight the home slate, which also includes a BracketBusters game. They will also play in the inaugural Anaheim Classic, opening with Mississippi State and possibly playing Southern Illinois in the next game. Later road dates include Utah, Southland contender Sam Houston State, Texas A&M and South Carolina. Big West play begins with a bang, as they open at Cal State Fullerton before coming home for UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly, then are at Pacific a week later. Their BracketBusters game begins a regular season-ending five-game homestand.
Outlook: The Anteaters could be a sleeper team as they return four starters and have arguably the best 1-2 frontcourt punch in Sanders and Fells. The duo helped the Anteaters post the second-best rebounding margin in the conference last year, and both can score inside and pass when someone else has a better shot. Hunter and Awaji lead the perimeter, and if both can improve, the offense should be better overall. What makes the perimeter a question mark is that there isn’t a great deal of experience beyond Hunter and Awaji. The Anteaters led the conference in scoring defense and were second in field goal percentage defense, meaning that offense would seem likely to be the place of concern if they are to improve. The biggest issue on offense will be keeping the ball, as only Cal State Northridge turned the ball over more last season.

Cal State Northridge Matadors (14-17, 5-9 Big West)
Projected Starters:

Sr. G Rai Colston (3.3 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 2.0 apg)
Jr. G Rob Haynes (8.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.8 apg)
Sr. G-F Jonathan Heard (13.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.4 spg)
Sr. F Calvin Chitwood (13.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.1 spg)
Sr. F Jayme Miller (5.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The non-conference slate has four home games on tap and several challenging road games. They head to Iowa for the Drake Tournament, where they open with Duquesne. They have later road dates with Gonzaga and Washington and have a home-and-home with Utah Valley State. A road game is on tap for BracketBusters as well. Big West play gets tough quickly, as their first two games are at Cal Poly and at UC Santa Barbara. The BracketBusters game is in the middle of a four-game road stretch late in the regular season.
Outlook: The Matadors bring back three starters and have a couple of horses in Heard and Chitwood, as well as a good complement in Haynes, but they start to get thin after that. Only five players who saw the court for them last season return, and the point guard spot starts off as a question mark with Colston as the projected starter but no proven player behind him. Chitwood will need to stay out of foul trouble if he is to close out his career on a good note. That’s a sign of a larger issue, as only one team allowed more points than the Matadors last season, and it becomes more important if they surrender possessions like they did last season as they led the conference in turnovers.

UC Davis Aggies (5-23, 3-13 Big West*)
Projected Starters:

Jr. G Vince Oliver (12.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.2 apg)
Jr. G David Carter (4.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.2 apg)
So. G-F Shane Hanson (4.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
So. F C.J. Portz (4.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
So. F Dominic Calegari (6.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Aggies have six home games on their non-conference schedule, including two in the Legends Classic as a regional host and a later date with Oregon State. They have road games at WAC favorite New Mexico State and Texas, as well as UCLA, make a New England swing in early December to play Brown and Dartmouth, and go on the road in February for a BracketBusters game. In Big West play, they get two three-game stretches where they play UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly.
Outlook: Now eligible for the conference tournament, don’t expect the Aggies to become instant contenders. They are still a young bunch as there is not a senior on the roster, and they have plenty of size. Oliver and Carter have played alongside each other for two years now, with Oliver an all-conference candidate. The backcourt is also home to several newcomers, of whom Adam Malik and Mark Payne could make an immediate impact and have great size for the perimeter at 6’8″ and 6’7″ respectively. The frontcourt will get back two players who were hit by injury last season in Kyle Brucculeri and Jesse Lopez-Low. There are lots of areas for improvement if the Aggies are to be contenders. They need to take better care of the ball, as they averaged almost 18 turnovers per game last season and only two players had more assists than turnovers. Defense is another area for improvement after teams shot nearly 49 percent from the field, including 39 percent from three-point range last season. And for all their size, the Aggies were out-rebounded by six per game last season.

Long Beach State 49ers (24-8, 12-2 Big West)
Projected Starters:

Fr. G Greg Plater
Jr. G Artis Gant (1.9 ppg, 1.3 rpg)
Jr. G Donovan Morris (transfer from Fresno State)
Jr. F Brandon Johnson (junior college transfer)
Jr. C Brian Freeman (junior college transfer)
Schedule Highlights: The season opener against Brigham Young is the highlight of four non-conference home games. The road games on tap are plenty challenging, as they include trips to Washington, Saint Louis and Hawaii, as well as an appearance in the Golden Bear Classic against host California and either Patriot League contender Bucknell or North Dakota State. They also have a road game in the BracketBusters. Big West play starts out tough, as their first three games are at UC Santa Barbara, at Cal Poly and at home against Pacific.
Outlook: It’s fitting that the 49ers have a new head coach, as it makes one more way in which this year’s team won’t resemble last season’s. Dan Monson will be counting on new players just about all the way, although there is some college experience in Gant and Morris to start with. Morris should be the go-to guy right away, while Plater should start right away as well. There is some size in the frontcourt, as Freeman is 6’10” and sophomore Andrew Fleming is a seven-footer, but this team is very inexperienced as there isn’t a senior on the roster and will take time to develop. In addition to the many newcomers, none of the holdovers is a senior, so there is youth and inexperience at the Division I level on this squad.

UC Riverside Highlanders (7-24, 1-13 Big West)
Projected Starters:

Jr. G Chris Johnson (10.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.0 apg)
Sr. G Larry Cunningham (13.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.1 spg)
So. G Charles Jim-George (4.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg)
Jr. F Christian Soto (4.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Jr. F B.J. Visman (redshirt)
Schedule Highlights: The Highlanders won’t have it easy in non-conference play, as they have five home games and plenty of challenging road games. The home slate is highlighted by a BracketBusters game in February. The road games of note are at Texas Tech, Gonzaga, Minnesota, San Diego State and USC. In Big West play, the most noteworthy portion is a three-game homestand in early January.
Outlook: The Highlanders had a rough go of it last year, as injuries took their toll and former head coach David Spencer had health concerns of his own that kept him away from the team and ultimately led to his resignation. They return a solid backcourt with Johnson and Cunningham for new head coach Jim Wooldridge to build around, and Jim-George showed some potential in his first season as he started ten games. Cunningham, the team’s only senior, should be one of the best guards in the conference. The frontcourt is where the question marks are, as well as where some of the injuries were. Visman and classmate Benoit Bekono had to redshirt, with Bekono suffering another severe knee injury to end his season after six games. Both are very capable players if they stay healthy. With all the injuries and the change in the coaching staff, it’s difficult to project this season’s team based on last year’s.

* – UC Davis’ games against Big West opponents in 2006-07 did not officially count in the conference standings, but their record in those games is included here for informational purposes.

Conference Outlook

The conference looks a bit top-heavy this season, as there is strength at the top with UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly leading the way and rebuilding teams at the bottom. The competition should be stiff between those three, and don’t count out a bounce-back year from Pacific now that they are more experienced and have help for Anthony Brown. UC Davis has some potential in the long run, while Long Beach State has a new team all around and UC Riverside starts over with a new coach.


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