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2014-2015 Big West Conference Preview

UC Irvine might be the favorites for the Big West this season, but there is another 2-3 teams they should be on the lookout for...

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Big West saw different teams arise to dominate the regular season and postseason. UC Irvine won the regular season, outlasting both UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State, however fell in the Big West Conference Tournament to the eventual winner: Cal Poly.

The Mustangs entered the postseason as a No. 7 seed and fought their way to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the very first time as a Division I program. To make the trip even sweeter, they beat Texas Southern in the First Four only to fall to then undefeated Wichita State.

That's a great story and all, but can the Mustangs re-create their miracle run? According to the Big West Pre-season Media Poll, not so much:

MEDIA POLL RESULTS
1. UC Irvine (20) 221
2. UC Santa Barbara (2) 195
3. Long Beach State (3) 180
4. CSUN (1) 165
5. Hawai‘i 119
6. Cal Poly 109
7. UC Davis 79
8. Cal State Fullerton 64
9. UC Riverside 38
( ) First Place votes

As we all know, preseason polls don't mean anything. So let's take an in-depth look at these teams:

1. UC Irvine Anteaters
Last year: 23-12 (13-3), BWC Regular Season Champion, Lost in BWC Semifinals, Lost in NIT First Round

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1

Key Returners: Mamadou Ndiaye, Will Davis II, Luke Nelson, Alex Young

Last season, the Anteaters dominated the Big West, won the regular season, and had a chance to make their first ever Division I NCAA Tournament. Cal Poly went and ruined that, while in the process going to their first ever Division I NCAA Tournament.

This season is UCI's season to lose: not only are they returning four starters, all of those players were vital in one point or another in UCI's success. With Ndiaye playing more as a defensive specialist, Will Davis II was allowed to be a pure power forward. Throw in Alex Young and Luke Nelson around the perimeter and the Anteaters will be very difficult to stop once again.

Prediction: This will be the strongest UCI team ever and the most complete team in the Big West. The Anteaters should run through another 20-win season and make the Big Dance for the first time.

2. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

Last year: 21-9 (12-4), 2nd in BWC, Lost in BWC Quarterfinals

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1

Key Returners: Alan Williams, Zalmico Harmon, Mitch Brewe, Michael Bryson

Alan Williams. Alan Williams. Alan Williams. Big Al.

Last season, Alan Williams was not just the best player in the Big West, but also one of the most dynamic players in the nation. Here's the thing though: the guy has made a complete impact ever since his freshman year with the Gauchos. Finally, Williams is a senior, and it's time to make a goodbye tour.

To support the tour, he's going to need an entourage: enter Harmon, Brewe and Bryson. These players have all fit around Williams to be an ideal lineup, where Harmon has played true point, Bryson has moved to more of a small forward role and Brewe has become a second power forward. Throw in T.J. Taylor who should be back after a medical redshirt season, and UCSB could very well be the highest scoring team in the defensive-minded Big West.

Prediction: "Highest scoring" does not necessarily mean best. This very well could be a second straight year of "The Alan Williams Show with little other help," and if that's the case, the Gauchos are looking at an NIT berth unless the RPI says otherwise.

3. Long Beach State 49ers

Last year: 15-17 (10-6), 3rd in BWC, Lost in BWC Semifinals

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1

Key Returners: Mike Caffey, Tyler Lamb, Travis Hammonds, A.J. Spencer

Dan Monson has three wins to overtake Jerry "The Shark" Tarkanian's school record for all-time wins: he could have it before December. After a brutal non-conference season last year, Monson and the 49ers have somewhat of a more favorable slate this year, which should help build confidence going into conference play.

What should also help is Monson's freshman class this year. In addition to key veterans Mike Caffey and Tyler Lamb and others, Monson has brought in a phenomenal group of youngsters that could give LBSU the deepest bench in the conference. One thing that will be instrumental to the 49ers success: Caffey must improve on that 29% 3-point FG shooting. If that happens, the 49ers could very well be in a position to top the conference.

Prediction: This team now has the tools to provide a shocking upset in their non-conference play (Kansas, UCLA, SDSU, Syracuse and Louisville). Win one of those big games and LBSU might be playing themselves into the bubble if they do not win the conference tournament.

4. Cal State Northridge Matadors

Last year: 17-18 (7-9), 5th in BWC, Lost in BWC Finals

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1

Key Returners: Stephen Maxwell, Stephan Hicks, Tre-Hale Edmurson, Landon Drew

The last time Reggie Theus coached a college team, the first year that team made the conference semifinals at around a .500 record and the second year, they dominated the conference en route to an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. That New Mexico State team had Justin Hawkins and Tyrone Nelson who combined for 27.1 PPG. This Matadors team has Stephen Maxwell and Stephan Hicks are much more deadly, with a combined 34.7 PPG. Throw in Tre-Hale Edmurson and Landon Drew and Northridge had one of the best offenses in the game.

Which brings us to the defense: stating the Matadors defense was horrendously non -existent is calling the ocean blue. Northridge ranked 330th out of 351 teams in opponent's PPG. If the Matadors want to go dancing this year, that stat needs to move at an alarming rate.

