Big West Preview 2017-18

- Ky McKeon



Player of the Year: Chima Moneke, Sr., UC Davis
Coach of the Year: Russell Turner, UC Irvine
Newcomer of the Year: Marcus Jackson, R Sr., UC Santa Barbara
Freshman of the Year: Lamine Diane, Fr., Cal State Northridge


1. UC Irvine

Key Returners: Eyassu Worku, Tommy Rutherford, Jonathan Galloway, Brandon Smith, Max Hazzard
Key Losses: Luke Nelson, Ioannis Dimakopoulos, Jaron Martin
Key Newcomers: Elston Jones, Solomon Ruddell, Collin Welp


Postseason Projection: 14 Seed

Outlook: The Anteaters have been a staple at the top of the Big West standings since 2012-13, notching a 60-22 conference record over the past five seasons and crashing the Field of 68 in 2015. Russell Turner has done an excellent job building the UCI program he took over from Pat Douglass back in 2010-2011 and now has his Anteaters poised to fight for another conference title.

UC Irvine loses a lot of production from its 1st place Big West squad a season ago. Among the losses includes CPOY Luke Nelson, a dynamic guard that vaulted UCI on both ends when he was on the floor. Per Hoop Lens, UCI was 21 points better per 100 possessions when Nelson played versus when he sat, a staggeringly high number. Offensively, he and fellow graduate Jaron Martin were the catalysts that saved an otherwise pedestrian attack. Their absence will force the young sophomore class to step up and produce on the offensive end.

Fortunately for Coach Russell, that sophomore class is riddled with talent and potential. Guards Eyassu Worku and Max Hazzard will pair in the backcourt in the starting lineup forming a quick and versatile attack. Worku likely leads the team in scoring this season with his quickness and ability to push in transition, but he’ll need to improve upon a below average outside shot and a questionable turnover rate. Hazzard will share in the point guard duties; like Worku, the 5’10” guard struggled to find his stroke from deep, but he has plenty of scoring potential waiting to be unleashed.

Tommy Rutherford represents the sophomore class up front, poised for a breakout campaign after ranking 2nd in the Big West in offensive rebounding %, 8th in defensive rebounding %, 4th in block rate, and 11th in FG%. Rutherford has great composure on both ends of the floor and takes his time on offense to find the right way to put the ball in the basket. His scoring average should leap into double digits this season.

Complementary pieces like Brandon Smith, Evan Leonard, Spencer Rivers, Brad Greene, and John Edgar make this team one of the deeper bunches in the Big West – UCI ranked 12th in bench minutes last season and should go 9 or 10 deep once again this year. Shooting struggles was a common theme for this group and the other returners, but each brings something to the table on defense, the hallmark of the Anteaters. Redshirt freshman Justin Wertner should help in the shooting regard; he’s the best shooter on the roster by a mile. 

Defense is the key for UCI. Per KenPom, in 2016-17 the Anteaters ranked first in the Big West in adjusted defensive efficiency by nearly 4.0 basis points, which was about the gap between 2nd and 5th in the league. The Anteaters do a masterful job at taking away the paint, ranking 6th in effective FG% in the country and 7th in FG% defense at the rim last year. Russell always has big bodies in the middle that can block and alter shots, which should be the case again this year. UCI also does a good job of contesting three-point shooters – they allow a lot of shot attempts from deep, but teams hit only 32% of their tries last season. The Eaters stay home on defense; they don’t’ gamble for turnovers, but rather play strong, solid man-to-man.

Jonathan Galloway, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, is the name to watch on this end for UCI. Galloway is one of the best shot blockers in the conference and arguably its best rebounder (1st in OR%; 13th in DR% last season). He offers very little on the offensive end, but does literally everything else on the floor for UCI, making him one of the most valuable players in the conference.

Three newcomers will bolster the frontcourt rotation behind Rutherford and Galloway. The two freshmen, Solomon Ruddell and Collin Welp, are probably a year or two away from truly contributing (especially Ruddell who is yet another UCI 7-footer), but Utah State transfer Elston Jones should see tons of time immediately off the pine.

