For a tournament that’s seen eight different winners over the past eight years, the first three games of the Big West Tournament usually pan out predictably.
Yesterday was no exception. Top-seed UC Irvine rested two starters and still romped hapless 8-seed UC Riverside, 63-44. Although 2-seed UC Santa Barbara escaped with a 71-68 win over 7-seed Cal State Northridge and 3-seed Cal State Fullerton outlasted 6-seed UC Davis in overtime, the top three teams made the semifinals for the fourth-straight season. In the 4-5 matchup, 4-seed Hawai’i led for nearly 35 minutes and built an 18-point lead.
Then Jordan Roberts happened.
At this point in the tournament, the wheat have been separated from the chaff. Both semifinals matchups feature teams that split the regular-season series, all four teams have bona fide Big West Tournament MVP candidates and both games will be — pardon the cliche — clashes of styles.
Here’s a look at the bracket, plus some storylines to watch in tonight’s Big West Tournament semifinals.
Semifinals (Friday, March 15)
Teams are reseeded.
Game 5: Long Beach State vs. UC Irvine, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN3)
Game 6: UC Santa Barbara vs. Cal State Fullerton, approx. 12 a.m. 3/16 (ESPNU)
Championship (Saturday, March 16)
Game 7: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 12 a.m. 3/17 (ESPN2)
Even though UC Irvine is in the driver’s seat, the Anteaters managed to get the one semifinal matchup they probably didn’t want to see: a rematch with the 5-seed Long Beach State 49ers
The 49ers just so happen to be only Big West team to beat the Anteaters this season. If not for LBSU’s 80-70 road win back in January, UCI would’ve been the first team to go undefeated in Big West play since Pacific went 18-0 in 2004-05. Not only that, the Long Beach State loss is the worst loss on UCI’s resume; theoretically, the Anteaters could’ve been had an at-large case without it (and, coincidentally, a road loss to Pacific).
So yeah, UCI will be out for blood.
And so will the 49ers, who are led by an eclectic group of senior journeymen, ranging from Gonzaga transfer Bryan Alberts, to senior big men Mason Riggins and Temidayo Yussuf, to the nation’s most prolific free-throw shooter in Deishuan Booker. Yet despite LBSU’s experience, sophomore Jordan Roberts stole the show by hitting the game-winner with 0.5 seconds left. The floater capped off a night to remember for Roberts, who led Long Beach State with 18 points and eight rebounds.
Luckily for the 49ers, Roberts has been on a hot streak recently: The Bakersfield native has averaged 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals over the past six games. Whether or not he can ride this momentum against the Anteaters remains to be seen; UC Irvine has held Roberts to a combined nine points on 3-10 shooting in both games this season.
But then again, few players play consistently well against UCI’s defense.
The Big West’s regular-season champs have a top-50 defense, hold opponents to a nation-lowest 40 percent shooting inside the arc and have held opponents to 63.8 points per game. Stifling would be an understatement. The Anteaters suffocate teams on defense and have a deep bench of capable players, which doesn’t bode well for a shorthanded Long Beach State that has historically lived and died by its offense.
Speaking of offense, the 2-3 matchup features guard-centric teams that have taken wildly different paths to the semifinals.
There’s 2-seed UC Santa Barbara — our preseason favorite for the Big West title — whose rotation of five newcomers and two returning juniors have the Gauchos back in the semifinals for the second-straight year under Joe Pasternack. Like last season, UCSB has high-level transfers in Armond Davis (Alabama), Jaquori McLaughlin (Oregon State) and Devearl Ramsey (Nevada — yes, players transfer from Nevada too) bolstering its backcourt. All three are capable scorers that shoot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc. Throw in one-time All-Big West First Team selection Max Heidegger and current all-conference second team selection Amadou Sow (12 points, 6.5 rebounds per game), and the Gauchos can beat teams in a myriad of ways.
But it seems like the Gauchos have started strong and gradually regressed to the mean. Since starting the season 14-3, UCSB has finished 8-6 — including questionable losses to sub-.500 UC Davis and UC Riverside. For as good as the Gauchos are on offense, they have been lackadaisical on defense. They let the lowly Highlanders shoot 64.7 percent from three, surrendered 83 points to defensive-minded UC Irvine and got throttled by the Titans on Jan. 24. And everyone knows defense wins championships.
Defending champs Cal State Fullerton, meanwhile, have done the opposite.
Dedrique Taylor’s squad has come into form throughout the season. Since going 4-10 in non-conference play, the Titans have gone 10-6. Despite having arguably the conference’s best guard tandem in seniors Khalil Ahmad and Kyle Allman (17.8 points per game apiece), the Titans have hung their hats on defense. Big West teams have shot only 47.5 percent from the field against Fullerton, and the Titans have done an exceptional job of keeping teams off the three-point line. Teams only take 32.8 percent of their shots from distance against the Titans, which is good for No. 17 in the nation. This spells trouble for a shooter-heavy team like UCSB.
With all of that said: A UC Irvine-Cal State Fullerton rematch from last year’s championship game would be a welcome outcome. So would a championship game pitting Russell Turner’s tried-and-true Anteaters against Joe Pasternack’s rapidly rebuilt Gauchos. But Long Beach State upsetting UC Irvine would be a nice narrative, as would a race to 80 points between the 49ers and Titans.
Shoot, all the outcomes are good. Let’s just sit back and watch it unfold.