For the 16th straight year, the Big West will decide its NCAA Tournament automatic qualifier in Anaheim. With no team in position for an at-large bid, everything will be on the line for the eight teams participating. Usually, the ninth-place team is left out of the festivities, but due to seventh-place finisher Cal State Northridge self-imposing a postseason ban, last-place Cal State Fullerton will take its place.
It was a top-heavy league this year. Hawaii and UC Irvine shared the regular season title with matching 13-3 records. Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara weren't far behind with 12-4 and 11-5 league marks, respectively. After that, fifth-place UC Davis was a distant five games behind the Gauchos, coming in at 6-10.
While the odds are against anyone from the bottom half of the league advancing, it wouldn't be the first time things got a little wonky at the Honda Center. Just a couple of years ago, #6 seed Cal Poly defeated #5 seed Northridge.
The Big West formats its tournament a little differently. It would seem relatively simple to have the standard eight-team bracket and let teams play it out, much like the NBA playoffs do. However, the lowest seeded team that survives the quarterfinals will face off against the highest seeded team in the semifinals. For instance, if top-seeded Hawaii advances, they won't play the winner of the 4/5 game if the 6 or 7 seed pulls the upset on the other side of the bracket.
That makes the tournament a little tougher to project from round-to-round, so let's just look at the keys for the opening matchups.
Round 1 Preview
(All games are Thursday on Fox Sports Prime Ticket)
Game 1: #5 UC Davis vs. #4 UC Santa Barbara - Noon PST
As I mentioned, there's a wider gap in the regular season performance than you would typically expect to see in a 4/5 game. After running away with the league a year ago behind the superb play of Corey Hawkins, Davis had to will their way to a 6-10 record this season. Four of those six wins were one-possession games, and none of them came against the top half of the league. They've lost six of their last seven games.
After starting conference play 3-5, Santa Barbara has rattled off eight straight wins heading into the tournament. Two of those were over these same Aggies they'll face in round one. Two-time All-Big West First Teamer, Michael Bryson, has carried much of the load for Bob Williams' group this year. He leads the team in points and rebounds and is second in assists and blocks.
Game Outlook: I think the Gauchos will come out on top for the third time this season, but it will be close. I think the key will be three-point shooting and turnovers. These two are tops in the league at defending the three, but also represent two of the top three in shooting from outside. Turnovers have been a problem for Davis all year, and they averaged 17 in the first two matchups, compared to the Gauchos 11. If they limit those, they'll have a chance to win.
Game 2: #8 Cal State Fullerton vs. #1 Hawaii - 2:30 p.m. PST
Hawaii comes in fresh off of a league championship in year one under head coach Eran Ganot. Big man Stefan Jankovic was named the Big West POTY earlier this week and point guard Roderick Bobbitt joined him on the All-BW First Team. Between his size, rebounding ability, and overall skill, Jankovic provides the toughest matchup in the league. Bobbitt might have the quickest hands defensively in the country, and his constant pressure tends to wear opposing guards down. The Bows are down a guard after Isaac Fleming made the bizarre decision to transfer on Leap Day. But given their 5-1 record without him this season and his apparent "me" mentality, they may be better off.
Fullerton was fortunate just to make the field. They have been competitive at times, but they're a guard-heavy team that struggles to score if they're not getting to the line. Jamar Akoh is their only frontcourt player who can score, but he's highly inefficient for his position, making just 38% of his field goal attempts.
Game Outlook: Lots of free throws. In their first two meetings, there was an average of 67 combined free throws taken. Fullerton can keep it close if they make a high percentage of those opportunities, but their lack of an interior presence and turnover issues are a problem against this Hawaii team. Bows by double digits.
Game 3: #7 Cal Poly vs. #2 UC Irvine - 6:00 p.m. PST
Irvine returns again as the two seed, the same slot they won the Big West Tournament in as last year. The Anteaters took down Hawaii in the championship game last year, which is the only conference foe they were unable to take down at least once this year. If you've never watched the Eaters play, the first thing you'll notice is how massive they are on the inside. Look no further than 7'6" center Mamadou Ndiaye as the primary cause for UCI leading the leading in blocks and overall interior defense. But the Eaters can shoot it as well, leading the league at a 40% clip from beyond the arc.
It was a bit of a disappointing year for Poly with all the experience they had coming back. They are lacking heavily in scoring talent, and their defense hasn't been nearly as reliable as Joe Callero's best teams have been. The reason they're able to stay in so many games is how well they rebound and take care of the ball.
Game Outlook: It's tough to blow out the Mustangs, but Poly has only been able to take down Irvine once in the last eight matchups. But to stick to this game, Poly has to continue to rebound and not turn the ball over. For as tall as Irvine is, they don't shine the glass that well. It's always tough for the Stangs to go against the Eaters' zone defense. As a team, they don't shoot the ball well from the outside. If Reese Morgan and Taylor Sutlive can get a few to go early, maybe they can entice Russ Turner to change out of it.
Game 4: #6 UC Riverside vs. #3 Long Beach State - 8:30 p.m. PST
After a couple of somewhat disappointing teams for The Beach, they bounced back this year with a 12-4 record. It was another significant turnover in the roster for Dan Monson, but Nick Faust had a great season after transferring from Maryland. And a year after barely being able to find the floor in Big West play, Justin Bibbins was unofficially the most improved player in the league. He led the conference in three-point percentage and got to the free-throw line at a higher rate than anyone in the league. It's not a team that's particularly great in any one area, but they're solid across the board.
Riverside is a team that's sliding down the stretch. They lost seven of their last eight and Dennis Cutts dismissed one of their top scorers - senior Taylor Johns - in the middle of February. His absence puts a lot of pressure on Jaylen Bland and Secean Johnson to carry the scoring load. Inexplicably, their only win during these past eight games was over Hawaii on the island.
Game Outlook: This is always a tough matchup for the 49ers, which was evident in their loss at Riverside on January 23rd. But since then, Long Beach has won nine of ten, and I think they've turned a corner in their confidence level to win close games. That wasn't the case early in Big West play after they had lost a bunch of games in non-conference against the most difficult schedule in the country. I think this one's close for the first 30-35 minutes before The Beach pulls away down the stretch.
Tournament Winner Prediction
We've seen a flurry of 1 seeds fall in the early conference tournaments this season, and that's often the case in the Big West. The one seed has won the tournament just once in the past six years, which was a special Long Beach squad back in 2012. Additionally, there's only been one repeat winner in the past fourteen years. If those two trends continue, that knocks out Hawaii and UC Irvine. Assuming the winner comes from one of the top four teams that clearly established its dominance over the rest of the league, that leaves UCSB and Long Beach.
I'm going to roll with the 49ers. I like the makeup of the team and - to me - they have the single best playmaker in the league with Faust. They're playing as well as they have all year, and they're even pulling games out when they don't play their best. UCSB is on a nice run as well, but they're 1-5 against the top 3 seeds, and that scares me.
If you're looking for a dark horse pick, Cal Poly would seem like the one. They've done it before, they're in every game they play, and if Morgan and Sutlive get hot, they could be dangerous.
Of course, it's pretty silly just to dismiss the top two seeds immediately, but what's the fun in taking the one seed or the defending champ?