Prediction: The offense continues to be on fire and the defense improves a little. Reggie Theus' two-year rebuilding trend will break this season and the Matadors will be sitting home from post-season for another year.

5. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors

Last year: 20-11 (9-7), 4th in BWC, Lost in BWC Quarterfinals

Starters Returning/Lost: 1/4

Key Returners: none

Hawaii was supposed to be a middle-to-upper half Big West team this year, however with all that has happened in the last few weeks the Rainbow Warriors might just try to salvage this season. First, head coach Gib Arnold and assistant Brandyn Akana were removed due to an NCAA investigation, then one day later, key starter Isaac Fotu was removed from the team for "receiving improper benefits."

Well, Fotu is now gone permanently due to signing with the Spanish club CAI Zaragoza which leaves transfer Garrett Nevels to lead the team along with a slew of international players. While Nevels will be responsible for putting up the points, Serbian-born Stefan Jovanovic will be taking over Fotu's role as shot-stopper.

Prediction: The newcomers will not be vying for the Big West crown this season, but they should not be sitting last either.

6. Cal Poly Mustangs

Last year: 14-20 (6-10), T-6th in BWC, Won BWC Tournament, Lost in NCAA Second Round

Starters Returning/Lost: 2/3

Key Returners: Dave Nwaba, Ridge Shipley

Chris Eversley is gone and Kyle Odister is gone, so who is left for Cal Poly's low scoring, high defensive team? Why hello, Dave Nwaba! The junior transfer made his impact on the Mustangs last season and for them to make another miracle run, Nwaba will have to work his magic again.

Alongside Nwaba are Ridge Shipley and Maliik Love, who both heated up at the end of last season in time to make a run in the post-season tournaments (both conference and the NCAA Tournament). An interesting question for Cal Poly is who should be starting at center. Brian Bennett started at the beginning of the season, but a reported lack of fitness led to Zach Gordon starting. If that holds, Gordon should have more of a feel for the position this year and will lead to more productive outings.

Prediction: To say last season was a miracle would be on the spot. Cal Poly will finish mid-to-lower half of the conference, but without Eversley and Odister to rely on, there will not be a second straight run to the Big Dance in them.

7. UC Davis Aggies

Last year: 9-22 (4-12), Last in BWC

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1

Key Returners: J.T. Adenrele, Josh Ritchart

Adenrele and Ritchart are back. These two players were supposed to be the big story to Davis' success last season, but instead sat on the sidelines with season-ending injuries early. Throw in a very dangerous Corey Hawkins who finished third in the conference in scoring last season, and you have an Aggie Big-3 who have the potential to make life very difficult in the Big West.

Oh, and let's not forget about two other key players: Tyler Les and Josh Fox will be looking forward to bringing havoc as well. Les is a 43% career 3-point FG shooter, while the transfer Fox is extremely familiar with the Big West. If both get involved consistently in Coach Les' game plan, Davis could play dark horse to the rest of the conference.

Prediction: Major injuries have somehow bugged UC Davis in one way or another every season since joining Division I. That trend will end this season, however Davis will not be able to fully capitalize on a healthy team this year.

8. Cal State Fullerton Titans

Last year: 11-20 (6-10), T-6th in BWC, Lost in BWC Quarterfinals

Starters Returning/Lost: 3/2

Key Returners: Alex Harris, Josh Gentry

Alex Harris might be the key to the Titans' success, but it is the transfers who will ultimately decide on how well the team can perform as a whole. Moses Morgan, the DePaul transfer, looks to have a stout senior season with Fullerton, while Jason Mason will look to have some time on the court after not being able to get on at Colorado State.

One thing that Fullerton needs to work on is getting big on the inside. Transfers Malcolm Henderson and Kennedy Esume should help with size down low as Henderson is 6'8," 260 pounds and Esume is 6'10," 250 pounds. They and presumed starter Steven McClellan should help bring up the rebounding game for the Titans.

Prediction: This is year two for head coach Dedrique Taylor and the results should look better than last year, though I do not believe this team will be joining the upper half of the Big West anytime soon.

9. UC Riverside Highlanders

Last year: 10-21 (5-11), 8th in BWC, Lost in BWC Quarterfinals

Starters Returning/Lost: 4/1

Key Returners: Taylor Johns, Nick Gruninger, Steven Thornton

Poor Riverside: just when they grabbed a freshman who they could build their offense around (Sam Finley), he decides to leave. Now here's the good news: despite that loss (along with Chris Patton who has moved on), Taylor Johns is back along with some intriguing new international players: Alexander Larsson, the Swedish international, Robert Boezeman from The Netherlands, and Chris Tang from China.

The Highlanders need to utilize this international talent if they want to make it to the Big West Tournament and more this season. Second year head coach Dennis Cutts' new recruiting philosophy almost depends on this world style of basketball. If he's successful in bringing the team together, while untested, the schedule sets up perfectly for the Highlanders to have their best season since 2009.

Prediction: The international experiment succeeds, however UCR will be fine-tuning all year long and most likely will be missing out on the Big West Tournament this season.