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2014-15 Big West Post-Mortem

June 9, 2015 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments
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The Big West entered 2014-15 poised for a very good year, and it eventually got there, albeit in a very roundabout way.

A number of the storylines for the league coming into the season never quite materialized, for a myriad of reasons. Among them:

-Preseason favorite UC Irvine was hammered by injuries for much of the season. Mammoth (7-foot-6) game-changer Mamadou Ndiaye played in less than half the team’s games, and four other regulars missed substantial time. After a 3-2 start that included a scare of Arizona and a tough loss at St. Mary’s, the Anteaters really were never whole again the rest of the year.

-UC Santa Barbara All-American candidate Alan Williams missed seven games due to a shoulder injury. The injury slowed some of the buzz about the double-double machine, as did UCSB’s perpetually being a play or two short of greatness all season. The Gauchos lost in overtime to Florida Gulf Coast, SMU and Oregon, just missed the Great Alaska Shootout title with a last-second loss to Colorado State, and then fell in the Big West tourney semifinals to Irvine-again in overtime.

-And then there was Hawaii. Coach Gib Arnold was fired just two weeks before the season, apparently due to an NCAA investigation into the program. Star forward Isaac Fotu also was declared ineligible at the same time Arnold left, and then decided to leave the program and return to his native New Zealand to start a pro career. Benjy Taylor was named coach on an interim basis just before the start of the season, taking over a situation that begged for a major collapse.

Such tumult for arguably the expected top three teams entering the season could’ve easily torpedoed a promising campaign for any league, much less one just striving to get to the upper-middle class of NCAA Division I. This was a more muscular Big West than we’ve seen in some time, though, and the league still had a very nice year.

A big part of that was UC Davis. Led by conference player of the year Corey Hawkins (who also missed four games due to injury), the Aggies posted arguably the turnaround story of the season, a monumental turnaround from 9-22 to 25-7 that included their first Big West title.

UC Irvine and UCSB worked through their misfortunes to heat up at the end of the season, tying for second in the league. Taylor did an outstanding job with Hawaii, guiding the Rainbow Warriors to 22 wins and a spot in the Big West tourney final. And UC Riverside surprisingly was a player in the conference race, sitting fourth late in the season and generating considerable hope that the Highlanders can duplicate UC Davis’s ascendance next year.

The season also ended with a very near miss in the NCAA Tournament, as Irvine-finally almost back to full strength finally by mid-March-gave Louisville all it could handle before losing to the eventual Elite Eight participant by two. Depending on where you get your numbers, the Big West ranked anywhere from 12th to 15th in the final conference RPI ranking, the first time the league has finished in the top half of the RPI in nearly 20 years (since 1996-97). Though not necessarily the season the league might have envisioned, it was a successful year for the Big West, and the future continues to look bright as well.

Final Standings:

Big West Overall
UC Davis 14-2 25-7
UC Irvine 11-5 21-13
UC Santa Barbara 11-5 19-14
Long Beach State 10-6 16-17
Hawaii 8-8 22-13
UC Riverside 7-9 14-17
Cal Poly 6-10 13-16
Cal State-Northridge 4-12 9-24
Cal State-Fullerton 1-15 9-22

 

Conference Tournament
Reflecting its improved stature as a league, the Big West tourney was among the most entertaining and competitive of all conference tournaments this year. All seven games were decided by single digits, including three by four points or less and a fourth in overtime.

Underdogs gave good accounts of themselves in all four quarterfinal games, even as just one of them won. No. 5 Hawaii finished the game on a 21-8 run to knock out 4 seed Long Beach State 79-72 in a highly entertaining back-and-forth game. In other quarterfinals, top seed UC Davis withstood a scare from No. 8 Cal State-Northridge 71-67, second-seeded UC Santa Barbara narrowly escaped feisty No. 7 seed Cal Poly 54-50, and 3 seed UC Irvine survived nine ties and 11 lead changes to finally put away No. 6 UC Riverside 63-54.

UC Davis played from behind for much of its Big West tournament, and it caught up to the Aggies in a 65-58 loss to Hawaii in the semifinals. The Rainbow Warriors built an early 13-point lead and never trailed, finishing on a 9-2 run after a furious rally by the Aggies tied the game with two minutes left. The second semifinal also was filled with drama, as Irvine rallied from six down with three minutes left in regulation and then scored the first seven points of overtime in a 72-63 win.

