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Big West preseason power rankings: UC Irvine loses a lot, but is still the team to beat

Breaking down 1-9 in the Big West

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

Deep in the depths of KenPom’s conference ratings — 29th of 32 leagues, to be exact — the Big West Conference is the best bad conference in the nation. It’s the college basketball equivalent of digging through the dusty discount bin at a record store. Sure, it isn’t pretty, but the search can be rewarding.

The Big West knows exactly what it’s capable of, and nothing more. For instance, the following statement from Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero rings true for any of the conference’s nine members.

“We’re not going to win the national championship at Cal Poly in men’s basketball. But we can compete for a conference title and an NCAA bid.”

Simple as that.

Don’t be fooled by the 50-47 score of last year’s Big West championship game: The Big West is actually an enjoyable basketball conference. The best part? Since it’s a one-bid conference, all it takes is a solid run in March. In the past four seasons, for instance, the conference’s 1, 2, 4, and 6 seeds have each earned a bid to the Dance.

9. Cal State Northridge Matadors

Last season: 11-19 (7-9)

Cal State Northridge had the second-best offense and the worst defense in the Big West, all while playing at the nation’s 17th-fastest tempo last year, according to KenPom. To put this into perspective: By surrendering 1.14 points per possession on defense, the Matadors gifted Cal State Fullerton and its 300th-ranked offense two of the Titans’ most efficient outings in conference play.

But unfortunately for the Matadors, the one good facet of the team — playing an uptempo offense centered around several players who can get to the rack and draw fouls — does not return this season.

Head coach Reggie Theus will have to replace Aaron Parks, Kendall Smith and Darin Johnson — three double-digit scorers who took more than 20 percent of CSUN’s shots last season. All-Big West honorable mention selection Tavarian Dawson will likely fill one of these spots on offense, but the Matadors have too many flaws to address on both sides.

8. Cal Poly Mustangs

Last season: 11-20 (6-10)

The Big West is weird.

Last season, the Mustangs played three guards who were six feet or shorter, dropped the first five games of conference play, gave up 1.13 points per possession on the season (320th in the nation), won only two conference games at home, and averaged 48.5 points per game against the 6-22 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos in two meetings.

Yet at the same time, half of Cal Poly’s six Big West wins were against three of the conference’s best teams: UC Irvine, UC Davis, and Long Beach State.

This season, the Mustangs will probably be several games below .500 in the Big West and will still trot out an incredibly short lineup — freshman guard Izaih James will be the Mustangs’ latest 6’0 guard. And they’ll still probably steal a road win or two from longer, and more athletic UC Irvine and UC Davis.

7. UC Riverside Highlanders

Last season: 8-21 (5-11)

Records be damned, the Highlanders actually have several things to look forward to this season.

For starters, UC Riverside freshman guard Dikymbe Martin was one of two freshmen to earn Big West All-Conference honors last year. And as a team, the Highlanders held Big West opponents to 47.1 percent shooting last season. Consequently, they ranked fourth in the conference in defensive efficiency, block percentage, and steal percentage, per KenPom. They were also the only team in the Big West to not lose anyone to the college basketball’s so-called transfer epidemic.

It’s the little victories.

But here’s one not-so-fun fact: Since moving up to Division I in 2001, the Highlanders have had one winning season. Somehow, that sounds less bleak than what UCSB endured last season...

6. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

Last season: 6-22 (4-12)

The Gauchos were affected by Murphy’s Law more than any Big West team in the past calendar year. To wit:

Oct. 26: The Big West media poll projected a fourth-place finish for the Gauchos. Eventual conference tournament winner UC Davis was slated 59 points behind them.

Dec. 10: Shortly before becoming eligible, Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell said he “never actually enrolled” at UCSB and was wooed to Arizona State by Bobby Hurley.

Dec. 22: In what would be Jalen Cantry, Ami Lakoju, and Felix White’s last games of the season due to academic issues, the Gauchos lost 67-66 to Mountain West champion Nevada.

Dec. 28: Disgruntled UCSB fans launched www.firebobwilliams.com.

Jan. 4: Reserve forward Jarriesse Blackmon shattered his elbow in a 26-point loss to UC Davis.

Feb. 2: Two walk-ons started and three came off the bench to play 90 of the team’s 200 possible minutes in a 79-53 loss against Cal State Fullerton.

Feb. 3: USCB announced leading scorer Gabe Vincent’s season would be cut short after he tore his ACL.

Mar. 3: Six days before the Big West Tournament, Hawai’i appealed (and won) its postseason ban with the NCAA, which kicked UCSB out of the conference tournament as the bottom seed.

March 9: UCSB didn’t renew Williams’ contract.

March 24: One of the Gauchos’ two incoming freshmen, three-star recruit Marcus Shaver, decommited.

