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Big West Roundup, Vol. 7: The carousel rotates atop the conference standings

Could there be a four-way tie atop the Big West? Absolutely.

NCAA Basketball: Long Beach State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball fan, do you like parity? Do you like a conference in which four of the nine teams have a realistic shot at making the NCAA Tournament?

Reader, may I interest you in the Big West?

The Big West had a crazy week. Cal State Fullerton, the last undefeated team, dropped two straight by an average of 13.5 points. Cal State Northridge, one of the league’s winless teams, went on a two-game win-streak to rise up in the mix of the rankings.

Since this is merely the tip of the iceberg, let’s take another weekly dive into the Big West.

Performances of Last Week

Jalen Canty: 20 points (8-12 FGs), 11 reb, 1 blk 4-4 FTs vs. UC Irvine
Tavrion Dawson: 23 points (8-18 FGs), 10 reb, 2 stl 2-4 3FGs vs. UC Riverside
Gabe Levin: 19 points (7-14 FGs), 9 reb, 3 ast, 3-3 3FGs vs. UC Davis
Jack Purchase: 21 points (6-9 FGs), 6 reb, 3 stl, 4-7 3FGs vs. UC Davis
Temidayo Yussuf: 19 points (7-11 FGs), 14 reb, 4 ast, 2 blk vs. Cal State Fullerton

Is the Big West hair theory back? In a pregame interview with ESPN’s Courtney Sweet, Cal State Northridge senior Tavrion Dawson credited, amongst other things, his new haircut for his double-double against UC Riverside. Not only that, the senior became the 19th Matador in school history to surpass the 1,000-point threshold.

On to the rankings:

9. UC Riverside Highlanders (5-14, 0-5)

Recent results: vs. Cal State Northridge (66-57 L)
Last ranked: 8th

8. Cal Poly Mustangs (6-13, 1-4)

Recent result: @ UC Irvine (80-73 L), @ Cal State Northridge (72-54 L)
Last ranked: 7th

7. Cal State Northridge Matadors (5-14, 2-3)

Recent results: @ UC Riverside (66-57 W), vs. Cal Poly (72-54 W)
Last ranked: 9th

It’s pretty clear these three teams will vie for the final two spots in the Big West Tournament. From both visual and statistical standpoints, Cal Poly, Cal State Northridge and UC Riverside have too many glaring weaknesses to move out of the cellar.

With that said, the race for the bottom will be almost as interesting as the race atop the conference.

Small sample sizes in such a toss-up conference like the Big West are fantastic. Last week, the Matadors weren’t getting anything done on both ends of the floor; the Matadors dropped into the SWAC/MEAC heavy range on KenPom. But with two straight wins over UC Riverside and Cal Poly, Reggie Theus’s team is half a game out from UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara.

Of this ignominious trio, the team with the most momentum is the Matadors. The team is starting to look more cohesive, as freshman guard Terrell Gomez (15.0 ppg, 5.0 apg and 48.6 3FG% in Big West play) develops. Against Cal Poly, the Matadors looked like they were running actual offensive sets, as opposed to having four guys stand around and watch one teammate go one-on-one — a trap they’ve fallen into quite often this season.

Speaking of offenses going awry, UC Riverside hasn’t looked the same without Dikymbe Martin and his 13.0 ppg in conference play. The sophomore guard missed the last two games after violating team rules, and the team has been mum regarding his return.

On the other hand, Cal Poly has no roster absences albeit their offense, which has all but disappeared. The Mustangs aren’t playing careless basketball; if anything, their shot selection has been both lackluster and limited. Their once-proficient offense is seventh in the conference in field goal percentage (43.4 percent), three-point percentage (33.9 percent) and dead-last in offensive rebounding percentage (19.2 percent), per KenPom.

6. UC Irvine Anteaters (8-14, 3-3)

Recent results: vs. Cal Poly (80-73 L); @ UC Santa Barbara (70-58 W)
Last ranked: 5th

Speaking of campaigns to forget, the Anteaters find themselves in a peculiar position. Realistically, the Anteaters are still very much in the mix of the Big West title hunt. Playing UC Irvine’s bruising defense will never be an easy task, and Russell Turner’s crew has already put the clamps on the conference’s high-scoring offenses in UC Santa Barbara (70 points, averaging 77 ppg) and Cal State Fullerton (67, averaging 73.4 ppg).

