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Mid-Major Conference Preview: Big West Conference

Pacific completed its farewell tour in the Big West with a trip to the NCAA tournament. Now with the Tigers gone, can the 49ers renew their dominance? Or will a new challenger arise?

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As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast. We continue with the Big West Conference.

This was supposed to be a new era for the Big West: if everything had gone to plan, San Diego State and Boise State would be in the Big West for everything but football. All that changed when the Broncos (and later the Aztecs) realized that the Big East/American Athletic Conference (pronounced "ACK!") couldn't get a TV deal together that would suit the newcomers from the Mountain West. Instead, what happened was that the Broncos and Aztecs went back to the Mountain West, the basketball-only schools from the old Big East broke away from the AAC and took the "Big East" name with them and the Big West ended up just losing Pacific to the West Coast Conference.

In retrospect, that was probably the best decision.

Speed up to present day: the Big West looks to the obvious favorites in Long Beach State and UCSB to lead the conference into the NCAA tournament once again. However, that path isn't necessarily guaranteed...

1. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

Last Year: 11-20 (7-11), 7th in Big West

Departures: None

Key Returners: Alan Williams (17.1 PPG), Kyle Boswell (13.0 PPG), Taran Brown (11.1 PPG)

After missing postseason play last year for the first time in three years, the Gauchos are on a mission to get back to the top of the standings. Alan Williams returns after an outstanding sophomore campaign, ranking 6th nationally in rebounds and 15th nationally in double-doubles. Williams has also a great supporting cast around him, as UCSB returns 3 other starters and 5 more players off the bench. Between Williams, Boswell, Brown, T.J. Taylor (4.0 APG) and Michael Bryson (8.4 PPG), the Gauchos will be an offensive force to be reckoned with.

The Gauchos square off against 5 NCAA tourney teams in non-conference play: UNLV, Colorado, UCLA, Cal and South Dakota State. UCSB also has two games against old Big West foe and consistent postseason threat, Utah State Aggies, who look to rebound from a disappointing 4th place finish in the WAC last season.

2. Long Beach State 49ers

Last Year: 19-14 (14-4), Regular Season Conference Champion, NIT First Round

Departures: James Ennis (16.5 PPG), Peter Pappageorge (6.9 PPG)

Key Returners: Mike Caffey (12.0 PPG), Dan Jennings (8.4 PPG)

Last year, the 49ers were in great position to make the Dance for a second straight year. UC Irvine spoiled that party in the Big West Tournament, upsetting The Beach 67-60 in the semifinals. LBSU went on to get humiliated in the First Round of the NIT, losing 112-66 against Baylor. Soon after the season was over, Ennis graduated and got drafted in the NBA, however it was the dismissal of Tony Freeland, Keala King and Deng Deng that has put LBSU basketball in a panic for this upcoming season.

The 49ers will now look to Mike Caffey and Dan Jennings to lead the way against another killer non-conference schedule (opponents include Michigan, Creighton, Arizona, NC State, Kansas State and Missouri). If Caffey and Jennings can hold this team together enough to survive the non-conference schedule, the Big West will be theirs for the taking.

Fun Tidbit: The 2007-08 season was the last time significant dismissals were made at LBSU. That team finished horribly, however a new star rose out of the ashes of that team: Casper Ware.

3. Cal Poly Mustangs

Last Year: 18-14 (12-6), 3rd in Big West, Postseason Tournament First Round

Departures: Chris O'Brien (5.1 PPG), Dylan Royer (10.1 PPG), Drake U'u (5.3 PPG)

Key Returners: Chris Eversley (15.4 PPG), Brian Bennett (9.3 PPG)

Cal Poly looks to build on last season's success. The Mustangs won 18 games last season which was just short of their school record 19 wins (2006-07). Thanks to the numerous postseason tournaments that exist today, the Mustangs made the postseason for the first time in Division I. Where the 2007-08 team full of seniors had a disappointing campaign, this edition of Mustang basketball has two seniors and a seemingly strong defense to power through this season.

Chris Eversley and Brian Bennett look to lead the Mustangs to a second straight postseason appearance. Eversley led Cal Poly in scoring while Bennett shot 52.4% from the field. For the past three seasons, Cal Poly has led the Big West in defense and the result has been three straight seasons of 50% wins and above. This season should prove to be no different in San Luis Obispo.

4. UC Irvine Anteaters

Last Year: 21-16 (11-7), 4th in Big West, Postseason Tournament Second Round

Departures: Derick Flowers (2.8 PPG), Adam Folker (9.3 PPG), Daman Starring (12.9 PPG), Michael Wilder (8.6 PPG), Michael Wilder's Afro (Always a game winner)

Key Returners: Will Davis II (9.7 PPG), Chris McNealy (9.2 PPG), Alex Young (9.2 PPG)

The Anteaters are in a unique position this year: they lost valuable seniors in Folker, Starring and Wilder; however the former underclassmen are ready to step up, due to many of them already having seen significant playing time last season. Alex Young was named Big West Freshman of the Year and also placed on the Mid-Major Freshman All-American team. Will Davis II, as a sophomore last year, blocked 88 shots and Chris McNealy, the only senior on this year's squad, has 821 points in his career and looking to become the 23rd player in school history to hit 1,000 career points.

