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Big Shoes To Fill In The Big West

Recruiting and replacing some all-time great big men who have passed through the Big West recently is a well... tall task.

Getty Images, Kelvin Kuo (USA Today Sports), Rick Scuteri (USA Today Sports)

It is unlikely that Stefan Jankovic’s name will be forgotten anytime soon around the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus.

It is unlikely that the life-size cutout of 7’ 6” UC Irvine center Mamadou Ndiaye, which towered over fans who entered the Bren Events Center, will not find renewed use at some point within the Irvine, California campus.

It is unlikely that the Gaucho faithful in Santa Barbara will forget the raucous cheers that vibrated the Thunderdome after another forceful dunk by the aptly nicknamed ‘Big Al’ Williams.

The last two seasons, just like a lot of things around the Big West conference have been well… big.

How big? Big enough that opponents were preparing for their match-ups like this:

When you add in last season’s conference champion Hawaii dispatching the 4th-seeded Cal Bears in the NCAA tournament and the UC Irvine Anteaters coming within one possession the year prior to sending Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals home in the Big Dance, it makes sense why the Big West has been on everyone’s mind.

The resurgence of the Big West was due in no small part to the big men who anchored the lineups for their respective programs. And although these three, among others, are not the only reasons for their program’s success, they are unquestionably all-time greats within their respective institutions.

Jankovic, the 6’11” big who can stretch the floor, was the 2015-16 Big West Player of the Year. A transfer from Missouri, he helped bring a conference championship and NCAA round of 32 berth to a Rainbow Warriors fan base that must already be looking back with nostalgia on what Coach Eran Ganot and his team were able to do last season. With one year of eligibility left, Jankovic decided to go pro, and has been signed by the Miami Heat, hoping to bring the same cheers to South Beach that were a common occurrence in the Stan Sherriff Center.

Ndiaye leaves UC Irvine after his junior year as not only the school’s all-time leader in blocks, as well as perhaps the most recognizable ambassador for the tight-knit Irvine community, but an integral member of Coach Turner’s squad that brought the first ever trip to the Big Dance back to Anteater Nation. Ndiaye continues an NBA journey of his own, recently signed to the Golden State Warriors’ Summer League affiliate and looking to find steady residence among the world’s best players.

Alan Williams, under recruited and fairly unheralded entering the Isla Vista campus, left the school in 2015 as the all-time leader in rebounds and 2nd all time in points, among many other accolades. The 6’ 8” center has made inroads at the NBA level, appearing with the Phoenix Suns last season and looking to make this stay an extended one.

Replacing these three is no small task. However talented, life goes on within each program. Many other essential spots on the floor need to be filled as well. And recruiting new bigs is a crucial undertaking especially among these three teams as they make a push to remain among the Big West’s race for first and for national prominence in March as well.

UCSB brings in perhaps the most intriguing prospect in 6’ 8” junior college transfer Jalen Canty. Although the Gauchos fared well in their first year without Big Al Williams during the 2015-16 season, Canty acknowledges the similarities drawn.

The City College of San Francisco center was originally a Washington State football commit coming out of high school, but changed course last-minute, showing his desire to continue his hoops career. This past year, he led CCSF to a 32-1 record and a California Community College Athletic Association State Championship. Averaging a near double-double at 13.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season means the expecations for what Canty can bring to the Gaucho team are quite high.

The boys from the Central California Coast have many other big bodies that will help to provide some grit and size down low. Losing two big men from last season’s team in Sam Beeler and Mitch Brewe means Coach Bob Williams’ key recruit will be looked upon to jump in right away for a Santa Barbara program with high expectations.

Hawaii loses Jankovic and fellow big man Stefan Jovanovic, but Coach Ganot has brought in 6‘ 8” Gibson Johnson from Salt Lake Community College, fresh off a National Junior College Championship. Johnson, who had narrowed his options to the ‘Bows and NC State, brings a competitive style of play that includes an ability to stretch the floor like Jankovic. Johnson shot 29.6% from 3-point range this past season at SLCC and has the ability to get hot from the outside. Although he looks to be slotted in as “a face-up stretch four at the college level”, he will be one of the biggest bodies on a Rainbow Warriors team looking to replace a lot of pieces from last year’s Cinderella run.

UCI may lose Ndiaye, along with five seniors who leave as the winningest class in UCI history, but the gaping hole left down low in what was one of the most imposing defenses in all of college basketball is looked at to be filled by committee. In keeping with Coach Russ Turner’s insistence on ensuring their defense remains a stalwart unit, their recruiting brings in hard-nosed individuals who will bridge the gap Ndiaye leaves.

Coming in as freshman are recruits Tommy Rutherford and Brad Greene. The 6’8” Rutherford was a huge pick-up for the squad as he averaged 23 points and 18 rebounds per game as a senior. Coach Turner’s praise of the Grossmont (CA) High product include:

Greene comes in at 6’ 10” and averaged over 18 points, 13 rebounds, and 5.5 blocked shots per game for Lone Pine (CA) High. Looking to enter the rotation within the next two years is 6’ 9” 265 lb. Utah State transfer Elston Jones, who will sit out this upcoming season, but as the team-leader in blocks out in Logan, Utah for a talented Aggies team last year, he is a key pick up for the ‘Eaters. All three recruits will look to join 7’2” Ioannis Dimakopulos and 6’ 10” Jon Galloway in replacing key players down low such as Will Davis II from 2014 and Mike Best this past season.

From the conference that brought you “The Tallest Lineup In College Basketball History” to the team from the Islands who caused brackets to be crumpled across the country, excitement and expectations are sky high (Although it’s not always comfortable up there).

If the recruiting going on to replace some of the conference’s biggest in terms of size and impact is any indication, then we could have the best and Big(gest) West yet to come.