Bottom Line: UC Irvine should once again find itself near or at the top of the league standings at the end of 2017-18. While the offense may struggle at times, the defense should continue to be a dominant force in the conference. Guys like Worku, Hazzard, and Rutherford will need to take giant leaps on offense for UCI to make real noise past the Big West Tournament.

2. UC Davis

Key Returners: Chima Moneke, Siler Schneider
Key Losses: Brynton Lemar, Darius Graham, Lawrence White, JT Adenrele
Key Newcomers: Delveion Jackson, TJ Shorts II, Logan Strom, AJ John, Gio Nelson, Colin Russell


Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT 

Outlook: UC Davis punched its first ever ticket to the Big Dance last season after joining the Division I ranks back in 2004-05. Credit coach Jim Les, who has done an excellent job at the helm of UCD the past six seasons. The Aggies were one of the most experienced teams in the country in 2016-17, meaning we’re going to see a lot of fresh faces out in Davis with the graduation of four key rotation players. But with the preseason Conference Player of the Year favorite, Chima Moneke, leading the way, UC Davis should be near the top of the standings once again this season.

Moneke is the key for UC Davis, a former JUCO transfer who lit the Big West on fire in his Division I debut. The 6’6” forward (he looks and plays way bigger than his height) led the Big West in field goals made, rebounds, blocks, fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and double-doubles last season, vaulting him to the All-Conference 1st Team. The Aggies struggled mightily on offense last season, ranking 293rd in offensive adjusted efficiency per KenPom, and relied heavily on Moneke’s ability to get to the free throw line to put points on the board. Offensive sets are often drawn up to feed Moneke in the post or get the ball in his hands to attack from the top of the key.

Defensively, UC Davis was pretty stout, especially with Moneke on the floor. The Aggies allowed only 0.93ppp when their stud forward played versus a poor 1.07ppp when he sat (per Hoop Lens). His rim protection and defensive rebounding ability is unmatched by any other player in the Big West.

Siler Schneider is the other key returning piece for the Aggies, a 6’3” sharpshooter that can knock down the trey ball and take his man off the bounce. Schneider will be relied on to provide a secondary scoring option on offense in order to take some of the focus off Moneke.

The rest of Les’s roster is unproven and inexperienced, but its not without potential. Sophomore Joe Mooney likely steps into the point guard role with Brynton Lemar’s departure. Mooney didn’t see a whole lot of floor time last season and struggled with his shot when he did. Because of this uncertainty, Les will probably try a few options out at PG, including 5’8” senior Arell Hennings and 5’9” JUCO transfer TJ Shorts II. My money is on Shorts emerging as the starting PG by season end; he’s a high-level scorer, passer, and ball handler.

The wing will be filled by an entirely new cast of characters. Delveion Jackson, a 6’6” freshman with a ridiculous 7-foot wingspan probably starts at the 3 on day one. Jackson is a 3-star recruit out of Boise who should have no problem developing into a Big West All-League type of player with his length and athleticism when his career is all said and done. Gio Nelson and Rogers Printup are two more options Les will have off the pine at the 2-3 spot. Nelson is coming off a knee injury, but he’s another guy like Jackson that can impact the game with his size and athleticism on the perimeter.

Junior forward Garrison Goode will likely line up next to Moneke in the starting five and will be backed up by freshman Logan Strom and JUCO import Colin Russell. Goode played a lot for UCD when he was healthy last season and contributed as a glue guy with a good defensive and rebounding mindset. Strom is a well-built power forward that will assist on the glass. Russell is a former Portland Pilot and should also be a glass eater and strong finisher near the rim.

Bottom Line: UC Davis may fall off a little this year after losing so much production from the 2017 class. But, the Aggies will have the best player on the floor in every conference game this season, which gives them a chance to win every night. Les’s squad will once again have a formidable defense, but the offense will still be questionable. 

