The Big West hierarchy is gradually coming into focus.
Truth be told, the conference has three teams who look a step above the rest in terms of talent. From there, the middle-tier of the Big West is still capable of turning heads; whereas the conference’s bottom two teams look comfortable at the bottom. But then again, it’s only December. And the Big West is a one-bid league. As clichéd as it sounds, anything can happen between now and March.
Expansion news you might have missed
Instead of dusting off stat lines for the “performances of the week” section, this space will be used to highlight the efforts of UC San Diego and Cal State Bakersfield. Both institutions announced their relocation to the Big West within 24 hours of each other.
Shoutout to the students who pushed for the move to Division I, the administration for finalizing the deal, and to UCSD athletics as a whole. The move from Division II to Division I will change the Southern California recruiting landscape for the better.
Speaking of California, Cal State Bakersfield will also leave the geographic mishmash of the WAC to join the Big West.
CSU Bakersfield athletics switching conferences moving from the WAC to the Big West in 2020. UC San Diego also to join @BigWestSports— Stephen Hicks (@StephenHicks23) November 27, 2017
Adding Ron Barnes’ defensive juggernaut — the Roadrunners have been top-50 in defensive efficiency for the past two seasons, per KenPom — will give the Big West another proven mid-major competitor in 2020.
For now, however, let’s put the future aside. Here’s a look at the current state of the Big West:
9. Cal State Northridge Matadors (1-6)
Last ranked: 9th
I’m not going to sugarcoat it — nor will I kick a team when it’s down — but the Matadors have yet to beat a Division I team.
Senior forward Tavrion Dawson seems to be the go-to guy for Cal State Northridge; he is No. 48 in percent of possessions and No. 63 in percentage of shots taken, per KenPom’s national rankings. It’ll take more than a Herculean effort from Dawson to help the Matadors rise in the rankings.
8. UC Riverside Highlanders (2-5)
Last ranked: 6th
The good news? The Highlanders are one win away from tying last year’s three non-conference wins, and seven wins away from surpassing last season’s 8-21 record. And head coach Dennis Cutts has managed to do this with a tough non-conference slate against schools like California, Michigan and an on-the-rise Portland State team.
The bad news? UC Riverside’s offense doesn’t look like it’s improved since last season.
As a team, the Highlanders can't connect from three, where they’re shooting 26.1 percent, and their season-best of 82 points was a byproduct of keeping up with Portland State’s uptempo style, rather than actually running an offense. Although senior guard Chance Murray has gone cold from deep (he’s made 2-of-21 so far), his 6.7 rebounds per game is good for eighth in the conference.
If there’s a bright side to all of this, the Highlanders’ next two games are against Pepperdine — a bottom-15 team in defensive efficiency, per KenPom — and a beatable Air Force team.
7. Cal State Fullerton Titans (4-3)
Last ranked: 8th
Sophomore forward Jackson Rowe put up arguably one of the best performances of any Big West player in the Titans’ game against Harvard. Yes, this performance wasn’t in Cal State Fullerton’s most recent game, but there’s not too much to glean from walloping Division III Cal Lutheran.
This isn’t a hyperbole. Look at those numbers again: 25 points (10-10 FGs), five rebounds, two assists, 5-5 3FGs vs. Harvard — which, despite their struggles as of late, is not a walkover team. Rowe’s five three-pointers were a career high.
Although Rowe stole the show with his perfect game, junior guard Kyle Allman’s hot start to the season can’t be overlooked. Through six games, the Brooklyn native is averaging 16.0 points and has shown improvement taking care of the ball; Allman is only averaging 1.4 turnovers per game, which is an improvement from averaging 2.4 per game last season.
6. Cal Poly Mustangs (4-4)
Last ranked: 7th
Color me surprised: Of the nine Big West teams to knock off top-100 opponents, Cal Poly was the second to accomplish this by upsetting College of Charleston 73-68 in the quarterfinals of the Great Alaska Shootout.
