Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Big West Conference Tournament Preview

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The Big West Conference, unlike the past few seasons, did not have any at-large candidates but did have a solid conference race. Pacific recovered from a 2-2 start in the league to win the conference by two games at 12-2. UC-Irvine started out 8-0 in conference play, but struggled down the stretch to finish in second at 10-4. Only one other team finished above .500 in the league play. Overall, the Big West had its worst season in several years, possibly due to the loss of Utah State to the WAC.

Favorite: Pacific has won their last ten conference games and 11 of their last 12 overall. The Tigers knocked off Texas A&M and Western Kentucky in the non-conference season and have the players to win the conference tournament. Pacific has the league's most efficient offense and defense and are at the top of the conference in several statistical categories. Christian Maraker is one of the best big men in all of the mid-major conferences, and he can take over a game at any time. Guards Johnny Gray and Mike Webb form one of the best backcourts in the conference, while Anthony Esparza and Michael White also contribute in the lineup.

Contenders: UC-Irvine had a chance to run away with the league with their undefeated start, but stumbled down the finish line and came in second. They are one of the top shooting teams in the league and own the best scoring defense in the Big West. The Anteaters have lost four of their final eight games. Aaron Fitzgerald is the best point guard in the conference, while shooter Ross Schraeder combines with him to form a very good backcourt. The frontcourt trio of Nic Campbell, Darren Fells, and Patrick Sanders are all solid scorers and rebounders. Long Beach State is the highest-scoring team in the country and loves to get up and down the floor and get points in transition. However, their defense is one of the worst in the conference. They have won 5 in a row and 10 of their last 13. The 49ers have four players in double-figures. Jibril Hodges is one of the best guards in the conference, while Aaron Nixon is a very good all-around perimeter player. Kejuan Johnson and Kevin Houston are two more solid scorers and passers on the wing. Shawn Hawkins anchors the interior. He is capable of big games.

Sleeper: UC-Santa Barbara looked like a lost cause at the end of January. At the time, they were 1-6 in the Big West and 6-11 overall. However, they turned it around and won 7 of their final 9 to salvage a .500 record and a 6-8 in the conference. The Gauchos are led by the inside-outside combo of guard Cecil Brown and forward Chris Devine. Both are capable of big-time performances. Alex Harris and Joe See are solid performers on the perimeter.

Prediction: With no at-large bid on the line from this conference, the Big West conference tournament is going to be like any other mid-major conference--only the winner is going to the NCAA Tournament. In that case, Pacific is going to be the team going to the Big Dance with the automatic bid. They have the experience of playing in a title game as well as the best trio in the conference in Gray, Webb, and Maraker. Maraker, by himself, is enough to carry the Tigers to the championship. However, both Long Beach State and UC-Irvine have the ability to pull off the upset. LB State's lack of defense will cost them somewhere along the line, and Pacific will take the championship.

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