3. Cal State Fullerton

Key Returners: Kyle Allman, Jackson Rowe, Khalil Ahmad, Austen Awosika
Key Losses: Tre’ Coggins, Lionheart Leslie
Key Newcomers: Daniel Venzant, Gaber Ozegovic, Landon Kirkwood, Josh Pitts


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Cal State Fullerton finally turned a corner last season under head coach Dedrique Taylor. After three dismal seasons under Taylor in which the Titans won 6, 3, and 1 conference games, CSUF rattled off 10 league victories in 2016-17 and finished with a 17-15 overall record (the team’s first winning season since 2012). With only two major pieces departing from last year’s roster, the Titans should be every bit as competitive in 2017-18 as they seek their first NCAA Tourney bid since 2008.

Much of CSUF’s success last season was due to its defense, a unit that ranked 3rd in the Big West in adjusted efficiency per KenPom. However, the offensive end was a nightmare. The Titans were one of the worst shooting and ball handling teams in the country and were forced to rely on penetration and trips to the foul line to score points. Tre’ Coggins’s and Lionheart Leslie’s departures may seem devastating on the surface, but Fullerton was only a net +0.01ppp better when the two shared the floor. Both guards helped the offense, but neither was good on the defensive end. While Coggins was the most voluminous outside shooter on the team by far, the pair won’t necessarily be sorely missed by a squad ripe with young talent.

One of the biggest keys this season will be having Khalil Ahmad back for the entire year. Ahmad, CSUF’s returning leading scorer, missed the first half of 2016-17 due to academic ineligibility. Without Ahmad, Fullerton stumbled to a 3-7 record against Division I opponents last year, mostly as a result of not being able to score effectively. Ahmad’s ability to score from all three levels of the court make him a valuable asset on the wing.

Junior Kyle Allman and sophomore Austen Awosika will join Ahmad in the backcourt this season, looking to replace the production left behind by Coggins and Leslie. Allman broke out in a big way in his second collegiate season, doubling his scoring average thanks to his knack for getting the ball to the basket and finishing at the free throw line (he’s also CSUF’s best perimeter defender). Awosika was a smashing success in his first season under Taylor, knocking in 42.3% of his three-pointers and 54.6% of his tries inside the arc. On defense, Awosika ranked in the top 20 in both block percentage and steal percentage, a testament to his versatility. This season, Taylor will rely on Awosika and Allman to handle the ball, which the two struggled with at times last year. Another year of maturity will likely help iron out the ball handling kinks of 2016-17.

Inside features one of the best young big men in the conference in Jackson Rowe, the Big West Rookie of the Year last season. Rowe led the Titans in rebounding last season on a per-game basis and ranked 2nd in the conference in FG%. His ability to step out past the three-point line or score in the post makes him a tough matchup for most Big West forwards. He should see his name on the All-Conference squad this year at the end of his sophomore campaign.

Arkim Robertson likely starts alongside Rowe at the center spot. Robertson would have been just about the best per-minute rebounder in the conference had he played enough minutes to qualify. The 6’9” 240 lb. senior is a load on the glass and capable rim protector on defense. If he can reduce his fouling habit this season, he’ll be due for a major uptick in floor time.

Forward Davon Clare will serve as the primary backup to the Robertson/Rowe tandem after struggling to be much of a factor in his freshman season. Look for Dwight Ramos to see increased run in a backup wing role as well. Ramos has the potential to be a knockdown shooter, but has yet to prove it on the collegiate stage.

Of the six newcomers Taylor brings in this season, Daniel Venzant appears to be the guy to keep an eye on (presuming he’s fully ready to go after a HS knee injury). Venzant will provide depth at the PG spot this year; he’s a crafty, steady lead guard and is a string finisher at just 5’8”. The wings will be fortified by Gaber Ozegovic and Landon Kirkwood. Ozegovic is a Slovenian wing that can shoot and score, while Kirkwood offers a little more athleticism. I encourage you to go watch Kirkwood’s highlight video on YouTube – it starts out with him missing like 10 dunks in a row: Johhny Wang, Dominik Heinzl, and Josh Pitts will provide frontcourt depth.

