The Big West in 2013-14 was a very nice half-a-conference through its regular season. In its postseason tourney, the conference showed glimpses of very soon being a tough top-to-bottom league.
Of course, a generalization like the former is always too simplistic and never gives enough credit for the rigors of conference play, but the truth is the Big West was a four-team race last year. And a very good one at that. UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Long Beach State and Hawaii staged a spirited battle for the conference title in a league that refreshingly still decides a true champion through a double round-robin schedule.
In the end, it was Irvine that came up with a hard-earned regular season title by winning 9 of its last 10 games. The Anteaters won their first Big West championship since back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002, displaying a nice mix of youth and experience, plus massive 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye. UCSB and Hawaii also both won 20 games, and Long Beach State as usual was better than its overall record and a threat to win the Big West tourney.
All of this made how the Big West Tournament played out especially surprising. None of the top four made it as far as the title game, as fifth-seeded Cal State-Northridge and No. 7 Cal Poly knocked out the top four teams. In the end it was Cal Poly winning the Big West’s automatic NCAA bid, fulfilling the promise of a team that was considered a league title contender before the season but went just 11-18 in the regular season.
The tournament may be a fitting precursor to what is setting up for a very nice 2014-15 season for the Big West. Just six of the 20 players who received all-conference honors were seniors, and all nine coaches return as well. UC Irvine loses just one senior, and the next four teams in the standings all return first team all-conference players. Several of the conference’s second-division teams will also receive an influx of transfers or returnees from injury.
The top isn’t getting weaker and has some star power, while the bottom almost certainly will get stronger. That’s a formula for serious improvement, maybe even making some national noise. The Big West may be doing just that very soon.
|UC Santa Barbara||12-4||21-9|
|Long Beach State||10-6||15-17|
For those of us who prefer easy-to-follow brackets without more forks than a Golden Corral buffet, it was a good day when the Big West got rid of double-byes for its top two teams a couple years ago, making for a nice, simple 8-team tourney starting with four quarterfinals.
This year’s Big West tourney began with maybe the most baffling result of any conference tourney. No. 2 seed UC Santa Barbara came in as one of the favorites, but Cal Poly rocked the Gauchos 69-38. UCSB had just beaten Poly by 16 points on the road five days earlier, and its worst loss all season was by 13 (at UCLA), but the Mustangs “punked” them, in the words of Gaucho guard Michael Bryson after the game. Cal Poly out-rebounded Santa Barbara 38-29 and held the Gauchos to 32.7% shooting. The Mustangs had previously edged UCSB in an earlier regular season meeting, but the way this one played out was stunning.
In other quarterfinals, top seed UC Irvine topped No. 8 UC Riverside 63-43 and No. 3 Long Beach State held off No. 6 Cal State-Fullerton 66-56, but the final quarterfinal revealed another upset as fifth-seeded Cal State-Northridge rallied from a 13-point second half deficit and edged Hawaii 87-84 in overtime.
The madness continued in the semifinals. Teams were reseeded and Cal Poly was assigned to face the No. 1 seed, and the Mustangs did it again, knocking off UCI 61-58. The path looked clear for Long Beach to grab another NCAA bid, but the 49ers were then taken out 82-77 by Northridge, setting up the 5-vs.-7 championship game.
After CSUN built an early 11-point lead, Cal Poly settled down and the game went back-and-forth with nine ties and seven lead changes. The Matadors seemed in control when Stephen Maxwell gave them a 59-55 lead with 1:32 to play, but the Mustangs hit two free throws and then freshman reserve Ridge Shipley drained a cold-blooded go-ahead 3-pointer with 14 seconds left for the game-winner.
Player of the Year: Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara
Newcomer of the Year: Michael Williams, Cal State-Fullerton
Coach of the Year: Russell Turner, UC Irvine
Freshman of the Year: Luke Nelson, UC Irvine
Mike Caffey, Jr., G, Long Beach State
Isaac Fotu, So., F, Hawaii
Stephen Maxwell, Jr., F, Cal State-Northridge
Chris McNealy, Sr., G, UC Irvine
Christian Standhardinger, Sr., F, Hawaii
Alan Williams, Jr., C, UC Santa Barbara
- UCSB’s Alan Williams led NCAA Division I in rebounding, averaging 11.5 rpg. He also ranked 13th nationally in scoring, averaging 21.3 ppg.
- The Big West posted four wins over the Pac-12. UC Santa Barbara picked up maybe the league’s best win, defeating California at home, while UC Irvine won at Washington.
- Cal Poly made its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and won a play-in game before falling to Wichita State.
- Cal State-Northridge played seven overtime games, including six in its final 14 games. The Matadors were a nifty 5-2 in those games
What we expected, and it happened: UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara came into the season as conference favorites, and both did not disappoint. In the regular season.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Cal Poly was expected to contend for the Big West title, but came nowhere close to doing so. In the regular season.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: The Big West Tournament. Almost all of it. Cal Poly and Northridge showed us yet again why we enjoy March so much.
Team(s) on the rise: UC Irvine, Cal State-Northridge. Throw UC Davis into there too. How high can the Anteaters go under Russell Turner? Their first-ever NCAA Tournament bid would be a start, but this is a team that can win in the tourney. Reggie Theus at Northridge is a coup for the Big West, and he already is bringing in some high-profile transfers next year. UC Davis was decimated by injuries this season but will return three very productive players next year, including Corey Hawkins, son of former Bradley and NBA star Hersey Hawkins, and will be very interesting to watch.
Team(s) on the decline: Cal Poly.Only because it will be tough to top or repeat the Big West tourney run, with the returning talent in the league and without senior leader Chris Eversley. In truth there’s not a single team in this league that doesn’t have a reasonable chance to be better than last year.
Next Season Conference Outlook
This coming season will mark 10 years since the Big West last furnished an at-large entry to the NCAA Tournament (Utah State in 2005). It has a chance to break that streak this year. At the very least, the league should be the deepest it has been in those 10 years.
UC Irvine will be the favorite, and may sneak into the back end of a few preseason top 25 rankings. The Anteaters still have work to do to get to that point, as shown in their NIT 1st Round loss to SMU in which they couldn’t hold a first half lead, but they’re experienced, Ndiaye is a defensive weapon and Luke Nelson should become one of the top scorers in the conference.
The challengers to UCI are many. UC Santa Barbara returns Williams, who should contend for All-America honors. Hawaii and Long Beach State have a few question marks but aren’t going anywhere. Cal State-Northridge will almost certainly be better. Cal Poly is the defending tourney champions, and even UC Davis is primed for a big improvement.
The Big West hasn’t finished in the top half of Division I conferences in RPI since 1996-97 (14th). Achieving that mark looks like a reasonable goal for a league still sits behind the Pac-12, Mountain West and WCC, but is looking as stable as it has in a long time.