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Big West Tournament preview: Is it finally the Gauchos’ year?

UCSB is the 1 seed, but familiar foes await in Las Vegas

UC-Riverside v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Big West made some big moves this year, moving the men’s basketball conference tournament away from Anaheim and to Las Vegas for the 2020-21 season. In a note unrelated to the games that will be played, the “2021 Air Force Reserve Big West Men’s Basketball Championship Bracket presented by The Hawaiian Islands” is probably the most gratuitous sponsored thing of all time. Bruh.

Okay, anyway, basketball analysis. Right. The last time the NCAA Tournament was actually held, UC Irvine represented the Big West in the bracket, earning an upset of 4 seed Kansas State before falling to Oregon in the Round of 32. The Anteaters won the regular season again in 2020 before (gestures grandly at world) and were the odds-on favorites to repeat as conference champions, with UCSB and Cal St. Northridge in the next tier of contenders.

The Bracket

Big West Conference

The Schedule

March 9-13, Las Vegas, Nevada
2020 Champion: N/A, but UC Irvine won the regular season title
Not Participating: UC San Diego

* All times ET

Tuesday, March 9

Game 1: No. 8 C-SUN vs. No. 9 Long Beach State, 6 p.m., ESPN3
Game 2: No. 7 Cal State Fullerton vs. No. 10 Cal Poly, 9 p.m., ESPN3

Thursday, March 11

Game 3: No. 1 UC Santa Barbara vs. Game 1 winner, 2 p.m., ESPN3
Game 4: No. 4 UC Davis vs. No. 5 CSU Bakersfield, 5 p.m., ESPN3
Game 5: No. 2 UC Irvine vs. Game 2 winner, 8 p.m., ESPN3
Game 6: No. 3 UC Riverside vs. No. 6 Hawai’i, 11 p.m., ESPN3

Friday, March 12

Game 7: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 9 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Game 8: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, Midnight ET, ESPNU

Saturday, March 13

Championship: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

The Contenders

1. UCSB (19-4, 13-3)

It might finally be the Gauchos’ year. They won the Big West regular season title for the first time since 2010, and are looking for their first tournament bid since 2011. JaQuori McLaughlin is the most underrated player in the sport and a legitimate threat to carry his squad on a deep March run. The Gauchos have a fantastic supporting cast, including stellar big man Amadou Sow, and do the things that win you games in March: They take efficient shots, don’t turn the ball over, and play good defense. They have one loss (to UC Riverside) since the New Year, but did get swept by conference rival UC Irvine in December.

2. UC Irvine (16-8, 10-4)

ZOT. That’s it, that’s the summary.

But actually, UC Irvine plays absolutely suffocating defense, and at the risk of sounding like a boomer wearing sunglasses in his truck in his Twitter profile picture, this is the year where defense can truly win championships. The Anteaters had a rough February offensively, including dropping games to Cal St. Bakersfield, UC Riverside, and Cal St. Fullerton, but they still have a top 40 defense — by far the best in the conference. If you want to win games, laughing as the opponent flails on offense and you grind out results is just as effective as gorgeous offense. Irvine has the championship experience, too.

3. UC Riverside (13-7, 8-4)

On the other side of the coin from UC Irvine is UC Riverside. Both play good defense (Irvine much better so, but UC Riverside is still a top 70 defense in the country). Both have good bigs that can create matchup problems at multiple different spots on the floor. The biggest difference (besides the defenses)? UC Riverside can be electric from three. Think of the plucky mid-majors. TJ Sorrentine from the parking lot. Bryce Drew at Valpo. Ali Farokhmanesh against Kansas. All in common: clutch three pointers. Riverside has five different players that shoot above or right at 40%. I can see the bad Rothstein tweet now: Zyon Pullin. Crazier than a Coachella weekend.

The Prediction

I hate this section. I really do. I’m personally on the UCSB and JaQuori bandwagon, but I think any of the three teams above have legitimate shots at being dangerous in the tournament against the right matchup. The winner of this tournament is salivating at the possibility of playing someone fading (Villanova) or a team that can’t play defense (Iowa). I can’t guarantee a win in the NCAA tournament — no one can — but whoever comes out of this conference will be worth an interesting look at nabbing an upset pick.

I don’t want to pick between any of these teams, but if I was forced to, I’ll take the UCSB Gauchos over the UC Riverside Highlanders in the championship. I like both offenses a lot and can’t wait for the shootout. The Gauchos are little more complete as a team, and have the two best players in the matchup. On the flip side, the Highlanders have an elite shooting team that can get hot quick, and the Gauchos aren’t built to get into a three-point contest with a team hitting everything from everywhere (sub 300 tempo, don’t take a ton of threes, have just one guy hitting over 40% from three (more than 10 attempts)). When Riverside beat Santa Barbara earlier this year, the Gauchos had a ton of turnovers, which is odd because Riverside doesn’t have a defense focused on creating turnovers. So, assuming UCSB doesn’t beat itself this time, I’ll take the Gauchos.