Bottom Line: Fullerton promises to be a conference competitor this season despite the loss of Coggins and Leslie. Taylor’s defense should continue to cause Big West foes fits, while the offense should improve as the young rotation players step into leading roles.

4. Hawaii

Key Returners: Gibson Johnson, Sheriff Drammeh, Brocke Stepteau, Leland Green, Jack Purchase, Mike Thomas
Key Losses: Noah Allen
Key Newcomers: Samuta Avea, Justin Hemsley, Jaaron Stallworth, Brandon Thomas


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Eran Ganot has had some extreme highs and lows in his first two seasons at the helm of Hawaii. Ganot inherited in uber-talented Rainbow Warrior squad in 2015-16 that ended up being one of the best teams in the school’s history, going 28-6 and knocking off Cal in the NCAA Tournament. Then the entire team flipped over, Ganot lost five starters, and the Bows were picked dead last in the 2016-17 preseason poll. Hawaii ended up notching a 14-16 (8-8) record last season, which should be considered a success by just about any measure given the amount of turnover and turmoil the team went through during the year. Now, Ganot loses only Noah Allen (a significant player) from the 2016-17 squad and brings back Mike Thomas, a starter on the 2015-16 squad, meaning the Warriors have a real shot at the Big West title in 2017-2018.

Offensively, Hawaii runs a ball-screen, pick-n-roll heavy set and spaces the floor with its array of three-point shooters. Point guard Brocke Stepteau returns to run the offense, a 5’9” dynamo that thrived in the pick-n-roll and got to the free throw line at the 4th highest rate in the Big West (33rd nationally). His most prominent PnR partner, Gibson Johnson (two last names), also returns as the only Bow coming back that averaged double digits in scoring. Johnson’s strength is his ability to score with his back to the basket; he scored 0.945ppp on post-ups last year, ranking in the 80th percentile nationally, per Synergy. Johnson is also one of the only legitimate offensive rebounding threats on the roster.

Allen’s graduation hurts, particularly on offense, but Mike Thomas’s return should help take the sting away. Thomas started every game for Hawaii’s Tourney squad back in 2015-16 and was a top five rebounder in the conference on a per-minute basis. His return is huge for Hawaii’s defense, as the Bows ranked 345th in the country last season in FG% defense at the rim (though they did rank 7th in FGA allowed at the rim). He should be able to slide in alongside Johnson and Jack Purchase, a stretchy four-man, in the starting five with his ability to put the ball on the floor and attack from the wing. Two sophomores, Zigmars Raimo and Ido Flaisher round out the frontcourt rotation.

Ganot has plenty of depth this season in the backcourt where junior Sheriff Drammeh and sophomore Leland Green plan on providing Stepteau support from the 2-guard spot. Drammeh needs to step up in the scoring department this season – he proved he could put up points during his sophomore year, but he was way too inconsistent and inefficient, converting shots at only a .378/.311/.747 slash. Green likely comes off the bench this year with Thomas’s return; his best asset is his outside shot, which he converted 37% of the time last season. Redshirt freshman Drew Buggs came in with a lot of hype last year before being shut down prior to the start of the season due to injury. Now fully healthy, Buggs will push Stepteau for the starting PG spot and give Ganot some nice options to work with.

Of the four newcomers, Samuta Avea looks to have the best shot at cracking the rotation. A 3-star recruit per ESPN, the Hawaii native is a good athlete and slasher from the wing. Justin Hemsley is a super young freshman that probably needs a year or two to develop. JUCO imports Jaaron Stallworth, a PG with a really good jumper, and Brandon Thomas, Mike’s brother, should provide even more competent depth in the backcourt.

Bottom Line: Hawaii basketball appears to be trending back in the right direction after a long rebuilding year. Someone like Drammeh or Thomas will need to emerge as a legit go-to scorer on offense in order for Hawaii to have a shot at the Big West title.

