With only four games separating first from eighth last season, the Big West was one of the most competitive conferences out there. Cal State-Northridge somehow captured both the regular season and tournament crowns despite losing the services of arguably their two best players for divergent reasons. The Matadors then went on to give 2 seed Memphis a battle in the first round of the NCAAs.
The level of competition in the Big West should remain the same this season, as--once again--Cal Poly looks to be the only team that will struggle. And the Mustangs should quickly become competitive under former Seattle University head coach Joe Callero, who won 117 games there. In the meantime, Long Beach State, with their three Big West All-Freshmen selections all now sophomores, and UC Santa Barbara, bolstered by the return of point guard Justin Joyner, look to be the class of the league. But you'd be foolish to overlook any of the other teams in the "California Bus League." More after the jump.
Let's start with a look at last season's final Big West standings.
Big West Conference Standings
(updated 3.25.2009 at 11:59 PM EDT)
|Cal. St.-Northridge Matadors||11||5||17||14|
|Long Beach St. 49ers||10||6||15||15|
|UC Riverside Highlanders||8||8||17||13|
|UC Santa Barbara Gauchos||8||8||16||15|
|UC Irvine Anteaters||8||8||12||19|
|Cal. St.-Fullerton Titans||7||9||15||17|
|UC Davis Aggies||7||9||13||19|
|Cal Poly Mustangs||3||13||7||21|
Now here are my picks for the 2009-10 season, presented in reverse order.
Cal Poly (last NCAA: None) Callero will be hard pressed to repeat the seven wins the Mustangs had under Kevin Bromley last season, as three starters off that team are gone. The losses include 12-plus ppg, 5-plus board performer F Titus Shelton and G Chaz Thomas, who contributed 11 ppg. The two returning starters, 6-2 G Lorenzo Keeler (12.7 ppg) and 6-4 Shawn Lewis (11.7 ppg, 5 rpg), are excellent building blocks. 6-10 freshman Ben Eisenhardt decided not to enroll at Seattle when Callero left, and he followed the coach to San Luis Obispo. JC transfers Will Donahue, a 6-8 center, and 6-6 forward Will Taylor will have to make an immediate impact in the frontcourt. However, Taylor's teammate at Hagerstown CC, point guard Amaurys Fermin, wasn't admitted to school and won't suit up for the Mustangs this season, meaning a freshman will probably have to fill that role.
UC Davis (last NCAA: None) While the Aggies return three starters including junior Joe Harden, a 6-8 forward who will challenge for conference honors (14.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), 6-7 junior G Mark Payne (10.4, 5.8, 5.1 apg), and 6-10 senior F Domenic Calegari (11 ppg, 4.4), they are going to miss 6-2 shooting guard Vance Oliver. He was UCD's main offensive threat out of the backcourt, averaging 15.4 ppg. Hawai'i transfer Todd Lowenthal and redshirt freshman Julian Welch will compete for Oliver's minutes. Head coach Gary Stewart really needs his bench to step up for his team to contend, however. Backup point guard Ryan Silva'is the leading returning scorer off the bench, and he only averaged 4.7 points a contest.
UC Irvine (last NCAA: None) The Anteaters lost 6-8 F Kevin Bland (10.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) to graduation, which is potentially a big loss for Pat Douglass' squad. However, 6-5 Eric Wise is an excellent building block for UCI's revamped frontcourt, as he averaged 14 points and 6 boards in his freshman year. But the arrival JC teammates, Slovaks Pavol Losonsky, a 6-8 forward, and Peter Simek, a 6-9 center, could really provide a boost to the frontline. The Anteaters feature a solid backcourt with 5-10 senior Michael Hunter (11.9, 2.5 apg) and 6-0 junior Patrick Rembert (6.9, 2.7 apg) leading the way and 6-0 freshman Derick Flowers expected to contribute immediately.
Cal State-Fullerton (last NCAA: 2008) While Bob Burton's Titans only lost one starter, it's a departure that will leave a major hole. Big West Player of the Year Josh Akognon has graduated, taking nearly 24 points a game with him. The four returning starters are led by sophomore PG Jacques Streeter (10.4 ppg, 4.4 apg), but with Akognon taking up so much of the scoring load, no other starter averaged more than swingman Gerard Anderson's 9 ppg. That will obviously have to change if the Titans hope to return to the NCAAs after a year absence. Burton's team will be more frontcourt-focused this season. The returnees are led by Papa Guisse, a 6-8 F/C who averaged only 3.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg last year. Expect heavy contributions from three transfers: 6-7 Orane Chin (South Florida) and 6-6 Jer'Vaughn Johnson (San Diego State), and 6-10 Bryce Webster (Minnesota).
