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Big West Roundup, Vol. 1: UC Irvine leads a field battered by non-conference play

The Big West limps into conference play with only two KenPom top-150 teams and five with double-digit losses.

2017 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational - Northern Arizona v UC Irvine Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

If any conference is in dire need of the familiar routine of conference play, then it’s the Big West.

Since the preseason, things have gone from bad to worse for the conference. As a whole, its nine members have amassed a 62-71 record, which ranks No. 22 amongst 32 conferences. Four teams already have 10 losses. Although the Big West was 13-9 in one-possession games, the problem was that most of its games were never that close: 41 of those 71 losses were by double-figures. And in a year where the PAC-12 is actively trying to be a one-bid league, the Big West has tried to fill the void out west by... going 3-19 against Power 5 schools. Hindsight is 20/20, yet one can’t help but wonder what could have been.

Thankfully, all of that changes tonight. From now until Mar. 14, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays will see an eclectic mix of Cal States, UCs and Hawai’i duke it out for a chance at an NIT berth and the 1-seed in the Big West Tournament. Heroes will emerge from unexpected places. Richie Schueler will be compare players to household appliances. Hell, there might even be a large, anthropomorphic Anteater.

Unfortunately up until this point, highlights have been few and far between.

Even though a dozen all-conference nominees returned and five teams brought back over 70% of their minutes, per Bart Torvik’s T-Rank site, the Big West has floundered from top to bottom. The conference appears to be very bottom-heavy this season; like it has in years past, the race for the final seed in the eight-team Big West Tourney field might be closer than the race for the conference crown.

Weirdly enough, Cal State Northridge was a handful of possessions away from being this year’s big turnaround story. New Mexico’s Anthony Mathis tore out their hearts on opening day, they dropped one-possession games against a pair of middling WCC schools, and squandered a 19-point lead against San Diego State in the Viejas Arena. Unlike UC Riverside and Cal Poly, the Matadors have an ace in the hole: Freshman of the Year — and quite possibly the Conference Player of the Year — favorite Lamine Diane is one of 20 players averaging a double-double this season. Expect the Matadors to climb into a crowded middle class.

Expected conference contenders Cal State Fullerton and UC Davis are experiencing serious hangovers from last season’s postseason berths. Despite returning four starters from 20-win campaigns, both squads have struggled immensely on offense; both are shooting worse than 30% from beyond the arc despite having three of the conference’s better guards in TJ Shorts II, Khalil Ahmad and Kyle Allman. There aren’t many ways to make a 4-10 record look worse, but considering Cal State Fullerton and UC Davis have only four D1 wins combined, they might’ve found a way.

Speaking of 10-loss teams, lumping Long Beach State in with the underachieving Aggies and Titans seems wrong. The 49ers are two bad breaks away from being a sneaky-good .500 team with quality wins against Oregon State and San Diego. Deishuan Booker (14.2 ppg and 4.7 apg) continues to make the case of being the most underrated guard in the conference, while senior Bryan Alberts is finally scoring at a level Beach fans initially expected after transferring from Gonzaga a couple seasons ago. Dan Monson’s run-and-gun, four-guard sets are still fun to watch when they’re working, but unfortunately for the 49ers, the Big West is a defensive conference. Although they’ve improved on that end of the floor, so has everyone else.

If there was a “most improved” award, Hawai’i would probably win it. The Rainbow Warriors’ young core looked like they were a couple years away from being relevant, yet they’ve sped up the timetable thus far. Remember the Big West’s 3 wins over Power-5 schools? Hawai’i is responsible for two of them. With four players averaging double-figures and one of the tallest frontcourts in the nation, the Rainbow Warriors appear to be tailor-made for going toe-to-toe with UC Irvine. And JuCo transfer Eddie Stansberry has been a godsend for a team that’s struggled on offense in years past.

UC Santa Barbara made waves last season with its brilliant offense, yet was expected to take a step back this year. Round two of the Gaucho transfer project consists of Ar’Mond Davis (14.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Devearl Ramsey (11.2 ppg, 3.8 apg, 42.9 3FG%) and Jaquori McLaughlin (10.9 ppg), and although they might not be putting up Leland King-esque numbers, they’re still pretty damn good. But here’s the rub: Aside from a very good 73-71 win over San Francisco, the Gauchos’ second-best win is against noted Big Sky member Idaho State. So don’t act surprised if a 10-loss UC Davis or a Cal State Fullerton team beats UC Santa Barbara later this month.

This leaves UC Irvine, which will probably have the Big West in a stranglehold this season.

Everyone’s favorite mid-major with a deep bench, a zillion big men and a penchant for bludgeoning opponents on the glass is back and more dangerous than ever. John Edgar Jr., Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard are capable of dropping 20 points a night, yet only Hazzard averages in double-figures (12.1 ppg). Jonathan Galloway and Elston Jones are top-175 nationally in block percentage, and fellow forward Collin Welp would be a prime Freshman of the Year candidate if Lamine Diane didn’t exist. Their balance is baffling. Their defense is elite. The Bren is always rocking. Simply put, it’s UC Irvine’s league to lose.

Yet — and this is a big “yet” — Russell Turner’s teams have been in this exact situation before. If any Big West team has had a penchant for overpromising and underdelivering in the Big West Tournament, then it’s the Anteaters. Long Beach State upset the 25-win Anteaters in the second round in 2016. The next year, Chima Moneke derailed UCI’s title hopes in a game where both teams combined to score fewer than 100 points. And, worst of all, the top-seeded Anteaters lost to 7-seed (and eventual tourney winners) Cal Poly in 2014. So don’t act surprised if 16-seed UC Davis or 15-seed Hawai’i end up representing the Big West in the NCAA Tournament.

With all of that said, here’s how the Big West’s weekday action will unfold. These guesses are good and true and 100 percent bound to happen:

Weekday Game Predictions:
(all times Pacific)

UC Santa Barbara over Cal Poly — Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Yes, I remember how the last Blue-Green game pitting a trendy UCSB team against a bad Cal Poly team ended. But I like two of the conference’s most promising young big men (Amadou Sow and Robinson Idehen) against the Big West’s worst offense.

Cal State Northridge over UC Riverside — Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Big West wins have been few and far between for Cal State Northridge, but take a gander at the only team CSUN has beaten in each of the past six seasons.

Hawai’i over Cal State Fullerton — Wednesday, 8:59 p.m.

Even with eight days rest, kicking off conference play with the Hawai’i trip will be too much for the Titans, who have won one game away from Titan Gym this season.

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

The Anteaters will exact revenge on last season’s double-overtime loss that saw UC Davis win the regular-season title. Given the Aggies’ offensive woes, I’d be surprised if they score 50.