The first season of the Joe Pasternack era can’t be any worse, right?

5. Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors

Last season: 14-16 (8-8)

I feel bad for redshirt junior forward Jack Purchase already, and the season hasn’t even started.

This season will be the Rainbow Warriors’ last under NCAA sanctions for violating ethical conduct rules while under former head coach Gib Arnold. The probation, which includes a two-scholarship reduction for this season, ultimately means that Hawai’i has left its stellar stretch-forward without an adequate supporting cast.

Purchase is probably the most underutilized player in the Big West. The 6’9 forward averaged 9.6 points per game last season and connected on 41 of his 97 three-point attempts (83 percent of his shots came from three-point range), yet KenPom ranked the Rainbow Warriors 298th in three-point percentage and 301st in total offense. The man needs help.

4. Long Beach State 49ers

Last season: 15-19 (9-7)

No team in the conference has a higher ceiling and lower floor than Long Beach State. This season’s success will depend on several looming questions. Namely, the three JUCO transfers and three freshmen tasked with not only replacing four starters from last season, but also replacing the production from departed high-usage players Justin Bibbins and Evan Payne.

Trying to pin down this Long Beach State team will be difficult because of its roster turnover. Player development and roster continuity are crucial in a conference where all but four of last season’s 21 All-Conference spots went to upperclassmen. In the past, head coach Dan Monson acquired pieces to build a conference contender — Monson and his staff snagged transfers from high-major schools like Arizona State, DePaul, Maryland, UCLA, USC and others — yet Long Beach State hasn’t been able to turn its eclectic mix of Power 5 journeymen, unheralded recruits, and JUCO transfers into consistent contenders.

Lest anyone accuse Monson of trying to build the whole plane out of transfers, redshirt junior forward Temidayo Yussuf has shown major strides since his freshman season. The 6’7, 225-pound Big West Second Team selection averaged 13.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season as the third option on offense.

3. Cal State Fullerton Titans

Last season: 17-15 (10-6)

Unlike Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton is a trustworthy sleeper pick to win the Big West Tournament. Head coach Dedrique Taylor has built the Titans into a respectable Big West program: Last season’s 17-15 record was Fullerton’s first winning season since Bob Burton retired in 2012. Because of his efforts, the university rewarded Taylor with a three-year contract extension in April.

Fullerton fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The Titans boast a young, defensive-minded forward in Jackson Rowe, who averaged 10.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per game — the latter good for third in the conference — on his way to the Big West Freshman of the Year award.

2. UC Davis Aggies

Last season: 23-15 (11-5), Big West Tournament title

Although the Big West Tournament’s defending champs have lost four starters from last season, the Aggies have two of the conference’s best returners in sharpshooting guard Siler Schneider and conference player of the year candidate Chima Moneke.

Both players are the KenPom darlings of the conference; the former ranked third in offensive rating (95.1 on a 28.2 usage percentage) and the latter was the Big West’s KenPom player of the year. Moneke also made the national leaderboards in offensive rating (94th), defensive rebounding percentage (7th), and percentage of possessions used (98th).

Not bad for a JUCO transfer from Australia with no Power 5 offers.

Unlike last season, the 6’6 forward will need a lot of help from his supporting cast. Four starters from last season — Darius Graham, Brynton Lemar, Lawrence White, and J.T. Adenrele — graduated. If the Aggies want to repeat their fairytale run to the NCAA Tournament, then either Colin Russell or T.J. Shorts will need to be the next JUCO transfer to surprise the conference.

1. UC Irvine Anteaters

Last season: 21-15 (12-4), regular season title

Head coach Russell Turner has coached the Anteaters to one NCAA Tournament berth and five consecutive 20-win seasons in his seven years as head coach. By this time next year, it should be six-straight 20-win seasons and a second tournament bid.

UC Irvine was the Big West’s best team by a mile last season, and 2017-18 will be no different. Yes, UC Irvine will lose Big West Player of the Year Luke Nelson, first-team selection Jaron Martin and the conference’s tallest player in Ioannis Dimakopoulos. But Turner is liberal with substitutions and the Anteaters’ roster went 12 players deep in conference play last year.

It doesn’t hurt that UC Irvine’s roster is chock full of versatile, young players. Hyper-athletic defensive-stopper Jonathan Galloway has springs for legs. Center Brad Greene is built like an offensive lineman. Guard Eyassu Worku is a long, athletic point guard who is poised to make a statistical jump this year. But of all the Anteaters’ young players, keep an eye on sophomore forward Tommy Rutherford, who notched 6.0 points (on 53.7 percent from the field) and 5.5 rebounds while averaging 17 minutes in conference play.

Oh, and the Anteaters have no seniors on the roster.