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Big West Midseason Evaluation: Separating the pretenders from the contenders

Now that conference play is halfway over, here's a rundown of the top half of the league.

NCAA Basketball: Big West Conference Tournament-UC Davis vs UC Irvine
UC Davis, the defending Big West Tournament Champions, is one of five conference teams with a realistic shot at dancing in March.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, Big West play is halfway over. But the conference standings look no clearer than they were during the preseason.

This season looks like the craziest since 2008, when three teams tied at 12-4 for the regular-season title, with fourth place one game behind. Those who follow the Big West can’t decide on a clear favorite. Four of the league’s nine teams can be found on Bracket Matrix, joining the Ivy League and the NEC as the only leagues with over half of its members in contention for their lone bids.

Of course, every team that makes the conference tournament (the Big West Tournament only takes the top eight teams) is in contention for the title. But here’s where things get really fun: The 1, 2, 4, and 6 seeds have won the Big West Tournament in the past four seasons. Don’t expect all chalk.

Here is a look at the four teams that appear to have the best shot at winning the Big West Tournament.

NCAA BASKETBALL: DEC 14 UC Santa Barbara at UCLA Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (16-5, 5-2)

One key factor: Their starting five.

The case for: With four seniors in its starting rotation, the Gauchos are the most experienced team in the Big West. And everyone brings something different to the table.

Rice transfer Marcus Jackson was a three-year starter and third in the program record books for made three-pointers. Nevada transfer Leland King II went from a role player on an NCAA Tournament team to a star stretch-forward on a potential NCAA Tournament team. Jalen Canty is one of the conference’s best rim-protectors. Max Heidegger and Gabe Vincent — two returners from last year’s roster — have re-shaped their roles. Heidegger upped his scoring output from 7.6 to 21.0 points per game, and Vincent transformed from a shooting guard to an all-around threat, boasting the eighth-highest assist percentage (21.6) in the Big West.

UC Santa Barbara’s losses in Big West play have been by one point apiece. Don’t expect to blow out this team.

The case against: With that said, the Gauchos haven’t played Long Beach State and UC Davis — two of the Big West’s top teams that have the personnel, defense and offensive firepower to counter the Gauchos. Not only that, but head coach Joe Pasternack must’ve taken a few pages from Arizona coach Sean Miller’s playbook: His bench is thin. Most of UC Santa Barbara’s production relies on the starters.

Does this team have enough stamina to win three games in three days on a neutral floor? Unfortunately, the Gauchos didn’t participate in a multi-team event during the non-conference season, so only time will tell.

Long Beach State v West Virginia Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Long Beach State 49ers (12-12, 6-2)

One key factor: A dynamic, athletic offense.

The case for: Long Beach State’s overall record is deceptive, but Dan Monson’s aggressive scheduling has paid dividends in conference play. Like the Gauchos, Long Beach State has a myriad of weapons to throw at opponents: The Beach has Newcomer of the Year candidate Deishuan Booker (5.1 assists per game) at the controls, hot-shooting Gonzaga transfer Bryan Alberts, and the conference’s best frontcourt duo in Gabe Levin and Temidayo Yussuf.

Unlike the Gauchos, the 49ers will gladly throw defense out the window and turn any game into a track meet, which is something they’re equipped to do. 26 percent of their baskets come in transition, and the Beach is shooting a blistering 52.3 effective field goal percentage in these situations, per Hoop-Math. Both marks are top-50 in the nation.

The case against: Long Beach State is 1-2 against the Big West’s top three defenses, with its lone win at home against a Hawaii team that did not have the athleticism to keep up in the track meet. Slow this team down, and victory becomes feasible.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 15 Cal State Fullerton at St Mary's Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Cal State Fullerton Titans (12-8, 5-3)

One key factor: Guard play.