Pacific (last NCAA: 2006) Bob Thomason's Tigers always seem to be in the hunt for the Big West title, and this year should be no exception, despite the loss of three starters from last year. While two-thirds of the Tigers' starting backcourt, guards Michael Kirby (9.7 ppg, 2.3 apg) and Chad Troyer (10.7, 1.5 apg), is gone, 6-6 G Joe Ford (4.3 ppg) returns to the team that fell to Bradley in the CollegeInsider semifinals. Junior Terrell Smith (6.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and senior PG-designee Lavar Neufville (3.7 ppg) will need to pick up their production to replace Kirby and Troyer, otherwise freshmen Sterling Carter and Allen Huddleston will get more of a chance. 6-9 forward Sam Willard (7.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg) is back to anchor the frontcourt, and if his scoring output increases, he'll be a serious threat for all-Big West honors this year. He'll get a big boost with the return of 6-8 senior Michael Nunnally, who was suspended all of last season (7.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg in '07-'08). International JC transfers, 6-9 Nyika Williams (St. Vincent) and 6-11 Everson Lacerda (Brazil) should also see serious playing time. In uniform news, the Tigers will wear special "STOCKTON" jerseys when they play California in their first ever game at the Stockton Arena, four years after it opened. (HT Uniwatch)
Cal State-Northridge (last NCAA: 2009) Bobby Braswell's team looks to repeat, and while the odds may be against them, they're impossible to write-off. You only need to look at last season, when the Matadors made the NCAAs and had a ton of us "experts" scratching our heads when they gave Memphis a battle in Kansas City. This was despite the loss of leading scorer Deon Trevsant, who allegedly got caught up with Braswell's son in a plot to steal electronics, and PG Josh Jenkins to a serious auto accident during the season. The three returning starters, 6-4 G Kenny Daniels (8.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg), 6-8 F Willie Galick (9.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), and 5-10 G Mark Hill (7.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg), were all transfers last year. And Braswell hopes his latest crop of transfers, led by 2007-08 Big Sky Freshman of the Year Vinnie McGee (Sacramento State), can fill the substantial holes on the Matadors' roster. CSUN will face early tests in the West region of the NIT Season Tip-Off, where they open up with TCU. If they can get past the Horned Frogs, Texas State or a rebuilding Arizona State would await, with a trip to New York on the line.
UC Riverside (last NCAA: None) USC transfer Kyle Austin, a 6-7 forward made a huge impact last year, averaging 16.2 ppg and 6.1 rpg. He'll be a serious contender for Big West Player of the Year this time around. If Jim Woolridge's latest addition, Gonzaga transfer Larry Gurganious, a 6-5 forward, is anywhere near as successful, the Highlanders will be a serious threat to win their first ever Big West crown. Gurganious should replace 9.4 ppg/6.6 rpg performer Aaron Scott who graduated. Christian Soto (4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is also gone, meaning sophomore Konner Veteto (3.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg) should see a lot more time at center. In the backcourt, Javon Borum is a strong defensive point guard who averaged nearly 10 points a game, along with 2.4 assists. Junior college transfer Dwight Gordon, who averaged almost 22 points and 9 boards a game (and 3 assists) last season, should fill the shooting guard role.
UC Santa Barbara (last NCAA: 2002) The Gauchos lost leading scorer and rebounder Chris Devine (15.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), but looked to be in solid shape thanks to the return of their other four starters. However, 6-8 C Jesse Byrd, who averaged 6.5 points and 5.4 boards a game last year, will miss his senior season thanks to a recurring knee problem. So, UCSB is now down to three returning starters, but point guard Justin Joyner returns after missing last season with a wrist injury. He'll be joined in the backcourt by Will Brew (4.8 ppg) and James Powell (9 ppg). 6-7 Jaime Serna (6.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and 7-2 Hungarian Greg Somogyi (3.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg) will anchor the frontcourt, but expect to see a lot of 6-5 James Nunnally, brother of Pacific's Michael, who averaged almost 8 points and over 3 boards a game last year. Bob Williams will also receive the services of former Loyola Marymount forward Orlando Johnson this season.
Long Beach State (last NCAA: 2007) While Dan Monson lost his leading scorer from last year, Donovan Morris (14.8 ppg), he has a very talented group coming back led by three sophomores. The 49ers are a balanced team, as the returning starters all average between 9 and 11 poitns per game. The three sophomores, 6-6 G/F Larry Anderson (10.8 ppg, 2.7 apg), 6-7 F T.J. Robinson (11.4, 6.2), and 5-9 G Casper Ware (9.1, 4.1 apg) were Big West All-Freshman selections last season. Anderson, the conference's Freshman of the Year, was the first frosh since fellow LBSU player Clifton Pondexter to be named to the All-Big West team as a freshman. Pondexter's selection came 35 seasons earlier. The 49ers bring back one returning senior starter, 6-2 guard Stephan Gilling, who averaged 11 ppg last year. Monson should give more playing time to junior G Greg Plater, who shot 39% from the perimeter, but only averaged 3.2 points a contest last year. While Long Beach has two seven footers on roster, senior Andrew Fleming (1 ppg, 1.3 rpg) and C Mike Vantrimpont, 6-9 JC transfer Lin Chang 6-9, should see the bulk of the post time, as he averaged a double-double last year. 6-10 freshman Jules Montgomery should also see time inside. This crop of 49ers will be tested by a difficult, March-focused schedule. They hold the Big West's host spot in the 76 Classic, where they open with West Virginia, and travel to Duke, Kentucky, Notre Dame, and Texas.
LBSU is my pick in what should be a very competitive league. They'll hold the Big West's auto bid in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket, which I will release on November 9.
To wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-Big West team, featuring the best returning players from last season.
Preseason All-Big West Team
Player of the Year: Larry Anderson, 6-6 G/F, So. (Long Beach State)
Remainder of the Team
Kyle Austin, 6-7 F, Jr. (UC Riverside)
Mark Payne, 6-7 G, Jr. (UC Davis)
T.J. Robinson, 6-7 F, So. (Long Beach State)
Eric Wise, 6-5 F, So. (UC Irvine)