Although the Diamond Head Classic stole the spotlight from most Big West teams over Christmas week, teams throughout the conference experienced quite a bit of a shakeup. But something tells me some of the Big West teams wished they kept the gift receipt for some of last week’s games.
Performances of Last Week
Khalil Ahmad: 25 points (7-15 FGs), 4 reb, 3 stl, 10-10 FTs vs. Loyola Marymount
Dikymbe Martin: 30 points (7-12 FGs), 6 reb, 4 ast, 4 stl vs. Valparaiso
T.J. Shorts II: 25 points (6-9 FGs), 2 ast, 2 reb, 13-13 FTs vs. Lamar
Mike Thomas: 22 points (10-14 FGs), 7 reb, 1 blk, vs. Davidson
Temidayo Yussuf: 18 points (5-7 FGs), 4 reb, 2 stl, 8-8 FTs vs. Colorado State
With Chima Moneke sidelined with a back injury, T.J. Shorts II put the Aggies on his back in lat Friday’s hard-fought game against Lamar — our preseason pick to win the Southland Conference. Shorts’ performance in the clutch — his 13-for-13 free-throw mark wasn’t a typo — gives him the nod for our Performance of Last Week award.
9. Cal State Northridge Matadors (1-11)
Last ranked: 9th
Cal State Northridge looks like it'll lose its 17th-straight game vs. a D1 opponent. Their last D1 win was over UCSB on Feb. 11 (77-55).— Kyle Cajero (@kylecajero) December 24, 2017
8. Cal Poly Mustangs (4-9)
Last ranked: 7th
This week, the Mustangs will go for their first win since Dec. 2. The good news? Barring anything drastic, playing Division II school Notre Dame de Namur will probably result in a win.
The bad news? Cal Poly’s next win probably won’t happen until they visit Cal State Northridge on Jan. 20. That’s nearly a month — and four games against Big West contenders UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Fullerton, Hawaii and UC Irvine — later.
7. UC Riverside Highlanders (5-7)
Last ranked: 8th
In all seriousness, the Highlanders — not the Anteaters, not the Gauchos nor the brutality-imposing UC Davis Aggies — have pulled of two of the Big West’s biggest non-conference upsets (the first being their opening-night brutality against California).
But could they play spoiler during conference play? Although the teams ahead of them in these power rankings would want otherwise, pulling upsets will only make Big West play more exciting and wacky. Highlanders, keep doing your thing. I’m here for this.
6. Long Beach State 49ers (5-10)
Last ranked: 6th
The 49ers really could’ve turned things around by beating Colorado State. Instead, they got their hearts ripped out by Prentiss Nixon:
5. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (9-4)
Last ranked: 4th
Hawaii is a confusing team. They have four or five guys who are capable of being offensive threats on any given night. Eran Ganot’s methodical, extra pass-heavy offense — no joke: Hawaii’s ball movement has been one of the more enjoyable things to watch in the Big West thus far — works like a charm. On top of all of that, the Rainbow Warriors have a relatively-easy schedule, fraught with opponents they should be walloping in the Stan Sheriff Center (which is not an easy place to play).
Despite all of this, Hawaii’s offense is... well, pretty bad.
The Rainbow Warriors have the Big West’s second-worst offensive efficiency behind UC Riverside (allergic to threes) and Cal State Northridge (allergic to offense). Hawaii is in the bottom 25 percentile in three point percentage (25.6%, ranked 350th) and free throw percentage (66.1%, ranked 294th) per KenPom. Both of these weaknesses were on display in their three Diamond Head Classic games:
Although this week’s game against Howard seems like the Rainbow Warriors’ tenth win, the real matchup to keep an eye on is Hawaii’s perimeter defense vs. Bison super-frosh R.J. Cole, who is quietly putting up buckets in droves. In all likelihood, Hawaii will lean on its above-average defense and grind out a win. But if Cole turns the game into a fire fight, someone needs to rise to the occasion.
4. UC Irvine Anteaters (5-10)
Last ranked: 5th
Now that’s more like it. Last Thursday, the Anteaters clawed back in the second half to beat an upstart Idaho team, 67-59.
This week, however, UC Irvine will have a pivotal game against a New Mexico State team hot off of a signature win over Miami. If the Anteaters can pull the upset, then it’ll give them immense momentum going into Big West play. Irvine isn’t the most rowdy of cities, but I’m certain it’ll be rockin’ on Thursday night.
Does it matter that UC Irvine’s offense — cold spells, poor interior shooting and all — is going up against one of the stingiest defenses in the nation? And does it matter that both teams’ strengths counter each other, namely UC Irvine’s interior defense put up against the Aggies’ ability to rebound on offense? Absolutely. Something has to give.
3. Cal State Fullerton Titans (7-4)
Last ranked: 3rd
Cal State Fullerton’s last big test before Big West play is against Utah Valley on Saturday.
When they squared off earlier this season, the Titans did a great job of putting the WAC’s largest adult son Akolda Manyang in check; the seven-footer got into foul trouble during the second half as the Wolverines tried mounting a comeback. If Fullerton can win the battle of the boards, then expect them to come out of Orem with another win against a top-150 team. With a win, the Titans will become one of four Big West teams with a win against a B-tier team, per KenPom.
2. UC Davis Aggies (8-5)
Last ranked: 2nd
Weirdly enough, the Aggies’ games in the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational weren’t televised or live-streamed online. If fans (or bloggers like me) wanted to tune into the game, they had to listen to it by huddling around the radios in their living rooms.
This was the Aggies’ second-biggest disappointment of last week: The inexplicable sputter in overtime against Radford took the cake.
1. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (10-3)
Last ranked: 1st
Instead of mulling over last week’s win against Sacramento State, here’s a reminder that sophomore guard Max Heidegger is still pulverizing his stats from last season:
And here’s another reminder that Leland King II is also on pace to have his best collegiate season by nearly every metric:
Lastly, here are teams in KenPom’s top 50 with lower offensive efficiency numbers than the Gauchos (who are currently No. 69 in said metric, per KenPom): Texas (31), Penn State (42), St. John’s (47), Oklahoma State (48) and Alabama (50).
In short: The Gauchos’ offensive output of 1.092 points/possession is the best of any Big West team since both UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara surpassed that mark in the 2014-15 season. Thankfully, the wait to see if their resurgence will translate to Big West play is almost over.
Games of note
This is the way the non-conference ends: Not with a bang, but with a whisper. Here are five of this week's six games against Division I programs (UC Riverside is the only team to play two D1 programs this week, and I won’t count them twice). All times are Pacific.
UC Riverside at Utah Valley, Thursday, 6 p.m., Big Sky TV
UC Irvine vs. New Mexico State, Thursday, 7 p.m., Big West TV
Hawaii vs. Howard, Friday, 9 p.m., Big West TV
Cal State Fullerton at Utah Valley, Saturday, 6 p.m. TheW.TV
Cal State Northridge vs. Morgan State, Saturday, 7 p.m.
Big West teams vs. Power 5 programs: 4-21
Vs. KenPom Top 100: 3-24