5. Long Beach State

Key Returners: Gabe Levin, Temidayo Yussuf
Key Losses: Justin Bibbins, Evan Payne, Roschon Prince, Noah Blackwell, Loren Jackson
Key Newcomers: Bryan Alberts, Deishuan Booker, Edon Maxhuni, Jordan Roberts, Milos Apic, KJ Byers


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Long Beach State disappointed last season, failing to win the Big West despite being almost a unanimous favorite to do so. Injuries did the 49ers no favors, but the defense was the worst it’s been under Dan Monson since the first year he came to Long Beach. In typical Monson fashion, LBSU played a ridiculously tough non-con schedule last season and it has another gauntlet lined up in 2017-18 (Monson gets a cut of the cash when LBSU schedules big name schools). The Beach travels to Oregon State, West Virginia, Arizona, and Michigan State, has a home contest against Stanford, and plays Mizzou on a neutral floor in the Advocare Invitational. Such a slate should have the 49ers ready for the friendlier confines of the Big West, but several newcomers will have to step up in order for LBSU to challenge for the conference crown.

LBSU runs an uptempo style of offense that usually revolves around 2 or 3 solid ball handlers. Transition scoring and three-point shooting are usually Monson strong points, but last season the 49ers pulled back the reigns a bit on both aspects. This will probably stand out as an anomaly – expect the Niners to get back to their up-and-down run-n-gun roots in 2017-18.

Bibbins and Payne were a dynamic duo in the backcourt last season, but Bibbins never was able to repeat the brilliance of his sophomore season alongside Payne, a high usage off-guard. With both players seeking greener pastures (and Roschon Prince bolting to Detroit), Monson will send out a new batch of guards. Gonzaga grad transfer Bryan Alberts figures to be a staple in the rotation, as does JUCO import Deishuan Booker, the likely starting point guard. Alberts didn’t see much floor time with the Zags but he was a touted recruit out of high school, a deadeye outside shooter with ball handling chops. Booker is a long, athletic point guard that loves to distribute first and shoot second. He is dynamite in transition, a trait that will fit in perfectly in the 49er system. High-scoring Finnish freshman Edon Maxhuni could also crack the rotation in his inaugural college season.

On the wing, Long Beach State will have a slew of options, including senior Barry Ogalue, sophomore Javonntie Jackson, and newcomers Jordan Roberts (frosh), Milos Apic (frosh), and KJ Byers (JUCO). The freshmen are the main guys to watch here. Roberts, a 2-star recruit, is a long wing that can score in bunches and act as a point forward on the floor. He’s not a great shooter, but his passing ability and athleticism will allow him to be successful immediately. Apic is a lanky 6’10” wing that can shoot and put the ball on the floor. He’ll be a tough matchup in the Big West if he can develop in the strength department.

The frontcourt will be the real strength of the Niners this season, a shift from in years past. Forwards Temidayo Yussuf and Gabe Levin, the team’s leading returning scorers, return to the fold as All-Conference Team contenders. Levin’s season was cut short last season following non-conference play. His absence had a tremendously negative effect on the defense, particularly the interior where the Beach gave up easy looks near the basket at will. In 2015-16, LBSU’s defense was 0.10 points per possession better when Levin was on the floor (stats are skewed for last season due to the hellish non-con schedule the 49ers played). Yussuf broke out in a big way in 2016-17, turning into a productive inside scorer and glass cleaner seemingly overnight. He and Levin will give LBSU some semblance of protection inside, which should vault the 49ers back into the top four of the Big West in defensive efficiency. Byers, the aforementioned JUCO wing, should be able to line up as a four in most lineups and provide tough defense. Juniors Mason Riggins and LaRond Williams will also serve reserve frontcourt roles once again.

Bottom Line: Long Beach State is a shoo-in to compete in the Big West every year – Monson’s squads have finished outside the top four only once during his ten year tenure. If the newcomers can come in and produce right away in the backcourt, LBSU should have a legitimate shot at the Big West title, given they’ll run out one of the better frontlines in the conference.