The problem is, the Anteaters still can’t find a consistent scorers. Evan Leonard, John Edgar Jr. and Tommy Rutherford have led the offense on multiple occasions, but teams can almost guarantee on getting one of them in foul trouble. UC Irvine’s signature frontcourt depth has also been foul-prone. Having a size and bench advantage can only be utilized in late-game scenarios when key players like Jonathan Galloway, Elston Jones and Rutherford aren’t hindered by fouls.

5. UC Davis Aggies (12-7, 3-2)

Recent result: vs. Long Beach State (84-75 W), @ Hawaii (77-72 L)
Last ranked: 2nd

The Aggies have looked out of sorts since playing Cal State Fullerton in a battle of the unbeatens two weekends ago. Their guards don’t appear to be on the same page — UC Davis has averaged 16.8 turnovers per game in the past four games, per sports-reference.com — and their defense is giving up way too many second-chance points. Then again, it’s foolish to count out heroics from reigning Big West Player of the Year Chima Moneke, who has averaged a casual 18.0 points and 9.8 rebounds in conference play.

4. Cal State Fullerton Titans (11-6, 4-2)

Recent results: @ UC Santa Barbara (83-64 L); @ Long Beach State (85-70 L)
Last ranked: 1st

Yikes.

3. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (13-5, 4-1)

Recent results: vs. Cal Poly (57-45 W); vs. UC Davis (77-72 W)
Last ranked: 4th

Hawaii fans, I am sorry for being a broken record. But it’s still true: If the Rainbow Warriors win a road game against one of the Big West’s better teams, then I’ll not only move them up — I could possibly start believing in this team’s chance to win the conference. For now, seeing their nearly-unwatchable offense mull about within the friendly confines of the Stan Sheriff Center doesn’t give an accurate glimpse of their postseason potential.

2. Long Beach State 49ers (10-12, 4-2)

Recent results: @ UC Davis (84-75 L); vs. Cal State Fullerton (75-68 W)
Last ranked: 3rd

This next week will be huge for the 49ers, as they’ll play the top two teams in the power rankings. Depending on how next week shakes up, Long Beach State could force a three-way tie for first.

Ready for team entropy in the Big West? Dan Monson’s Long Beach State team has nudged their way into the conversation, thanks to a statement win over crosstown-rivals Cal State Fullerton.

Arguably the most impressive part of last Saturday’s win was holding the Titans to only 43.5 percent field goal shooting — their lowest mark in conference play, and fifth-lowest on the season, per their sports-reference.com page. This is no small feat, seeing as Cal State Fullerton’s offense is the second-most efficient unit in the conference, according to KenPom.

It’s entirely possible that Long Beach State could make another surge. Starter Bryan Alberts is back in practice after sustaining a knee injury. Even though Alberts could be “another week” from being game-ready, the good news is that the 49ers should make light work of Cal Poly and Cal State Northridge.

1. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (14-5, 2-2)

Recent result: vs. Cal State Fullerton (83-64 W), vs. UC Irvine (70-58) W
Last ranked: 4th

In the past, this column has overshadowed Canty in favor of his fellow starters Max Heidegger, Leland King and Gabe Vincent. But it’s time to make amends.

Shoutout to senior forward Jalen Canty for breaking into the KenPom Player of the Year standings for the Big West. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, because the senior is atop sports-reference.com’s Big West leaderboards for blocks (42), offensive rebounds (67) and offensive rebounding percentage (15.5 percent).

The Gauchos will need Canty to have a big game on the defensive end against Cal State Fullerton on Thursday. His rim protection against Khalil Ahmad, Kyle Allman and Davon Clare — three guards who like to attack the basket (and are quite good at it) — will be invaluable. Keep an eye on the matchup between him, Arkim Robinson and stretch-forward Jackson Rowe. The matchup between these two high-scoring backcourts will be exciting, so the game could come down to how the bigs play on both ends of the floor.


Weekday Game Predictions:
(all times Pacific)

UC Irvine over UC Riverside Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Long Beach State over Cal Poly — Thursday, 7 p.m.
UC Davis over Cal State Northridge Thursday, 7 p.m.
UC Santa Barbara over Cal State Fullerton — Thursday, 7:30 p.m.