An interesting position battle coming up this season is not for the vertically challenged. Sophomore Center Conor Clifford (7-0) will be looking to outsize and outdo the new international freshmen: Ioannis Dimakopoulos (Greece, 7-2) and Mamadou Ndiaye (Senegal, 7-6).

5. Cal State Northridge Matadors

Last Year: 14-17 (5-13), 9th in Big West

Departures: HC Bobby Braswell

Key Returners: Stephan Hicks (15.7 PPG), Stephen Maxwell (14.6 PPG), Josh Greene (14.5 PPG)

The Bobby Braswell ended unceremoniously with the relieving of his duties after 17 seasons as the boss. In his place now stands Reggie Theus, the former UNLV legend and also former Pitino assistant. The Matadors hope that Theus will be the man to bring Northridge back to the NCAA Tournament.

Good coaching needs good player leadership in order to be fully successful. For that, the Matadors turn to Hicks, Maxwell and Greene who all ranked as scoring leaders in the Big West. With a high potent offense and a coach who knows how to win at the college level, the Matadors might be a perfect dark horse contender for the Big West title.

6. UC Davis Aggies

Last Year: 14-17 (9-9), 6th in Big West

Departures: Ryan Howley (6.1 PPG)

Key Returners: Corey Hawkins (20.3 PPG), Ryan Sypkens (14.1 PPG)

There are a couple reasons to be hopeful about this Aggies team. For starters, their top two scorers return in hopes of making a serious run in the top of the conference. Also, Jim Les has improved the team significantly since his arrival in 2011. Unfortunately, J.T. Adenrele will be missing out the 2013-14 season due to a knee injury suffered in the off-season, and that could be a huge blow to the team.

The Aggies have a relatively easy non-conference schedule to help build confidence in the team. Should UC Davis go into conference play with a winning record, the momentum could be enough to throw them into the top half of the conference.

7. Cal State Fullerton Titans

Last Year: 14-18 (6-12), 8th in Big West

Departures: Kwame Vaughn (18.4 PPG), D.J. Seeley (17.9 PPG), Sammy Yeager (15.8 PPG)

Key Returners: Alex Harris (10.5 PPG), James Johnson (6.3 PPG)

The Titans are also a team who made coaching changes over the past season: Dedrique Taylor gets his first taste of being the boss after leaving his long tenure as the assistant coach of Arizona State. The big question for Fullerton is: can the Titans keep up their high-powered offense?

While we know that Harris won't be a problem, the rest of the team will have to step up in order to continue the scoring trend (the Titans have averaged the highest point total over the previous two seasons). Look for Michael Williams, the senior transfer from University of San Francisco, to step up at the right time as he averaged 11.1 PPG in the 2011-12 season with the Dons.

8. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

Last Year: 17-15 (10-8), 5th in Big West, Postseason Tournament First Round

Departures: Vander Joaquim (13.8 PPG), Hauns Brereton (10.0 PPG), Jace Tavita (4.1 PPG)

Key Returners: Christian Standhardinger (15.8 PPG), Isaac Fotu (10.1 PPG)

You might as well call Hawaii "the UN of Division I basketball" as the Rainbow Warriors have a tally of six foreign countries on their roster (Australia, Canada, Germany, Latvia, New Zealand, Serbia). With that being said, Standhardinger and Fotu return to lead a very mixed team of newcomers and transfers. One of the transfers, Keith Shamburger, averaged 13.1 PPG in his short time with San Jose State.

The biggest issue with Hawaii this season will be how the team handles all the new blood. There could be a smooth transition where the red-shirts help out and Hawaii threatens the top of the table, or the Warriors could fall face-flat on the ground and have the rest of the Big West trample on them. The non-conference schedule will determine that, as Hawaii will face NCAA Tournament teams in New Mexico State, Missouri, Montana and Boise State.

9. UC Riverside Highlanders

Last Year: 6-25 (3-15), 10th in Big West

Departures: Robert Smith (6.4 PPG)

Key Returners: Chris Patton (13.5 PPG), Chris Harriel (10.6 PPG)

The Highlanders also begin a new chapter in history: former head coach Jim Wooldridge was named Interim Athletic Director and former assistant coach Dennis Cutts was promoted to Interim Head Coach. Cutts has already made an impact with the team, as the Highlanders went undefeated in their international exhibition tour in Canada earlier this month. The lesson learned from the tour, is that player leadership will fall on the shoulders of Chris Patton. Patton averaged 21 PPG and 6.3 RPG in the exhibitions, and these numbers need to remain the same for the Highlanders to experience continued success going into the season.

One of the biggest questions for the Highlanders is their schedule. UCR plays the easiest non-conference schedule in the Big West, including games against two non-Division I schools (Waldorf and La Verne) and only one team who made the postseason last year (San Diego State). While the win column could potentially look nice going into conference play, the Highlanders could face the issue of being exposed once the Big West schedule begins.