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2016-17 Big West Post-Mortem

June 9, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

It took a couple years and a much different cast, but UC Davis finished what it started a couple years ago.

Two years after a stunning turnaround resulted in 25 wins and the Big West regular season title, and just one year after going 11-19, the Aggies were back among the conference leaders again. This time, they closed the deal.

Coming from a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, UC Davis snuck by top seed UC Irvine in the Big West tourney final to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid at the Division I level. It was a satisfying career conclusion for several seniors who were part of that 2014-15 team that was superb in the regular season but fell in the Big West tourney and had to settle for the NIT, and also a great moment for coach Jim Les, who took his second school to the NCAAs.

Players like Corey Hawkins, Tyler Les and Josh Ritchart are no longer around, but the Aggies more than doubled their win total from the year before. Brynton Lemar, Darius Graham and J.T. Adenrele were on the team from two years back, and the trio made a veteran starting core this year. They also were joined by recent additions like Chima Moneke, Siler Schneider and Lawrence White to create a balanced team that went undefeated at home, was in every one of its losses but one in the Big West, and avenged their one blowout loss in the regular season finale by toppling that same team in the league tourney final just a week later.

UC Davis was one of several unexpected teams near the top of the conference standings. The Aggies and UC Irvine also led the way for the Big West in 2016-17, with a surprising dose of Cal State Fullerton sprinkled in, too. Those three accounted for the top three spots in the final standings, five of the six players on the all-conference first team, plus all seven of the league’s specialty awards.

Irvine got off to a slow start in the non-conference season with top guard Luke Nelson nursing a hamstring injury, but Nelson was back for conference play. It made all the difference, as with him plus veteran backcourt mate Jaron Martin the Anteaters were the league’s best team in the regular season and won a share of the title for the third time in four years.

Fullerton also made a big leap up the standings, from the basement to third place, and the Titans were ever so close to knocking UC Davis out in the conference tourney semifinals. Tre’ Coggins was the most electric scorer in the conference, Jackson Rowe was its best freshman, and Dedrique Taylor appears to have the program on solid footing.

Those were the highlights from what overall was a disappointing year for the Big West. A conference on a rise lately that was capped by Hawaii’s first round win in the NCAA Tournament just last year, it came crashing back down to the tune of a final No. 29 conference RPI (per CBSSports.com RPI data). Big West teams went an unsightly 31-77 in non-conference games. And while that was something of a perfect storm with a bad combination of heavy player losses, untimely injuries and even’s Hawaii’s saga of NCAA tourney ineligibility that led to a near clearout of its roster (ineligibility that was overturned late in the season, of little help to the Rainbow Warriors by that point), it’s still a number that, needless to say, must improve for the league to get back out of the play-in round and back into 13 seeds (as its teams earned in 2015 and 2016) in the NCAAs.

Final Standings:

Big West Overall
UC Irvine 12-4 21-15
UC Davis 11-5 23-13
Cal State Fullerton 10-6 17-15
Long Beach State 9-7 15-19
Hawaii 8-8 14-16
Cal State Northridge 7-9 11-19
Cal Poly 6-10 11-20
UC Riverside 5-11 7-21
UC Santa Barbara 4-12 6-22

Conference Tournament

The Big West Tournament has been held at the Honda Center in Anaheim for the last seven years. Incredibly, seven different schools have won the league tourney over that time, illustrating the balance often displayed in this event.

All four of this year’s quarterfinals were competitive into the second half, though all four top seeds pulled away late to advance with No. 1 UC Irvine handling 8 seed UC Riverside 76-67, second-seeded UC Davis over 7 seed Cal Poly 66-55, 3 seed Cal State Fullerton over Cal State Northridge 81-68 and fourth-seeded Long Beach State topping Hawaii 73-62. Of the four, UC Davis may have had the toughest time, leading by just four until hitting 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute.

Once again, the semifinals and the championship game were outstanding, so much so that no team led by more than nine points at any time in 125 minutes of play. UC Irvine and Long Beach State were close all night in the first semifinal, swapping the lead 11 times, but the Anteaters’ backcourt of Luke Nelson and Jaron Martin stepped up and freshman Tommy Rutherford made some big plays late in a 62-57 win. The second semi was a classic, with UC Davis and Fullerton going to overtime. The Titans led by two with 55 seconds left after three free throws by Tre’ Coggins, but Brynton Lemar scored the tying layup and Chima Moneke scored on a putback at the buzzer for a 66-64 Aggies win.

