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Big West Preview: Chima Moneke and the rest of the returning front court leaders

Our list includes a postseason hero, the best shooter in the Big West, and three bigs poised for breakout years.

NCAA Basketball: Big West Conference Tournament-UC Davis vs UC Irvine Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Casual college basketball fans probably don’t remember too much about the Big West in recent years, but they will probably remember 7’6” UC Irvine center Mamadou Ndiye or 7’2” center Ioannis Dimakopoulous, who ESPN color commentators affectionately dubbed “The Big Greek” during last year’s Big West championship game.

Both players grabbed headlines because of their physical frames and left dozens of height-related puns in their wake. They were also really good mid-major basketball players.

This season’s crop of big men in the Big West will not grab headlines simply for being tall like players in the past. The five post players to watch will, however, put up fantastic numbers — and not just by Big West standards.

It’s a bit oxymoronic, but the five best big men in the Big West average only 6’7. Keep in mind that this is coming from the conference that provided this incredibly tiny, three-guard lineup from the Cal Poly Mustangs:

Screenshot via KenPom.

But then again, height isn’t as much of a factor in modern basketball. Abiding by the trend of playing smaller, more versatile players, post players in the Big West have become progressively smaller over the past few seasons. Three of the Big West’s nine teams were ranked 300th or lower in height, per KenPom’s metrics — including Long Beach State, which was the third-shortest team in college basketball last season.

This crop of undersized big men are incredibly skilled and versatile. Sure, they won’t tower over opponents like Ndiye and Dimakopoulous, but the following five players could make some waves.

One final caveat: Only seven of last year’s 22 all-Big West honorees will return this season. Last year’s all-conference awards were senior-heavy, and even some of the juniors have either transferred or pursued professional careers. So although some of the following players didn’t put up gaudy stat lines last season, all will have significantly larger roles on their respective teams this year.

Without further ado, here are five post players to keep an eye on this season.

Player of the Year: Chima Moneke, RS Senior, UC Davis

Last season (per game): 14.6 points (on 52.7 FG%), 9.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks

This is a no-brainer.

Few players in the nation — much less anyone in the Big West — had a bigger season than Chima Moneke did last year. Moneke made his Division I debut on a UC Davis squad that was picked fifth in the preseason Big West media poll. Over the next five months, however, he led the Aggies to a 5-1 start to conference play, earned his March moment with three phenomenal performances in the Big West Tournament, and led the Aggies to the first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. To top it all off, Moneke won the Riley Wallace Award, given to the best transfer in Division I.

And all of this came from a player whose best offers at the Division I level were St. Bonaventure, Cal State Bakersfield and Albany.

Moneke is a walking double-double. The junior college transfer led the Big West with 14 double-doubles, and it wasn’t even close: Jackson Rowe of Cal State Fullerton was second in the same category with five. Arguably the peak of Moneke’s eye-popping double-doubles occurred in the postseason, in which he averaged 15.4 points (on 47 field goal percentage) and 12.0 rebounds in a five-game stretch.

Thankfully for UC Davis fans, Moneke can put the Aggies back in the NCAA Tournament with more monster performances this season. Although UC Davis has only been a Division I institution for 13 seasons, Moneke is undoubtedly one of the greatest figures in program history, despite only playing in Davis for two seasons.

Jack Purchase, RS Junior, Hawai’i

Last season (per game): Averaged 9.6 points (on 40.8 FG%) 4.2 rebounds per game, 72-185 (38.9%) 3PT

Jack Purchase, the U-17 silver medalist for the Australian National Team and one-time Auburn Tiger, notched a .500/.389/.895 line while playing 900 minutes last season. To put these numbers in perspective: The only other Big West players to get close to those benchmarks while playing more minutes were his teammate Noah Allen and Cal State Northridge guard Darin Johnson.

Seeing as Allen graduated and Johnson (inexplicably) turned pro, Purchase could be the best overall shooter in the Big West this season.

The most impressive facet of Purchase’s game is his outside shot. Purchase took a whopping 83 percent of his shots from three-point range last season, per Hoop Math. Yet this aversion to shooting inside the arc was warranted: He was fourth amongst KenPom’s three-point percentage leaders in the Big West — and the three players ahead of him were guards.

