The Pac-12, Mountain West, and the WAC headline the conference tournament slate in Vegas, but the tournament that may have the most chaos is set in nearby Henderson, Nev., in the Dollar Loan Center.
There is no better way to celebrate Big West brews, than holding the NCAA Tournament in Vegas. The Big West is a wide open league. The conference title race came down the stretch as five different teams were within two games of each other throughout February with three of them interchanging the top spot throughout the final two weeks.
In the end, it was UCSB and UC Irvine who ended up sharing the regular season crown with Riverside finishing a game behind.
UC Irvine 22-10 (15-5)
Russell Turner will be looking to clinch his third NCAA Tournament appearance in his 13th year leading the Anteaters. They have elite defensive metrics, ranking 12th in defensive EFG% and 8th in two-point defense. UC Irvine also ranks second in the conference in offensive efficiency.
The Anteaters are lead by junior guards Dawson Baker and DJ Davis, who average 15 points per game each. Despite being the one seed, UC Irvine does not have an advantageous path. Assuming the Anteaters take care of business in the quarterfinals, they would have to play the winner of CSU Fullerton-Hawaii, two teams who beat UCI earlier this season. I don’t think there is much value on betting UC Irvine as I’ll look elsewhere for a team to win the tournament.
UCSB (24-7) (15-5)
The Gauchos are looking to win their second conference tournament in three years. UCSB leads the conference in experience. The Gauchos rank first in the league in offensive efficiency. They do it with their slow and methodical tempo. They lead the league in field goal percentage and assists.
UCSB is lead by conference player of the year Ajay Mitchell. The sophomore guard out of Belgium is sixth in the league in scoring (team-best 15.7 points per game) and first in assists per game (5.1),
It also has Oregon transfer Miles Norris (14 ppg) and Temple transfer Josh Pierre Louis (9.7 ppg).
UC Riverside 21-11 (14-6)
If you are familiar with the program here at MMM, you would know that we are true Mike Magpayo fans. What he has done at UC Riverside over the last few seasons has been incredible. Magpayo earned Big West coach of the year honors after guiding the Highlanders to their best season in school history. In fact, the only two seasons with a winning record in the Big West have came under Magpayo.
After losing two of their top three scorers from last season the Highlanders, had work to do. Conference freshmen of the year Lachlan Olbrich came from South Africa and made his presence known averaging 11.6 points and six rebounds.
Star guard Zyon Pullin emerged into a superstar, averaging 18.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 41% from three. The Highlanders are great at rebounding the ball and are pretty well rounded overall.
This team is being glossed over by tons of “experts,” and the Highlanders prove them wrong. UC Riverside cutting down the nets in Henderson would be one of the best stories in March. It would mark the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance, just two years removed from the entire athletic department facing bankruptcy.
Magpayo would be the first Filipino to coach an NCAA Tournament game, a major breakthrough for Asian-American coaches trying to break into the sport.
CSU Fullerton 18-12 (12-6)
We can’t talk about dark horses without mentioning the defending champs. A team hasn’t repeated in the Big West tournament since UCSB did in 2010 and 2011.
The Titans are a team that is going to rely on their defense. They rank No. 1 in the conference in adjusted efficiency, turnover percentage and 3-point percentage.
Fullerton comes in hot, winning their last six games, which includes wins against three top seeds: Hawaii, UCSB and UC Riverside.
The Titans are very one dimensional on offense. They rank 317th in two-point scoring but they can be very dangerous from three. If the Titans can hit shots from deep, they can be dangerous to cut down the nets.
Hawaii 22-10 (13-7)
Hawaii is another dangerous dark horse here. Like Fullerton and Irvine, the Rainbows get it done on the defensive end. Hawaii ranks top-10 nationally in defensive field goal percentage. They rank top-50 in overall defensive efficiency.
In the matchup against Fullerton, the first to 50 may win the game. Their defensive success can be attributed to Hawaii’s ability to defend the 3-point line. The Rainbow Warriors rank No. 1 in the Big West and rank 11th nationally in defending the three, allowing opponents to shoot 29.1% from beyond the arc.
I mentioned previously, Fullerton is heavily reliant on the three. If Hawaii gets past Fullerton, they would be matched up with UC Irvine, a team they already beat this season.
Players to Watch
Dawson Baker 15.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg
DJ Davis 15.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg
Zyon Pullin 18.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.5 apg
Flynn Cameron 13.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.3 spg
Lachlan Olbrich 11.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg
Lassina Traore 12.9 ppg, 10.6 rpg
Ajay Mitchell 15.7 ppg, 5.1 apg, 49.5% FG%
Miles Norris 14.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg
Latrell Wrightsell Jr. 16.3 ppg, 4.6 rog
Elijah Pepper 22.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.5 apg
Value wise. I think I’m going to go with Riverside here. Pullin is a guy who can carry a team. They have the depth, and they are well rounded on both sides. They get a good draw with UC Davis in the first round, and they have swept UC Santa Barbara twice this season.
I think UC Irvine gets upset in the semifinals, and we get a Cinderella matchup between Hawaii and Riverside in the final. The Highlanders are going to punch their ticket and make history. Take another member out of the Never Made the Tournament club.