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Does the Big West ever produce a season that isn’t entertaining with a tight race for first-place? This year was no different, as UC Santa Barbara and Pacific finished in a tie at the top of the standings, with both teams going 12-4. By virtue of UCSB sweeping Pacific, the Gauchos got the first seed in the conference tournament. After those two, there was a drop off to spots three through five, as Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton and UC Davis each finished 8-8. Eight teams reach the conference tournament, with the top two teams getting double-byes to the semifinals and seeds three and four getting one bye.
Favorites: UC Santa Barbara and Pacific are the clear favorites in the conference tournament, both because they each finished four games ahead of the closest competition, but also because they each receive a bye directly into the semifinals. UCSB has won seven of its last eight, with four road wins – including one over Pacific and one over Fresno State. The Gauchos are an effective team that attacks the basket and can also hit three-pointers. Defensively, they force turnovers, and guard the perimeter. UCSB is led by the duo of swingman Orlando Johnson, the conference’s Player of the Year, and productive forward James Nunnally, a second-team all-conference selection. Pacific was on top of the standings early on, starting 7-1. However, the Tigers then lost four of their next seven overall to drop back into a tie with UCSB. Pacific plays a half-court game, taking care of the ball and knocking down its shots. Defensively, it is very solid, controlling the glass and contesting shots. Forward Sam Willard is a double-double threat down low; he leads a balanced offense. Sixth-leading scorer Joe Ford was an all-conference selection.
Contenders: Long Beach State has won three of its last four heading into the conference tournament, including a road game at Idaho in the Bracket Busters. This team has also defeated UCLA, Utah State and Wisconsin-Green Bay. The 49ers get up and down the court, forcing turnovers and getting to the rim. They have plenty of options on offense, with T.J. Robinson averaging 15 and 10, and Larry Anderson and Casper Ware scoring from the perimeter. Stephan Gilling can shoot the three. UC Davis also received a bye to the quarterfinals. The Aggies were inconsistent throughout Big West play, but they did defeat Pacific in early February. They force turnovers on defense and get to the free-throw line at the other end. UC Davis has three all-conference-caliber players, with forward Dominic Calegari and guards Joe Harden and Mark Payne, one of the league’s best all-around players.
Sleeper: If one team playing on the first day is going to make a run, it could be Cal State Fullerton. The Titans had won seven of nine before losing its last two games of the season, at home. They push the ball well, attacking the basket and creating contact. On defense, they struggle but do rebound well. Fullerton is an extremely balanced group, with five players averaging between 10.0 and 11.9 points. Jacques Streeter is a playmaker, and forward Gerard Anderson is an all-conference selection.
Prediction: This should be a fun conference tournament. Most of the teams in the Big West can get up and down the court and attack the basket, lighting up the scoreboard. Still, due to the fact that the tournament reseeds after every round and gives the top two teams byes to the semifinals, it’s difficult to imagine someone besides UC Santa Barbara and Pacific playing in the title game. I like Long Beach State’s personnel, but the 49ers lost to Pacific by a combined 32 points in two games, so it’s tough to pick them. In the title game, I like UCSB. The Gauchos have more offensive options than Pacific, and they are a solid defensive team. If Pacific can make it a halfcourt game, the Tigers have a shot. However, I think that UCSB will complete a three-game season sweep of Pacific.