ANAHEIM — Two days, six games and five down-to-the-wire finishes ago, the Big West Tournament had four realistic contenders in UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.
Now only 3 seed UC Irvine and 4 seed Cal State Fullerton remain.
Tonight’s Big West Championship game will feature a stark clash of styles: Cal State Fullerton’s uptempo offense has blitzed opponents in transition throughout the tournament, whereas UC Irvine’s stingy team defense has been a juggernaut in the Big West. Better yet, their two meetings in the regular season were decided by an average of four points. Throw seeding out the window.
“I think the game will be similar to what fans have seen in this tournament so far,” UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner said after the Anteaters’ semifinal win. “It’s going to be a tough game. Its going to be a grind-it-out game. I’d imagine it’ll come down to a couple of key plays late in the game.”
Both teams are looking for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in several years. UC Irvine has made the Big West championship game in four of the past six seasons, but haven't won since 2015. Cal State Fullerton, on the other hand, hasn’t won the Big West Championship since 2008.
Nevertheless, tonight’s championship game will be an emotional one. UC Irvine’s young team struggled throughout a difficult non-conference slate, whereas Cal State Fullerton let go of a commanding 4-0 start in Big West play.
Let’s take a look at how either team can make an NCAA Tournament appearance:
How UC Irvine will win
It all comes down to defense and guard play. If UC Irvine’s quartet of young guards Max Hazzard, John Edgar Jr., Evan Leonard and Eyassu Worku can make late-game stops against Kyle Allman Jr. and Khalil Ahmad, then the Anteaters can ride their defense to an NCAA berth.
The Anteater guards have already proven themselves in this tournament. Hazzard made the go-ahead basket against Hawai’i in the semifinals, and Worku put several defenders on skates down the stretch during last night's win over UC Santa Barbara.
Keep an eye on this game if it’s within single digits with four minutes to play. UC Irvine’s backcourt defense has clamped down during that time in this tournament so far: They held Hawai’i scoreless for the final 2:30, then stifled UC Santa Barbara’s offense into finishing 1-13 from the field down the stretch. Cal State Fullerton’s high-octane guards Allman (19.2 ppg, .513/.415/.749 ) and Ahmad (15.1 ppg, .502/.317/.825) will challenge the Anteaters. Will UC Irvine’s young guards have enough in the tank for one more late-game stop?
Although casual Big West followers might be surprised at the prospect of an 18-16 team going dancing, the Anteaters have turned the Honda Center into Bren Events Center North during Turner’s tenure. Don't count out this group in March.
How Cal State Fullerton will win
Judging by the differences in these two teams’ rosters, Jackson Rowe will be the most important player for the Titans. The sophomore forward was the best player on both ends of the floor during their semifinal win against UC Davis, and posted his fourth double-double (16 points, 11 rebounds) on the season when the Titans needed him most.
Rowe will have to square off inside against UC Irvine’s plethora of bigs on the boards, which is no small task. With help from his guards, Rowe’s biggest impact will be getting Galloway, Rutherford and Jones into foul trouble early. If Cal State Fullerton neutralizes UC Irvine’s front court depth, then it'll have a good chance at winning.
The Titans will have to control the pace of this game. Both meetings against UC Irvine have played to the Anteaters’s strengths; Allman, Ahmad and Austen Awosika will have to push the pace and disrupt UC Irvine’s rhythm. If the Titans can carry a three-possession lead and play mistake-free down the stretch, then they will go dancing for the first time in a decade.
How to watch
The Big West Championship tips off at 8:59 PST on ESPN2, and will stream live on WatchESPN.