SANTA BARBARA — Thanks to last weekend’s slew of upsets, it looks like the Big West will have a photo-finish.
Inspired by college basketball’s latest quadrant infatuation, let’s recap the weekend’s biggest storylines, debate the Big West Player of the Year race and try to figure out what’s wrong with UC Santa Barbara’s defense.
QUADRANT ONE: Can UC Santa Barbara revamp its defense?
UC Santa Barbara's defense was never fantastic. But the Gauchos’ 71-54 loss to UC Davis exposed a glaring issue that could derail the Big West’s feel-good comeback story:
“Defensively we haven’t had it the past three games,” Pasternack said. “We haven’t had it in the second half, stamina-wise. At UC Davis, they shot over 50 percent in the second half, and we were up 12 at halftime. It was 37-17 against Long Beach State. They shot 17 percent in the first half, and then they scored 53 points in the second half. That game could have gone either way, but to our guys’ credit, they competed and pulled it out.
Today, we didn’t have it. We couldn’t run back on defense. We couldn’t guard [UC Davis] in the half court. And we had no legs. That happens. We have to regroup and understand that if we want to win another game in this league, we have to defend for 40 minutes.”
Senior guard Gabe Vincent echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“It’s all about the defense for us,” Vincent said, “We aren’t going to outscore them every time. We might be the number one offense in the league, but sometimes shots don’t fall. We have to clean up our defense. Our game plan is the same, we have to lock in for our next game [at UC Irvine] and get back to square one.”
UC Santa Barbara’s man-to-man defense faltered on Saturday. All T.J. Shorts II and Siler Schneider needed to do was beat the first line of the Gaucho defense. By the time Santa Barbara could react and play help defense, the quicker Aggie guards prevailed.
If anything, Jalen Canty — he of the league-leading 2.0 blocks per game and fifth-best defensive rating — can turn the tide.
Over the weekend, I got jokes off about this on Twitter, but in all seriousness: Canty might be the Big West’s most important defensive player. In such a guard-heavy conference like the Big West, having a skilled rim protector like Canty is paramount — especially when the Gauchos are in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency (5th), effective field goal percentage (6th) and two-point defense (6th).
Although UC Santa Barbara has been 3-1 without the senior forward, UC Davis outscored the Gauchos 36-24 in the paint and won the battle of the boards, 36-31. And this was without Chima Moneke.
QUADRANT TWO: It’s time to talk about T.J. Shorts II
It’s time to talk about T.J. Shorts as the Big West Player of the Year.
That wasn’t a typo. Shorts is not merely a first-teamer or the Newcomer of the Year. Thanks to averaging 14.7 ppg — while shooting 52.5 percent from the field! — and 4.2 apg in his first year in the Big West, the one-time overlooked high school prospect has a legitimate shot at being the first Aggie to win the award since Corey Hawkins won in 2014-15.
Shorts has garnered high praise in his first Division I season, most recently after scoring 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting against UC Santa Barbara.
“He is the best point guard in our league,” Pasternack said after the game.
Pasternack then added that Shorts was the best player in the conference.
The most impressive aspect of Shorts’ game is his fearlessness on both ends of the court. Whether it’s attacking the basket, hitting clutch threes, or using his quickness to slip through passing lanes, Shorts has been one of the most exciting Big West players to watch.
“[Shorts] is a good player,” UC Santa Barbara guard Gabe Vincent said, “I’ll leave it at that. There’s not much to say about that [question].”
QUADRANT THREE: Pull Big West Tournament seeds out of a hat
All apologies to UC Riverside, but it’s safe to say Big West Tournament’s eight-team field is set. Although the Highlanders went on an insane 18-0 second-half run against Cal State Northridge to save their season, running out of steam against Hawai’i in overtime put them behind the eight ball.
This is what the bracket would look like if the tournament started today. Chances are, the teams won’t change.
If the #BWT started today at @HondaCenter:— Big West MBB (@BigWestMBB) February 18, 2018
1️⃣ @UCSBbasketball vs 8️⃣ @CalPolyMBB
2️⃣ @UCDavisMBB vs 7️⃣ @CSUNMBB
3️⃣ @UCImbb vs 6️⃣ @HawaiiMBB
4️⃣ @FullertonHoops vs 5️⃣ @LBSUhoops
...#BWCMBB #PlayBig #DreamBig
The seeding, however, is anything but set.
If any team will move up, it’ll be either UC Davis or Cal State Fullerton. Both teams play at home for the majority of their remaining games, and each has only one contest against an opponent over .500 in Big West play. The road will be tougher for the Gauchos, Anteaters and 49ers, who will have a round-robin of sorts to finish the season.
Take it with a grain of salt, but my top four seeds are UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine (in that order).
QUADRANT FOUR: All your favorite Big West players are out
The aforementioned Canty and Moneke weren't the only players in street clothes this weekend. Hawaii star forward Mike Thomas missed Saturday night’s game with an unspecified injury:
Mike Thomas sidelined tonight due to injury. #HawaiiMBB— HAWAII BASKETBALL (@HawaiiMBB) February 18, 2018
Save for Long Beach State guard Bryan Alberts’ slew of absences in the non-conference and Hawaii guard Brocke Stepteau’s finger injury in January, the conference has been lucky in the injury department.
But the Big West has lost a litany of players due to vague “violation of team rules” infractions, keeping the conference from full strength. Moneke’s absence is still shrouded in mystery, and Pasternack didn’t give a timetable for Canty’s return.
Something to keep an eye on: Conference leaders UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis haven’t played each other at full strength. Could both teams meet with their best rosters in the Big West Championship? Sign me up.