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Big West Roundup, Vol. 5: Brace yourselves for a conference shakeup

Cal State Fullerton is 2-0, Cal Poly crashes the party and UCSB might have a second-half problem

Wooden Legacy

Throw the Big West’s non-conference out the window. Conference play is nigh.

Let’s try to sift through the craziness of last week’s games, which included a 21-point comeback, a coaching change and two remaining unbeatens.

Performances of Last Week

Jalen Canty: 21 points (9-13 FGs), 10 reb, 6 blk vs. Cal Poly

Victor Joseph: 33 points (11-19 FGs), 3 ast, 7-12 3FGs vs. Cal State Fullerton

Chima Moneke: 20 points (7-13 FGs), 13 reb, 2 ast vs. UC Irvine

Jackson Rowe: 24 points (10-13 FGs), 12 reb, 2 blk vs. Cal Poly

Michael Thomas: 24 points (10-11 FGs), 11 reb, 3 blks, vs. Cal State Northridge

Cal Poly needed a spark. Several days removed from one of their biggest games in recent memory, the Mustangs trailed Cal State Fullerton 42-33 at half. Senior guard Victor Joseph answered the call: By sinking five of his seven threes in the second half, the senior’s career-high 33 points caused Cal Poly to force overtime. Although his efforts weren’t enough to upset Cal State Fullerton, Joseph’s night to remember wins the Performance of Last Week award.

9. Cal State Northridge Matadors (3-12, 0-1)

Recent results: vs. Hawaii (65-46 L)

Last ranked: 9th

8. UC Riverside Highlanders (5-11, 0-2)

Recent results: @ Cal State Fullerton (68-65 L); @ UC Santa Barbara (65-57 L)

Last ranked: 8th

Last week certainly wasn’t a memorable one for the Big West’s cellar-dwellers.

UC Riverside kicked off 2018 by firing their head coach three days before kicking off conference play at Cal State Fullerton. At the end of the week, the Highlanders wound up in a 0-2 hole and a Big West-leading four-game losing streak.

And although Cal State Northridge has one fewer loss than their bottom-feeding counterparts, the Matadors were anything but competitive in last week’s lone contest. Their 46 points versus Hawaii was their worst offensive performance of the season.

Not to wish unemployment on anyone, but UC Riverside probably won’t be the only Big West team with a head coaching vacancy come March.

7. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (10-5, 1-1)

Recent results: @ Long Beach State (89-81 L); @ Cal State Northridge (65-46 W)

Last ranked: 4th

6. Long Beach State 49ers (7-11, 1-1)

Recent results: vs. Hawaii (89-81 W); @ UC Irvine (86-73 L)

Last ranked: 6th

Did Hawaii overachieve during the non-conference? Are the 49ers underachieving? This pair of 1-1 teams in Big West play have been enigmatic all season long. Both teams hid behind polar-opposite non-conference scheduling — Long Beach State had a gauntlet; Hawaii trounced terrible teams at home.

Now it’s safe to say that both teams are mirror images. Long Beach State has a better lineup on paper, a better offense, but a porous defense; Hawaii has an inferior lineup on paper, a bad offense, but a solid defense.

As far as rankings go, Long Beach State owns the head-to-head matchup, whereas Hawaii shellacked lowly Cal State Northridge — a win that carries little-to-no weight.

But letting Hawaii’s subpar offense score a season-high 89 points is a bad sign for Dan Monson’s team. The 49ers have surrendered an average of 1.12 points per possession to Hawaii and UC Irvine — both ranked 280 or lower in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metrics — which is anything but encouraging.

5. Cal Poly Mustangs (6-10, 1-1)

Recent results: vs. UC Santa Barbara (80-79 W); vs. Cal State Fullerton (101-97 L, OT)

Last ranked: 7th

This paragraph from my last Big West Roundup didn’t age well:

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.

Led by Luke Meikle’s three free throws with 0.3 seconds remaining, Mustangs stole the spotlight by overcoming a 21-point deficit to knock UC Santa Barbara off the top of the Big West. My words can’t do the end of the rally justice; this video of the final-sequence is a must-watch:

To top it all off, the Mustangs rode the momentum into Saturday night’s game against Cal State Fullerton. Although they fell behind early again, Cal Poly’s 64.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc brought them back in the mix of things.

