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Big West Rapid Roundup, Vol. 1: Sifting through the aftermath of opening night

The Big West was two possessions away from making a lot of noise last night.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round: Purdue Boilermakers vs. Cal State Fullerton Titans Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Hit the damn music. The Big West is back.

Six of the conference’s nine teams kicked off the 2018-19 season against a myriad of opponents. Defending Big West tourney champs Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside hit the road against PAC-12 schools, Cal State Northridge started the Mark Gottfried era at home against New Mexico, UC Irvine defended the Bren against Idaho, UC Davis did the opposite of that against San Francisco and UC Santa Barbara traveled north to Wyoming.

All in all, the conference was two plays away from making a ton of noise, but both Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton have plenty of other opportunities for redemption.

Knee-jerk reactions from the first game should be taken with a grain of salt. But enough action happened last night to cause a bit of a shakeup amongst the Big West teams.

Without further ado, here are a few takeaways from opening night:

Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad haven’t cooled off from the Big West Tournament

Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona to two Arizona alums. Given the fact that I’ve written a bit about the Big West for this site, I wanted nothing more than for Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad to roll through a half-empty Wells Fargo Arena and kick the Sun Devils in the teeth.

Alas, the Titans ran out of steam in a high-octane 102-92 double-overtime loss. Yet this game showed that Cal State Fullerton has the offensive firepower to compete with damn near anyone in the country. Seriously.

Allman and Ahmad aren’t going anywhere. Cal State Fullerton’s terrific tandem scored 30-plus apiece for the first time in their careers — a feat accomplished only 20 times nationwide last season — while shooting a combined 17-31 from the field (including 6-17 from three). If not for Luguentz Dort’s record-breaking night, Allman and Ahmad would’ve been the best guards on the court.

Now imagine what they could do against Big West teams — especially once Jackson Rowe returns.

A Tale of Two UCs

UC Davis and UC Riverside’s offenses must’ve missed the memo last night. Both teams were the only Big West members held under 60 points, but either teams’ flaws don’t stop there.

Let’s start with UC Davis, the conference’s biggest letdown on opening night. San Francisco is not a defensive juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, yet they forced the Aggies into two five-minute scoreless stretches in the 76-42 slog. No Aggie scored in double figures; most alarmingly, TJ Shorts II was held to a career-low two points on 1-8 shooting. Perhaps the return of stretch forward AJ John will do the trick — the Aggies were outscored 50-22 in the paint — but it looks like the defending regular-season champs have a long way to go.

Speaking of a long way to go, UC Riverside looked like a team content with staying in the Big West’s cellar. Granted, playing a PAC-12 team on opening night isn’t the easiest task, but the Highlanders made fewer than 40% of their field goals, turned the ball over 11 times and couldn’t find help for Dikymbe Martin (20 points, four rebounds, three assists).

Can UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara be second-half teams this season?

No Max Heidegger? No problem.

While UC Santa Barbara’s star guard recovered from a concussion, newly-eligible Oregon State transfer JaQuori McLaughlin (17 points) and fellow transfer Devearl Ramsey (14 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) led the Gauchos past a plucky Wyoming team. Unlike last year’s starter-heavy team, UCSB’s bench chipped in 23 of its 76 points.

In even stranger news, this year’s Gauchos didn’t take care of the basketball. For a team known for its patient, mistake-averse offense, the new-look Gauchos turned the ball over 18 times. It’s worth noting that none of the five starters were teammates last season; the starting five featured three transfers, a freshman and onetime reserve Jarriesse Blackmon, who filled the stat sheet (eight points, eight rebounds, three blocks) in his fourth career start under Joe Pasternack.

Back in California, it looked like a new-look Idaho squad had UC Irvine on the ropes.

As the only KenPom Top-100 team in the conference, the Anteaters trailing one of the Big Sky’s biggest question marks was certainly not a good look. Thankfully for the preseason favorites, guards Eyassu Worku, John Edgar Jr. and Stanford grad transfer Robert Cartwright sparked a gigantic 44-27 run in the final 16 minutes to put any concerns to rest.

One detail that could have long-term implications: Redshirt freshman Collin Welp chipped in a hyper-efficient six points and four rebounds in nine minutes of play. Cool, man. If there’s one thing the Anteaters need, it’s definitely another effective post player.

Cal State Northridge might be for real

If “legit” means “ready to break into the Big West’s middle class,” then the Matadors are legit. Instead of keeling over to a far more physical, cohesive New Mexico group like I incorrectly predicted over on Mountain West Wire, the Matadors hung with the Mountain West darkhorse for 39 minutes and 56 seconds. Stud freshman Lamine Diane’s one-legged stepback to cap off his 34-point night seemed to send the game to overtime, where he’d likely put up a 40-piece in the ensuing extra time.

But Anthony Mathis had other ideas:

Despite the heartbreaking loss, there was a lot to love about Cal State Northridge. Reigning Big West Freshman of the Year Terrell Gomez picked up right where he left off, scoring 21 points in 38 minutes. Elijah Harkless had a few hiccups in his collegiate debut by committing four turnovers, but made up for it by dishing out six assists and notching four steals against a more experienced Lobos backcourt.

But Diane was the Matadors’ most impressive player by a country mile. Those gaudy double-doubles in preseason play weren’t flukes: The redshirt freshman led all scorers with 34 points while adding seven rebounds, four steals and a block — all while committing only one turnover. New Mexico simply did not have an answer for Diane’s raw albeit effective post moves and sound, short jumper. Standing at 6’7, Diane moves well against traditional bigs, yet can keep up in Gottfried’s new fast-paced offense. He’s going to be a problem.