I’m no Division I basketball coach, but Purchase should either get even more looks from beyond the arc, or be involved in the pick-and-roll more often. Despite putting up good shooting percentages on a substantial sample size — he ranked 15th among 130 Big West players in minutes last year — Purchase ranked a mere 51st in usage percentage, according to KenPom. Something doesn't add up.

Purchase has the skill set and the physical build to be a matchup nightmare in the Big West. Hawai’i’s offense was 301st in KenPom’s adjusted offense rankings last season, so anything helps at this point, right?

Jackson Rowe, Sophomore, Cal State Fullerton

Last season (per game): 10.4 points (on 54.6 FG%), 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists

Of the 35 Big West freshman to log game time last season, Rowe was the most consistent high-level contributor and the Freshman of the Year.

The Mississauga, Canada native led the Big West in starts (27) and minutes (799), despite missing the final five games of the season due to a foot injury. Even with the curtailed season, Rowe’s 195 rebounds and his average of 7.2 rebounds per game were fifth and third in the Big West, respectively. Rowe made a mark on the national rankings as well. He was one of 17 freshman on KenPom’s top 100 two-point field goal percentage leaders (96th overall).

Tommy Rutherford, Sophomore, UC Irvine

Last season (per game): 6.2 points (on 59.9 FG%), 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists

Tommy Rutherford. Buy stock now before Jon Rothstein tells you to do so several months too late. Give him a few starts, a few years to polish his game, and more time to put on muscle, and he’ll be the anchor for the Anteater front line.

Although watching Rutherford makes it seem like he’s a project player for the Anteaters, head coach Russell Turner’s definition of a project player is much different than the norm. Turner pulls from his deep, young bench often, and he is not afraid to use Rutherford to make a few high-energy plays or a few key stops on defense before subbing in someone else.

Rutherford specializes in doing the dirty work in the post: He’ll dive for loose balls, work his tail off for rebounds, and force jump balls and other plays that will elicit words like “grit” and “hustle” from color commentators.

This isn’t a slight to Rutherford by any means. He’s also athletic. The forward is quite the leaper, and has a knack for getting in the right spot for transition dunks. On defense, Rutherford can read screens and get the right positioning in the paint. As a testament to his defensive presence, the freshman was fifth in the Big West in blocks per game and was the only freshman in the conference’s top 20 in defensive win shares, according to sports-reference.com.

Temidayo Yussuf, RS Junior, Long Beach State

Last season (per game): 9.4 points (on 52.6 FG%) and 4.6 rebounds in 17.8 minutes

Of all the post players on this list, Long Beach State forward Temidayo Yussuf will likely have the biggest jump in production this season. I know it sounds kind of absurd to say that about a player who took 29.7 percent of the team’s possible shots last season — a statistic good for fifth amongst Big West players — per KenPom, but the 49ers will experience a statistical vacuum on offense this year.

No team in the Big West will have a bigger roster turnover this season: A whopping five players transferred (or in the case of guard Evan Payne, went pro) out of Long Beach State. And they weren’t ordinary end-of-the-bench players, either; as a whole, the departing players accounted for 39.8 field goal attempts and 50.6 points per game. To put those numbers in perspective, the 49ers attempted 59.6 field goals and averaged 70.5 points per game, according to sports-reference.com.

Ouch.

Yussuf is Long Beach State’s sole returning starter from last season. Although head coach Dan Monson will try building the whole plane out of transfers to make up for the departed players, one of his primary assets on both ends has been on the roster all along.

For starters, Yussuf is a high-percentage shooter. Get used to stat-lines like this:

Although Yussuf averaged 9.4 points per game, he took his game to another level during the latter half of the season. The forward averaged 12.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game while shooting 56.8 percent from the floor in the first half of Big West play, then averaged 14.5 points and 6.6 rebounds on 58.8 percent shooting in the second half.

The 49ers are in dire need of the latter version of Yussuf. In a season that is completely up-in-the-air from a roster standpoint, Yussuf’s familiarity with Monson’s system and his leadership will be invaluable.


Honorable Mention:

Tavrion Dawson (Junior, CSUN)

Menno Dijkstra (Junior, UC Irvine)

Jonathan Galloway (RS Junior, UC Irvine)

Gibson Johnson (Senior, Hawai’i)

Gabe Levin (RS Senior, Long Beach State)

Luke Meikle (RS Senior, Cal Poly)