Hawaii continued its red-hot tournament run in the title game, taking an early 13-point lead on Irvine. The Anteaters whittled the deficit to four by halftime, though, then used an 8-0 run late to gain control and made enough free throws down the stretch for a 67-58 win and the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Corey Hawkins, G, Sr., UC Davis
Defensive Player of the Year: Roderick Bobbitt, G, Jr., Hawaii
Newcomer of the Year:
 Jaylen Bland, G, Jr., UC Riverside
Freshman of the Year: Gabe Vincent, G, UC Santa Barbara
Sixth Man of the Year: Josh Fox, F, Jr., UC Davis
Coach of the Year: Jim Les, UC Davis

All-Conference Team
Michael Bryson, G, Jr., UC Santa Barbara
Mike Caffey, G, Sr., Long Beach State
Will Davis, F, Sr., UC Irvine
Corey Hawkins, G, Sr., UC Davis
Taylor Johns, F, Jr., UC Riverside
Alan Williams, C, Sr., UC Santa Barbara

Season Highlights

  • UC Davis’s Hawkins was named an honorable mention Associated Press All-American.
  • Hawkins led NCAA Division I in three-point field goal percentage, shooting 48.8%, and also ranked seventh nationally in scoring (20.9 ppg). UCSB’s Williams led the country in rebounding, averaging 11.8 rpg, while Hawaii’s Bobbitt was third in the nation individually in steals.
  • UC Davis led the nation in three-point percentage, shooting 44.7% from behind the arc, more than three percentage points better than another other team in the country. The Aggies also were fourth nationally in field goal percentage (49.0%). Hawaii was third in the nation in steals (9.6), while Cal State-Northridge was 10th in free throw percentage (76.5%).
  • A measure of the Big West’s strength: its fourth and fifth place teams (Long Beach State and Hawaii) defeated teams from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12. Long Beach defeated Kansas State and Xavier, while Hawaii took down Pittsburgh, Nebraska and Colorado.

What we expected, and it happened: With several star players returning and a solid crop of experienced coaches now, the Big West looked primed for a very good, entertaining year, and the league delivered.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Cal State-Northridge was thought to be a team on the move but dropped from 17-18 to 9-24 and from fifth to eighth in the Big West. St. John’s transfer Amir Garrett left the program before every playing for the Matadors, choosing a pro baseball career, and CSUN never found its way as Reggie Theus fielded a shorthanded roster for the entire season.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: We probably thought more than most of UC Davis’s chances at significant improvement, but no one in their wildest dreams expected 25 wins and a convincing Big West regular season title.

Team on the rise: UC Riverside. The Highlanders will feature two of the top players in the league next year in Bland and Johns and also have generated a buzz about the program that hasn’t been there since moving to Division I 14 years ago.

Team on the decline: UC Davis. A number of complimentary players will get chances to take on increased responsibility, but it’ll be a mighty challenge for the Aggies to replace the high-scoring Hawkins and the 46+ ppg accounted for last year by seniors Hawkins, Ritchart, Avery Johnson and Tyler Les.


Next Season Conference Outlook
The Big West loses a lot of star power with the departure of Hawkins, Williams and dynamic Mike Caffey of Long Beach State, but don’t expect too much of a backwards step. Irvine should be very good again if Ndiaye, Luke Nelson and the rest of the Anteaters can stay healthy. The Anteaters will be the favorite again.

Bob Williams always has UCSB near the top, and nearly everyone not named Alan Williams returns. Plus, the Gauchos got enough practice playing without him last year that his loss shouldn’t be a season breaker for them. A young Long Beach State team will again be toughened by one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, while Hawaii also returns most of its team. We’re curious to see how the Rainbow Warriors adjust to new coach Eran Ganot, but we hope he doesn’t stray too far away from the pesky pressure defense UH was so successful with last year.

The rest of the league-Cal Poly, Cal State-Fullerton, Cal State-Northridge, UC Riverside and UC Davis are all wild cards. UC Riverside looks the best on paper and has two of the league’s best players. On the other hand, the Highlanders won’t catch anyone by surprise next year. UC Davis loses a lot, but now has experience at the top. Cal Poly will remain defensive pests under coach Joe Callero, while CSUN could make a big jump back up the standings. Fullerton is rebuilding. The ceiling for all of these teams is higher than the floor is, though, and that’s good news for the conference as a whole. Don’t be surprised if the Big West is again making some noise in November and December and hangs solidly in the top 15 conferences.

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