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Big West Tournament preview: From underrated in the preseason to the favorites in the postseason

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Long Beach State was picked eighth in the preseason, Cal State Fullerton was picked seventh; they finished 1 and 2 in the regular season.

Long Beach State defeats Cal State Fullerton 71-61 during a Big West Conference NCAA Basketball game. Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

If you have a bye in this tournament, you have a chance. The top six teams in the Big West finished three games within each other. So, it’s pretty much all even — right?

It starts at the top with the Long Beach State Beach who were picked eighth in the preseason poll. The second-placed team, Cal State Fullerton, was not much further ahead than the Beach, picked seventh preseason.

It’s truly anyone’s game. All you have to do is win three in three days and you’ll be on your way to the big dance.

Bracket

Schedule

Note: All games are played in Henderson, Nevada at Dollar Loan Center.

First Round (Tuesday, March 8th), ESPN+

Game 1: No.9 Cal State Bakersfield vs No.8 CSUN, 9 p.m. EST

Game 2: No.10 Cal Poly vs No.7 UC Davis, 11:30 p.m. EST

Quarterfinals (Thursday, March 10th), ESPN+

Game 3: Game 1 Winner vs No.1 Long Beach State, 3 p.m. EST

Game 4: No.5 UCSB vs No.4 UC Irvine, 5:30 p.m. EST

Game 5: Game 2 Winner vs No.2 Cal State Fullerton, 9 p.m. EST

Game 6: No.6 UC Riverside vs No.3 Hawai’i, 11:30 p.m. EST

Semifinals (Friday, March 11th), ESPNU/ESPN+

Game 7: Game 3 Winner vs Game 4 Winner, 9 p.m. EST (ESPN+)

Game 8: Game 5 Winner vs Game 6 Winner, 11:30 p.m. EST (ESPNU)

Finals (Saturday, March 12th), ESPN2

Game 9: Game 7 Winner vs Game 8 Winner, 11:30 p.m. EST

The Favorite

Long Beach State (18-11, 12-3): People were paying no attention to the Beach in the preseason. Now, if you drop your head for one second, they’re more than likely going to score on you.

Rolling with the 20th-best adjusted tempo in the country, their average possession length is at an average of 15.4 seconds. It helps that they shoot around 50% from the field and have good ball control, and it shows in the record.

Led by their backcourt of Joel Murray, Colin Slater and Jadon Jones, they combine to average 40.6 points per game and are almost all automatic from the free-throw line.

To add to them, the Beach — yes, that’s their name; they’re not the 49ers anymore — have a freshman of the year candidate in the league in Aboubacar Traore. He ranks in the top 65 of both offensive and defensive rating and is 82nd in the country in block percentage.

They beat every team they faced in the regular season at least once. Can they roll through them again?

The Darkhorses

Cal State Fullerton (18-10, 11-4): The Titans are another team who can kill you at the free-throw line, shooting 77.3% against Division-I opponents this season. Led by senior transfers Tray Maddox (Oakland) and EJ Anosike (Sacred Heart), they have brought this program back to promise. Anosike has a chance at the Player of the Year award in the league, averaging 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

UC Irvine (15-9, 9-5): Russell Turner seems to always have the Anteaters in the right spot come March. They won seven straight through late January and February, as Collin Welp —who’s seemed to of been there forever — is who the offense runs through. He is having yet another stellar season, scoring 13.7 points and picking up 6.5 rebounds per game. It’s their defense who is the biggest difference though as they rank 3rd in defensive effective field goal percentage and 1st in defensive 3-point percentage. They beat everyone around them but Cal State Fullerton as both games were decided by a possession.

UCSB (16-10, 8-5): The Gauchos have won five straight as Joe Pasternack has his team rolling at the right time, again. An excellent shooting team, they’re led by two players who shoot around 55% in big-man Amadou Sow, and potential freshman of the year, Ajay Mitchell.

UC Riverside (16-11, 9-6): Mike Magpayo has done wonders for this program. They eclipsed their highest win total in Big West history last week, creating another Australian pipeline out west. Sophomore guard Zyon Pullin is the teams leading scorer and rebounder, as Dom Pickett has one of the best stories in college basketball, coming from being a team manager to a potential All-Big West Player. The Highlanders have won four of its last six with the two losses coming in overtime.

The Longshots

Hawaii (16-10, 10-5): Many have touted this team as Eran Ganot’s best-recruited team yet. They began conference play 6-0 and a lot of it was due to their stout defense, holding their opponents to under 60 points in four straight during that span. They have a lot of depth at the forward position but just lost their leading scorer, guard Noel Coleman for the season.

UC Davis (12-10, 5-6): The Aggies run through their star guards Ezra Mannion and Elijah Pepper. Their problem is consistency, which included a loss to the D-2 school, Academy of Art.

Players to Watch

Joel Murray, Long Beach State (16.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 44.1% FG%)

Colin Slater, Long Beach State (13.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 40.1% FG%)

Jadon Jones, Long Beach State (10.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 43.8% FG%)

E.J. Anosike, Cal State Fullerton (16.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 51.5% FG%)

Tray Maddox Jr., Cal State Fullerton (9.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 41% FG%)

Jerome Desrosiers, Hawai’I (11 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 50% FG%)

Kamaka Hepa, Hawai’I (9.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 44.3% FG%)

Collin Welp, UC Irvine (13.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 42.6% FG%)

Amadou Sow, UCSB (15.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 56.6% FG%)

Ajay Mitchell, UCSB (11.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 3.8 APG, 55.2% FG%)

Zyon Pullin, UC Riverside (14 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 4.3 APG, 46.7% FG%)

Dom Pickett, UC Riverside (11.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 46.1% FG%)

Callum McRae, UC Riverside (11 PPG, 8 RPG, 54.9% FG%)

Ezra Manjon, UC Davis (15.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 45% FG%)

Elijah Pepper, UC Davis (15.3 PPG, 5 RPG, 39.1% FG%)

Atin Wright, CSUN (14.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 36.8% FG%)

Justin McCall, Cal State Bakersfield (11 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 49.3% FG%)

Alimamy Koroma, Cal Poly (13.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 50.7% FG%)

Prediction

You really cannot go wrong with picking any of the top six teams in this league, but I think that UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton will face off in the Big West Finals. The semifinal matchup between Fullerton and Riverside will be a classic that will have college basketball fans go crazy in the wee hours of the morning. I think EJ Anosike will be able to limit Collin Welp in the finals and the Titans will go dancing for the first time since 2018.