Thursday, October 19, 2006

Big West Conference Preview


The Big West Conference, unlike the previous few seasons, did not have any at-large candidates last year 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. In the conference tournament, the regular season champ Tigers continued their success in the Big West with a victory over Long Beach State to win the automatic bid. Once in the Big Dance, the Tigers did their best to win another first-round game, but they fell in two overtimes to 4th-seeded Boston College. This year, the Big West is wide-open and any number of teams have a decent shot at winning it.

Favorite: Long Beach State comes into the season as the leading candidate to knock Pacific off their pedestal. The 49ers have gone from 5 wins to 18 over the past four years under the tutelage of coach Larry Reynolds. He is hoping to take the next step this season, which would be an NCAA Tournament bid. The nation's highest-scoring team returns the top backcourt in the league, and one of the best mid-major perimeter trios in the country. All-conference wings Kejuan Johnson and Aaron Nixon lead the way. Johnson is a very good all-around player who is an excellent shooter, while Nixon is the team's leading scorer and is poised for a breakout season after averaging over 25 points per game in the conference tournament. He is tough to stop going to the basket. Kevin Houston returns for his forth season as the starting point guard. He is an excellent passer who is also quick on the defensive end. Senior Louis Darby could start as the fourth perimeter player in the lineup, although forwards Sterling Byrd and Arturas Lazdauskas will push for time. Inside, Mark Dawson returns. He is a good shot-blocker who is also provides some garbage baskets and solid rebounding. Dominique Ricks and Travon Free will also see plenty of minutes down low.

Contenders: Cal Poly only went 10-19 overall last season, but they finished 4th in the conference and return four starters from that group. Leading the way is one of the best duos in the conference in wings Derek Stockalper and Dawin Whiten. Stockalper is a very versatile player who can start at several positions. He is a good shooter and scorer who is also one of the better rebounders in the league. Whiten, another all-conference performer, is a very good scorer who could improve his production this year. The two-headed point guard tandem of Chaz Thomas and Trae Clark join them on the perimeter. Thomas is a solid distributor, while Clark, the Big West Freshman of the Year, could have a breakout season this year. Up front, in addition to Stockalper, the Mustangs return a host of talented players. Forwards Tyler McGinn and Portland transfer Dreshawn Vince will fight for minutes in the starting lineup, while Titus Shelton and Coby Leavitt also have an opportunity to start in the frontcourt. Cal State Fullerton came into last season with high expectations, but did not live up to the hype and finished 6th in the conference with a 5-9 league record. However, the Titans could make a run at the Big West title this season, led by the favorite for Player of the Year, point guard Bobby Brown. He is one of the top point guards in the country and could be enough to keep Fullerton in the conference race. He is very quick and is a big-time scorer who is also an excellent distributor. Starting next to him could be Georgetown transfer Ray Reed, who has the potential to be a very good producer in the scoring column. Frank Robinson also returns on the perimeter. He does a little bit of everything, and could eventually become an all-conference-type player. Up front, Justin Burns leads the way. He is a very good rebounder and a solid scorer who plays much bigger than his 6-7 size. Kent State transfer Scott Cutler could see immediate playing time in the frontcourt. Pacific loses three starters from their Big West Championship team, but don't cry for the Tigers. While they may not return any standout performers or any big names, Bob Thomason always finds a way to win, as evidenced by an average of more than 25 wins over the past three seasons. Several role players will have to step up and become go-to-players. One of those players is wing Anthony Esparza. He is a very good all-around player who produces in every aspect of the game. He has the potential to be one of the best players in the conference. Also up front, Michael White and Anthony Brown. Both are very solid players who can rebound and score. They immediately form one of the league's best interior duos. The backcourt is wide-open. Steffan Johnson made the most of his time last season as the backup point guard, but he could develop into a star this year. JC transfer Solomon Horsechief could join him as a starter on the perimeter.