Even though Joe Callero’s squad only has two conference games under its belt, it appears that the Mustangs have re-found their three-point stroke. Cal Poly made over 45 percent of its threes in both games, amounting to a conference-leading 48.1 percent clip, per KenPom.

Yes, Cal Poly isn’t the best team in the Big West. And yes, two games is a small sample size. But Victor Joseph and co. sent a message: Don't sleep on the Mustangs.

4. UC Irvine Anteaters (6-12, 1-1)

Recent results: @ UC Davis (64-53 L); vs. Long Beach State (86-73 W)

Last ranked: 5th

I finally listened to The Ringer’s “One Shining Podcast” episode where hosts Mark Titus, Tate Frazier and Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons discuss college basketball’s sleeping giants. Lo and behold, UC Irvine got a shoutout!

(Granted, it was in the same breath as the trio saying UC Santa Barbara was in the WAC, so take it with a grain of salt.)

3. UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (12-4, 1-1)

Recent results: @ Cal Poly (80-79 L); vs. UC Riverside (65-57 W)

Last ranked: 1st

The following images might be disturbing to Gaucho fans:

The Gauchos’ past two games — both of which weren’t projected to be close by KenPom and Vegas’s predictions — had me thinking: Does UCSB have a second-half problem?

The shooting splits, specifically from three-point range, say so.

Although the Gauchos make 39.3 percent of their threes (good for 36th in the nation, per KenPom), most of their makes come from the first half. Put it this way: UC Santa Barbara is more accurate from three (42.7%) than their opponents are from the field (42.5%) during the first half of games.

The second half is a different story. Opposing teams shoot better in the second half (45%), while the Gauchos’ three-point rate plummets to 34.9%. This drop-off will definitely be a statistic to watch as the Gauchos play against the rest of the conference, which has three top-100 three-point defenses in UC Davis (41st), UC Riverside (71st) and Hawaii (79th), per KenPom.

For the three people interested in how I calculated this, here is the complete spreadsheet:

2. Cal State Fullerton Titans (9-5, 2-0)

Recent results: vs. UC Riverside (68-65 W); @ Cal Poly (101-97 W, OT)

Last ranked: 3rd

Cal State Fullerton fans, enjoy the 2-0 record while you can. This week will be an, erm, titanic test for the Titans with a road game at UC Irvine, followed by a home matchup against UC Davis.

Guards Khalil Ahmad and reigning Big West athlete of the week Kyle Allman will not only give Anteaters’ backcourt fits, but also get foul-prone bigs Jonathan Galloway and Elston Jones in trouble with their ability to get to the basket and draw fouls. A 1-1 record is completely doable, but the Titans will definitely be atop these power rankings if they maintain perfection.

1. UC Davis Aggies (10-5, 1-0)

Recent result: vs. UC Irvine (64-53 W)

Last ranked: 2nd

In their only game from last week, UC Davis won the Big West Championship sequel against UC Irvine in a matchup nearly as gritty and grueling as the original.

Both teams have changed since their 50-47 slugfest; fortunately for the Aggies, most of the characteristics from UC Irvine now describe their team. UC Davis has a balanced bench, a stout defense and could be the conference’s team to beat.

To wit, Luke Benz and the rest of the fine folks at the Yale Sports Analytics Group give the Aggies a 59.2 percent chance at taking the Big West’s regular-season title.

Here’s the bottom line: Although UC Davis isn’t a flashy team like UC Santa Barbara, the Aggies’ consistent, methodical offense — combined with their skilled frontcourt trio of Garrison Goode, A.J. John and Chima Moneke — will pay off in the long run. Saturday’s game at Cal State Fullerton might not be aesthetically pleasing, but it could be a Big West Tournament quarterfinal preview.

Weekday Game Predictions:

Long Beach State over Cal State Northridge — Wednesday, 7:30 PST

Hawaii over Cal Poly — Wednesday, 9:59 p.m.

UC Davis over UC Riverside — Thursday, 7 p.m.

Cal State Fullerton over UC Irvine — Thursday, 7:30 p.m.