Unlike most seasons, the Big West returns 12 of its 21 all-conference selections from a year ago — including four first-team selections. Defending POY and Newcomer of the Year TJ Shorts II is back, Cal State Fullerton’s tandem of Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad returns, and UC Irvine’s deep frontcourt (and now, backcourt!) will always be in the mix of things. Such talent retention makes this year’s conference deeper than ever before, which should make for an exciting Big West Player of the Year race.
Let’s run through the awards:
Big West Preseason Player of the Year:
Kyle Allman Jr. — Senior, Cal State Fullerton
2017-18 Stats: 19.5 ppg (on 48.9 FG%), 3.5 rpg, 1.1 spg, 42.9 3FG%
His game, in a sentence: Armed with an incredibly picturesque jumper and the ability to take shots in traffic, Allman is the conference’s most lethal three-way scorer.
Want to know how big of a year Kyle Allman had last season? Dropping 40 on Hawaii might not be the most impressive feat from his junior campaign. Allman kicked off his year by dropping 30 on Power 5s Georgia and Cal, carried momentum into Big West play with 16 double-figure games, then led all scorers against Purdue in the NCAA Tournament.
Chief amongst these highlights was a monster performance against UC Irvine in the Big West Championship game, in which Allman scored 26 points on 8-16 shooting against the best defense in the conference. If that game is indicative of what’s to come, then we’re in for a treat:
All Big-West First Team
TJ Shorts — Senior, UC Davis
2017-18 Stats: 14.8 ppg (on 52.1 FG%), 4.4 apg, 3.7 rpg, 1.9 spg
His game, in a sentence: A highly competitive, shoot-first point guard with a knack for finishing at the rim, and for coming through in the clutch.
For the second year in a row, UC Davis turned an unknown JuCo prospect into one of the best players in the conference. Last season, that unknown prospect was TJ Shorts II: a Tustin, CA native with zero Division I offers who made everyone pay for overlooking him:
Between these highlights, Shorts pinballed through defenses, pickpocketed some of the best guards in the conference and made defenders look silly with his nifty passing. Shorts took the league by storm, swept the Big West’s Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year awards, and nearly went dancing. Not many Big West players can singlehandedly lead their teams to the NCAA Tournament, but Shorts is one of them. Overlook him — as in, don’t do what I just did by not naming him the Big West Player of the Year — at your peril.
Max Heidegger — Junior, UC Santa Barbara
2017-18 Stats: 19.1 ppg (on 43.2 FG%), 2.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 40.4 3FG%
His game, in a sentence: A sharpshooting junior with consistent NBA-range, a developing interior scoring repertoire and confidence to keep hoisting shots,
If the Big West had a Breakout Player of the Year award, Heidegger would’ve won it. After canning eight three’s on opening night, Heidegger nearly tripled his scoring average from 7.6 to 19.1 PPG and doubled his three-point accuracy from 20.5 percent to 40.4 percent last season. By the time the dust settled, Heidegger led the Big West in made three’s (95) and was second in points per game (19.1), field goals (195) and effective field goal percentage (53.8%).
But the most underrated facet of his game is how he takes care of the basketball: Heidegger had the second-lowest turnover percentage last season (8.6%). Although he won’t surprise the league this season, he’ll still be one of the Big West’s best.
Tommy Rutherford — Junior, UC Irvine
2017-18 Stats: 10.1 ppg (on 58.3 FG%), 5.7 rpg in 21.3 mpg
His game, in one sentence: A scrappy, do-it-all forward who will quietly put up numbers every night thanks to his uncanny rebounding instincts and mobility around the rim.
I’m going to let ESPN’s Richie Schueler take the wheel for a moment.
Indeed, Tommy Rutherford of UC Irvine is everywhere on the floor! He cleans the glass, and gets into every nook & cranny til he finds a way!! Just like an iRobot Roomba... https://t.co/RLMP95nlLy— Richie Schueler (@RichieSchueler) January 21, 2018
PAJAMA NIGHT = “Robing the Roomba” (aka Tommy Rutherford of UC Irvine) as Wednesday’s Player of the Game! 'The Roomba’ is among the hardest working players I've seen... much deserved for the 6'8/220 pound Sophomore at @UCImbb w/ a bright future! #WatchESPN pic.twitter.com/4MCgbDwwTV— Richie Schueler (@RichieSchueler) February 9, 2018
Rutherford was one of two sophomores named to the All-Big West First Team last season, and for good reason: Rutherford became a mainstay in UC Irvine’s starting rotation, notched three double-doubles and even showed off an outside shot. Arguably the best two-way forward on Irvine’s roster, Rutherford is a perfect compliment to his defensive-minded teammates and UC Irvine’s promising young guards.