The case for: In a conference historically defined by frontcourt play, Dedrique Taylor’s four-guard sets have been a breath of fresh air. Junior guards Khalil Ahmad and Kyle Allman are the conference’s best backcourt scoring tandem; the former is averaging 18.8 points per game, whereas the latter is a three-level scorer with elite quickness and great court vision:

The case against: Since starting 4-0 in Big West play, the Titans have been on a 1-3 skid with a loss at Long Beach State and a sweep at the hands of the Gauchos. Their lone win was at Hawaii, which is no small feat albeit one that required a 40-point outing from Allman to achieve.

So what’s up with the Titans? Take a look at their first four games compared to their next four:

For starters, their scoring output has cratered from 80.3 to 67.8 points per game. Granted, Cal Poly pushed this team over the century mark in overtime during the first week of the season, but hanging 64 and 65 points against UC Santa Barbara’s pedestrian defense isn't a good sign. Neither is letting opponents shoot over 45 percent from the floor.

Getting out of this nosedive on both ends of the floor — but especially the defensive end — is paramount from this point forward.

California-Davidson v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

UC Davis Aggies (14-7, 5-2)

One key factor: Chima Moneke.

The case for: UC Davis isn’t the best team in the Big West, nor does it have the flashiest offense or the best defense.

Instead, it has the conference’s best player in Chima Moneke, who before conference play, was one of three players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Moneke is an elite post player trapped in a 6’6 frame. The overlooked JuCo prospect-turned-postseason hero is, amongst other titles, the Big West’s reigning Newcomer of the Year, current leader in field goal percentage (52.1 percent) and the frontrunner for KenPom Player of the Year. All of these accolades are expected, as Moneke is a walking double-double at 18.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.

And he has a nifty spin move:

If anything, the Aggies have history on their side. It’s been a whopping 326 days since the last time UC Davis made a storybook run with three Herculean performances from its best player, who also was a 6’6 forward from Canberra, Australia.

The case against: UC Davis is far from perfect. It trailed winless UC Riverside at half, nearly blew a lead against Cal State Northridge and committed a ghastly 22 turnovers amid a second-half comeback at Hawaii. Speaking of turnovers, Big West teams are 2-1 when they bait the Aggies into committing 15 or more turnovers per game.

The Aggies need to take care of the basketball and execute on offense — Moneke and his 3.7 turnovers per game in conference play included — if they want to make another Big West run to remember.

Honorable Mentions: UC Irvine Anteaters (9-14, 4-3) and Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (13-6, 4-2)

Their key factor: Defense.

The case for: Hawaii and UC Irvine are stylistic foils to the Big West’s high-flying, uptempo offenses. Defense keeps these teams in the mix of things. No team has scored more than 73 points against the UC Irvine Anteaters, and the Gauchos are the only team to average more than a point per possession against them (for the record, UCSB averaged 1.11).

Personnel-wise, both are backcourt-heavy. It’s no secret that Russell Turner develops some of the conference’s best bigs, and sophomore forward Tommy “iRobot Roomba” Rutherford (shouts to ESPN’s Richie Schueler) seems to be the heir-apparent to the title once held by Mamadou Ndiaye and Ioannis Dimakopoulos.

As for Hawaii, journeyman Jack Purchase is a proven zone-buster with his 33 percent clip from three, and Mike Thomas is one of the Big West’s smoothest, most accurate finishers in the paint.

The case against: Some defenses — like Arkansas-Little Rock’s swarming, turnover-causing force that Chris Beard led to a tournament win in 2016, or VCU’s (in)famous “havoc” defense — are fun to watch. Something about a defense that completely stymies opponents by playing with its hair on fire gives college basketball its charm.

Hawaii’s and UC Irvine’s defenses, however, are the opposite of fun. Unless team defense is your cup of tea, both of these teams are hard to watch. Neither has a consistent, go-to offensive threat to compliment their stifling defenses, which turns their games into ugly slugfests.

Now this isn’t merely a knock on their basketball aesthetics. Both teams need an offensive threat to counter players like Allman, Heidegger, Levin and Moneke. Although both squads’ defenses will win them games in the Big West, an appearance in the NCAA Tournament would likely include a 16 in front of their names.

So if the Big West wants to bust brackets in March, then one of the first four teams has to represent the conference.