The Big West was 0-11 vs. KenPom top 100 teams before Thanksgiving.— Kyle Cajero (@kylecajero) November 24, 2017
Now they're 2-11 thanks to Long Beach State and...Cal Poly?
So what bolstered the Mustangs’ solid performances this season? Shooting 42.5 percent from beyond the arc will do it. To put this in perspective, this mark is No. 15 in the nation, per KenPom’s metrics.
More likely than not, Cal Poly will continue to shoot the lights out. Even upsetting Fresno State doesn’t seem too outlandish, considering that the Bulldogs have allowed opponents to shoot 43.6 percent from three. It wouldn’t be surprising if Donovan Fields (50.0 3FG%) and Victor Joseph (41.7 3FG%) carry Cal Poly into the top half of the rankings by next week.
5. Long Beach State 49ers (4-6)
Last ranked: 5th
Yes, the 49ers have a worse record than the two teams slated behind them in these power rankings. But consider the teams Dan Monson scheduled in the non-conference:
For a Big West school, scheduling eight Power 5 schools is quite the feat. Beating two of them with a team expected to have a relatively mediocre year is another. Naysayers will be quick to interject about the Pac-12’s struggles as of late, but the fact that Dan Monson’s squad is pulling these upsets shouldn’t be undermined.
All things considered, Long Beach State will probably be the most battle-tested team in the Big West come conference play. The next step for the 49ers will be to show that these wins weren’t flukes: Taking care of business against struggling Southern Utah and Pepperdine squads should give them momentum going into a sneaky-good matchup vs. Eastern Michigan.
4. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (4-2)
Last ranked: 3rd
There’s no shame to losing to an incredibly talented Nevada team and Utah in Salt Lake City. But it’s hard to get a read on the Rainbow Warriors due to their home-heavy schedule.
I’m not sure about this team so far. They have left the Hawaiian islands once — but most of that can be attributed to the extensive travel required to get to the Stan Sheriff Center — and they’ve only hosted two formidable foes (Troy and the aforementioned Nevada Wolf Pack). Other than those teams, the Rainbow Warriors have hosted (winless) Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a slumping North Dakota squad and non-Division I institution Adams State.
Formidable foes await Hawaii, though. It’ll be easier to get a read on Eran Ganot’s squad after playing the likes of Utah Valley and Miami in the coming weeks. The latter will be in a stacked Diamond Head Classic field, and the Rainbow Warriors will benefit from strong competition, even if they end up in the consolation bracket.
But if there’s anything I've gathered from watching Hawaii so far, it’s that they have the Big West’s best sixth-man in Sheriff Drammeh. The junior guard has provided a spark off the bench on both ends of the floor with his quickness and lockdown defense. His ability to get to the line will be invaluable in crunch time; although he averages 8.0 points per game, over 25 percent of those come from the charity stripe.
3. UC Irvine Anteaters (4-6)
Last ranked: 4th
So how does a sub-.500 team make it in the top-three of these power rankings?
Credit Russell Turner’s ambitious schedule. Like the decision to rank Long Beach State ahead of two teams with better records, scheduling played a factor into placing the Anteaters this high. Not only that, UC Irvine is hanging around against formidable opponents: They kept things interesting in Pauley Pavilion against UCLA, were the first team to lead Nevada at half, and lost to an evenly matched Rider squad on a neutral floor.
Aside from the win-loss column, UC Irvine’s classic combination of “deep roster + bruising interior defense + rebounding” still passes the eye test. Counting out this young team this early in the season seems like a disservice considering the extra time the Anteaters will need to coalesce. Think of it this way: Getting the average eight-man rotation to gel takes significantly less time than trying to get 11 players on the same page.
Give the Anteaters time, and Turner’s squad will deliver. Keep in mind UC Irvine was 5-5 at this point last year, dropped four straight, then sprinted out to a 6-0 start in conference play.
For now, keep an eye on their backcourt tandem of John Edgar Jr. and Evan Leonard: Both sophomores have been breakout stars on this young team. Edgar has gone from a seldom-used backup to the Anteaters’ go-to guy in the backcourt as of late; whereas Leonard has been a two-way weapon. Leonard is second in the Big West with 14 steals through 10 games, while also hitting 33 percent of his threes.