Jonathan Galloway — Senior, UC Irvine
2017-18 Stats: 3.6 ppg (on 47.2 FG%), 7.5 rpg, 1.3 bpg in 25.5 mpg
His game, in a sentence: A shot-blocking, rebounding menace who anchors the Big West’s best defense and has a good shot at being a three-time conference DPOY.
Casual observers will look at Galloway’s statline and wonder why he made this list. But real Big West heads know why Galloway is a first-team talent: Galloway is the best defender in the conference, period.
Last season was a near-replica of his sophomore campaign. His scoring dipped from 4.4 points per game to 3.6, but both his shooting and block percentages went up, leading to his second Defensive Player of the Year honor. No player in Big West history has won the award three times in a row, yet this is the goal Turner outlined for Galloway. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, Galloway can definitely accomplish this.
He’s an absolute terror around the rim. Statistics aren’t too keen on Galloway’s style of play, but watch the Anteaters and his value becomes apparent. Galloway is constantly involved on defense, especially as a help defender:
Thanks to great patience and footwork around the rim, Galloway is the ultimate safety net on defense. Opposing guards respect his presence in the paint with his league-leading 1.3 blocks per game, and other bigs have to be prepared for a dogfight on the glass. Not only that, Galloway makes good basketball plays that won’t show up in the boxscore. Imagine being a guard and having this guy on your team:
If he cuts down on fouls and has a semblance of an offensive game, then Galloway will have a long, effective basketball career.
All-Big West Preseason Second Team:
Khalil Ahmad — Senior, Cal State Fullerton
Deishuan Booker — Senior, Long Beach State
Evan Leonard — Junior, UC Irvine
Jackson Rowe — Junior, Cal State Fullerton
Temidayo Yussuf — Senior, Long Beach State
Keep an eye on Evan Leonard. Overshadowed by both Heidegger’s breakout campaign and UC Irvine’s deep bench, Leonard’s scoring lept from 3.6 to 13.6 points per game while averaging only 28 minutes per game. He started to consistently put everything together a month into conference play a year ago — correlation doesn’t equal causation, but Leonard led the Anteaters with 16.8 points per game during UC Irvine’s 10-3 run to close out the season — and should pick up where he left off.
Preseason All-Transfer Team:
Robert Cartwright — Senior, UC Irvine (via Stanford)
Ar’Mond Davis — Senior, UC Santa Barbara (via Alabama)
Ron Freeman — Junior, Long Beach State (via Kansas State)
Stefan Gonzalez — Junior, UC Davis (via Saint Mary’s)
Robinson Idehen — Sophomore, UC Santa Barbara (via Western Kentucky)
Of all the transfers UCSB brings in, Robinson Idehen might make the biggest impact. For starters, he’s not a guard — UCSB will have quite the logjam in the backcourt this season — which means he’ll get more minutes as he’ll fill a position of need. Filling the void in the post left by Jalen Canty and Alex Hart, Idehen should be in the starting lineup on opening night.
Then there’s his athleticism. Idehen is listed at an NBA-esque 6’10 and 230 pounds with a 7’3 wingspan, giving him an immediate edge over the Big West’s post players. His energy and athleticism stood out in the high school ranks, and his feel for the game suggests there’s an abundance of untapped potential — after all, this the same four-star prospect who averaged nearly two blocks in 3.8 minutes per game in JuCo.
Darkhorse team: Long Beach State
The Big West has three pretty clear strata: four contenders at the top, three rebuilding teams at the bottom and two teams somewhere in between. Long Beach State is in the third category, which almost doesn’t seem right. Dan Monson’s team is littered with transfers ranging from former high-level Division I prospects like Ron Freeman and Bryan Alberts, to unheralded JuCo imports like Deishuan Booker and KJ Byers. Throw in their blistering pace of play, and Long Beach State is a wild card on any given night.
Led by the Big West’s most underrated point guard in Deishuan Booker (10.6 PPG, 4.6 APG, 50 FG%), Long Beach State isn’t a team to overlook. They were three points away from knocking off the eventual Big West Tournament champs last season, and they’re capable of doing even more this year.