The title game may not have been a work of art for those who feel entitled to scoring, but it was a prime example of how captivating a slowdown, every-possession-counts game is in postseason play. UC Davis led the entire first half but found itself down five to UC Irvine with less than four minutes left. Lemar took over down the stretch, scoring 12 of the Aggies’ final 14 points. Davis also locked down on D and finished with a 50-47 win, avenging a 30-point loss to Irvine just a week earlier.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Luke Nelson, G, Sr., UC Irvine
Defensive player of the year: Jonathan Galloway, F, So., UC Irvine
Freshman of the Year: Jackson Rowe, F, Cal State Fullerton
Newcomer of the Year: Chima Moneke, F, Jr., UC Davis
Sixth man of the year: Siler Schneider, G, So., UC Davis
Coach of the Year: Russell Turner, UC Irvine

All-Conference Team
Noah Allen, G/F, Sr., Hawaii
Tre Coggins, G, Sr., Cal State Fullerton
Brynton Lamar, G, Sr., UC Davis
Chima Moneke, F, Jr., UC Davis
Jaron Martin, G, Sr., UC Irvine
Luke Nelson, G, Sr., UC Irvine

Season Highlights

  • UC Davis won its first-ever Big West tourney title and made its first trip to the NCAA Division I Tournament after 12 appearances in the Division II tourney in its old D-II days.
  • The Aggies also were one of the most improved teams in the country, going from 11 wins in 2015-16 to 23 this year.
  • UC Irvine went to the postseason for the fifth straight year, falling to Illinois State in the first round of the NIT.
  • The Anteaters were also once again one of the top defensive teams in the country, finishing sixth in Division I in field goal percentage defense (38.3%) and also rating high in rebound margin and defensive rebounding.

What we expected, and it happened: Even with the loss of five seniors from a year earlier, UC Irvine remained one of the Big West’s top teams. Russell Turner has built a consistent, sustainable program that reloads yearly and is an annual challenger for the league title.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Long Beach State was a preseason favorite of many entering the year, and we foresaw UCI and the Beach battling for the regular season crown. The 49ers took a big injury with the loss of Gabe Levin just before conference play, though, and fought inconsistency the rest of the way.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: UC Santa Barbara fell off a cliff, setting a school record for losses. Inexperience, injuries and academic woes led to a 6-22 season and coach Bob Williams being let go after 19 years.

Teams on the rise: Cal State Fullerton, Hawaii. Dedrique Taylor has done a quality job with the Titans. Also, don’t be misled by Hawaii’s sliding to the middle of the Big West pack last year, because that finish was still better than most expected. Eran Ganot did that with a roster many thought would struggle to win 5-6 games. The Rainbow Warriors will be a threat this year.

Team on the decline: Long Beach State. Maybe relative, but the 49ers appear to be hitting a crossroads. Though almost always a threat in the Big West, it’s now been four years and counting since the last league title. The monstrous non-conference schedules haven’t been translating into conference success, and transferitis struck the roster big-time this offseason.

2017-18 Big West Outlook
By now, any discussion of the Big West’s best team needs to start with UC Irvine, and next year should be no exception. Three key senior starters depart in Nelson, Martin and center Ioannis Dimakopoulos, but there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Rutherford, Eyassu Worku and Max Hazzard plus transfer forward Elston Jones are among players ready to step into key roles, and while replacing two first team all-conference performers in the backcourt shouldn’t be taken lightly, the Anteaters’ record by now suggests they’ll find a way. At the very least, UCI will be stout up front and tough defensively.

Part of the reason why UCI deserves the benefit of the doubt is because picking who might supplant them is not an easy call. You see, while the Anteaters suffer some huge losses in the backcourt, so too do so many others. UC Davis, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Cal State Northridge and even Cal Poly all lose multiple key contributors on the perimeter. Several of those teams return quality frontcourt players, so perhaps UC Davis can make a run at the title again or a Cal State school (Fullerton or Northridge) can make it eight different Big West tourney winners in eight years.

If you’re looking for a darkhorse pick for biggest turnaround in the country next year, and maybe even to challenge for the Big West crown, how about UC Santa Barbara? The Gauchos had more talent than their record indicated a year ago and lose just one senior. Better health alone should allow them to at least double their win total, Gabe Vincent will be a senior and has something to prove after a tough junior year, and Rice grad transfer Marcus Jackson could step in and be an all-conference player. New coach Joe Pasternack has been lighting it up on the recruiting trail already. Don’t be stunned if UCSB is the latest Big West team to make a giant leap up the standings, and the Gauchos return to the contending status where they typically had been before last year’s dropoff.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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