2. UC Davis Aggies (5-2)
Last ranked: 2nd
Fire up the Chima Moneke bandwagon. The current Lou Henson Award Player of the Week hasn’t missed a beat: Moneke is averaging a double-double with 21.4 points and 11.3 rebounds. Although the next team in the power rankings has stolen the spotlight as of late, last year’s Big West Tournament hero waits in the wings.
Yet the Aggies aren’t a one-man show. JuCo guard T.J. Shorts II is averaging 12.7 points, 4.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game, and leads the Big West in steal percentage, per KenPom. Redshirt sophomores Joe Mooney and Rogers Printup are valuable contributors off the bench. Throw in program stalwart Siler Schneider, and the Aggies’ backcourt is starting to take shape.
Aside from beating Washington State, however, UC Davis’s main concern is the level of competition it has faced. The Aggies have played to the level of their competition this year by letting Northern Colorado and Pacific make near-comebacks in otherwise winnable games.
1. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (6-2)
Last ranked: 1st
Believe it or not, UC Santa Barbara has matched its win total from last season. So it’s safe to say the Gauchos are in the honeymoon-phase of the Joe Pasternack era.
Since our last rankings, the Gauchos won the Legends Classic Sub-Regional, earned its first Lou Henson Player of the Week nominee in Max Heidegger, upset San Francisco on the road and graced Lunardi’s most recent Bracketology update.
With all of that said, however, UCSB still needs to figure out a few things before conference play: its defense and its bench.
Although the Gauchos have already improved from last year on the defensive end, Pasternack’s squad is sixth of nine Big West teams in terms of defensive efficiency, per KenPom’s metrics. Despite having better athletes on both ends of the floor — grad transfers Leland King and Marcus Jackson are significant upgrades this season — the Gauchos have struggled to protect the rim and keep guard Gabe Vincent out of foul trouble. The senior leader is sixth on the Big West’s assists-per-game leaderboard, but getting into foul trouble has become a pattern this season.
This leads to UC Santa Barbara’s bench. Sophomore guard Christian Terrell has been an adept sixth man off the bench — especially with his transition defense — but the Gauchos’ bench has averaged 5.25 points per game through eight games. To put this in perspective, UC Santa Barbara as a team has averaged 74.9.
What the Gauchos have going for them, however, is the Big West’s best starting five.
Four of their starters can carry UCSB on any given night — the fifth, Jalen Canty, nearly averages a double-double with 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds while also being a skilled rim-protector. Leland King is the conference’s best stretch forward, Max Heidegger is No. 11 nationally in KenPom’s offensive rating charts and Gabe Vincent has always been an offensive threat. Marcus Jackson is still finding his rhythm, but the experienced Rice transfer is more than capable of carrying the offense on his own.
In order to keep up with deep teams like UC Irvine, UC Davis and Long Beach State, one of the Gauchos’ reserves will have to emerge as a two-way threat in the remainder of the non-conference slate.
But to avoid sounding too pessimistic, let’s sit back and enjoy the resurgence happening in Santa Barbara.
Games of note
Here are five games to keep an eye on for the upcoming week. All times are Pacific (Let’s face it, right-coasters: Will you stay up for these? If so, let me know.)
UC Irvine at Utah State — Wednesday Dec. 6, 6:00 p.m. (Mountain West Network)
UC Santa Barbara at Montana State — Saturday Dec. 9, 1:00 p.m.
Cal State Fullerton vs. Utah Valley — Saturday Dec. 9, 6:00 p.m. (Big West TV)
Cal Poly vs. Fresno State — Saturday Dec. 9, 7:00 p.m. (Big West TV)
Long Beach State at Pepperdine — Saturday Dec. 9, 7:00 p.m. (TheW.TV)
Big West teams versus Power 5 programs: 4-17
Versus KenPom Top 100: 2-18