Sleepers: UC-Santa Barbara could be a team to look out for this season in the Big West. They only went 6-8 last season in the league, but the Gauchos return one of the conference's top inside-outside tandems in guard Cecil Brown and forward Chris Devine, two all-conference performers. Brown returns as a sixth-year senior after getting rewarded another year as a result of two missed seasons due to injury. He is a very good scorer who can also distribute and rebound well. Devine is an inside-outside scorer on the offensive end, and is also a stout rebounder and defender on the other end of the floor. Two other players return in the frontcourt as complements to Devine. 6-9 Glenn Turner is an athletic shot-blocker who has a lot of potential, and Alex Harris is a solid scorer who will start at small forward again. At the point, freshmen James Powell and Justin Joyner will fight for the starting spot next to Brown. UC-Irvine has been seen picked anywhere from first to sixth in the conference in preseason publications. While I don't think that they are one of the top contenders for the Big West title, they could be a very potent sleeper. The Anteaters finished second to Pacific last season in the conference after starting the league portion 8-0 and looking like they would win the regular season. They have a chance to make a run at the championship again this season. Irvine returns arguably the best frontcourt in the league, led by all-conference center Darren Fells. Fells is a double-double threat who is one of the top low-post performers in the Big West. Joining him up front are Nic Campbell and Patrick Sanders. Campbell is a versatile offensive player with the ability to score inside and outside. He is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, at any position. Sanders played well down the stretch and will start again. Adam Templeton will see plenty of minutes in the frontcourt. The backcourt will be all-new. Texas A&M transfer Marcus McIntosh will likely start immediately at the point guard spot. He is a good penetrator who can also distribute the ball and play solid defense. JC transfer Chuma Awaji will get the first shot at the two-guard slot.

Rounding Out the Pack: Cal State Northridge finished a disappointing seventh in the conference last season, going 4-10 in the Big West and 11-17 overall. However, several players return, giving the Matadors a shot to move up in the standings. One of the league's top duos returns from last year in guard Jonathan Heard and forward Calvin Chitwood. Heard is a big-time scorer who could increase his production this season with an expanded role. Chitwood is an all-conference performer who creates match-up problems due to his versatility and inside-outside ability. In the backcourt, sophomore Jason Hill will likely start at the point, while wings Terrell Jones and Rob Haynes will push for playing time alongisde Heard. Forward Thomas Shewmake could start in the post. The 6-10 senior is an excellent shot-blocker. UC-Riverside was clearly the worst team in the conference last season, going 3-11 within the Big West and just 5-23 overall. With the loss of four starters, the Highlanders are not likely to get out of the cellar. Dedrick Bates leads the way. He is a very good scorer and an excellent rebounder for his 5-10 size. He has the potential to be an all-conference player. Justin Williams-Bell could join him in the backcourt. He is a steady point guard but does not produce much offense. Freshman Korri Ennis will push for a starting spot. Sophomore Benoit Bekono will also see plenty of minutes on the perimeter. Up front, Christian Soto is the top returnee. He is a solid all-around player, but will have to fight for a starting spot due to the influx of several newcomers. Freshmen Henrik Thomsen and JC transfer BJ Visman have good inside-outside abilities on the offensive end, while Severin Gates is a beast in the paint. Look out for Aaron Scott to make an impact as well.

Prediction: The Big West Conference could have one of the best title races in the country. There are up to six teams with a legit shot at contending for the championship, and none of the squads really stand out. For now, I am going with Long Beach State to win the conference. They have an outstanding backcourt led by Kejuan Johnson and Aaron Nixon, and they also have solid frontcourt play. Moreover, they are very difficult to stop on offense, leading the nation in scoring last season. The main candidate to make a run at the 49ers is Cal Poly, who has talent at every position and will see a major improvement from last season. Don't forget about Pacific, though. They always find ways to win. While I'm picking LBSU to take the title, the Big West championship race will definitely be one to watch this season.

Player of the Year: Bobby Brown, PG, Cal State Fullerton

All-Conference Team:
G- Bobby Brown, Cal State Fullerton
G- Aaron Nixon, Long Beach State
G- Kejuan Johnson, Long Beach State
F- Derek Stockalper, Cal Poly
F- Chris Devine, UC Santa Barbara

Second Team:
G- Cecil Brown, UC Santa Barbara
G- Dawin Whiten, Cal Poly
F- Anthony Esparza, Pacific
F- Calvin Chitwood, Cal State Northridge
C- Darren Fells, UC Irvine

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