6. UC Santa Barbara

Key Returners: Gabe Vincent, Max Heidegger, Clifton Powell, Alex Hart, Christian Terrell, Maxwell Kupchak, Jalen Canty
Key Losses: Eric Childress
Key Newcomers: Marcus Jackson, Leland King II


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Last season was a disaster for UCSB and long-time head coach Bob Williams. The Gauchos were expected to be one of the better Big West foes in 2016-17, but several key injuries held them back and led to a last place conference finish, the first in Williams’s career. With that train-wreck season came a changing in the guard, as Williams was shown the door, paving the way for new head coach Joe Pasternack. Last year’s injuries meant plenty of playing time for rotation players that ordinarily wouldn’t see time and trial by fire for the slew of Gaucho freshmen. With only one key piece leaving from last season’s squad, UCSB should be a much improved team.

Pasternack served as head coach of the New Orleans Privateers from 2007-2011 before joining Sean Miller’s staff at Arizona in 2013. As one of Miller’s top assistants, the hiring of Pasternack should be seen as a colossal success for the UCSB program. Pasternack likely brings with him some of Miller’s style philosophies, meaning Bob Williams’s long-time love affair with the zone defense has seen its last says in Santa Barbara. Offensively, expect Pasternack to implement a pick-n-roll based offense that looks to attack off the drive to open up kick-outs and create charity stripe opportunities.

I’ve seen the Gauchos placed between 6th and 8th in most preseason previews (though KenPom does have them 3rd), which admittedly is a little surprising considering the level of talent Pasternack has at his disposal in the backcourt (yes, I do have them 7th, shhhh). All-Conference guard Gabe Vincent tore his ACL back in February, but he should be fully healthy by the start of the season, meaning UCSB will have one of the better shooters/scorers in the conference gracing its starting five. Additionally, Pasternack brings in Marcus Jackson, a grad transfer from Rice, who should be able to slot into the vacant point guard slot on day one of the season. Jackson was uber-efficient at Rice, knocking down shots at a .526/.366/.806 clip while eclipsing the 1,000 point scoring mark in just three seasons. The Gauchos ranked 348th in the country in three-point percentage last season – with Jackson and Vincent, that ranking should skyrocket.

Pasternack has plenty of options at the wing spot with sophomores Max Heidegger, Clifton Powell, and Christian Terrell all returning with starting experience. All three players shot horrendously last season in their first collegiate year, but a leap into productive entities on the offensive end should be achievable in their second. Terrell and Powell should both be assets on the defensive end, where their length and athleticism should allow them to hassle opposing perimeter players.

UCSB also has several options in the frontcourt as well, but Jalen Canty and Alex Hart promise to be the most consistent of them. Canty was limited to only ten contests last season, but he was well on his way to a spectacular inaugural year coming out of JUCO. The 6’8” forward should be one of the best per-minute rebounders in the conference this year. Hart is a stretchy 6’10” center/forward that also possesses strong rebounding prowess and serves as a competent rim protector. Ami Lakoju, another 6’8” forward that played in only nine games in 2016-17, will fortify the frontcourt duo. Weighing in at 275 pounds, Lakoju is a force in the paint and on the glass. Guys like Jarriesse Blackmon, Maxwell Kupchak, and Nevada grad transfer Leland King II will round out the frontcourt rotation.

Bottom Line: I think I’m higher on UCSB than most, but then again I picked them 3rd in last year’s Big West. Vincent and Jackson form one of the better backcourt duos in the Big West, and Canty’s return from injury will add a whole new dynamic to a stalling Gaucho offense. Pasternack may not win right away in the Big West, but he’s added some good pieces to a deep team and should have USCB back in the contender conversation sooner rather than later.

7. Cal Poly

Key Returners: Victor Joseph, Donovan Fields, Luke Meikle, Josh Martin
Key Losses: Ridge Shipley, Kyle Toth, Zach Gordon
Key Newcomers: Karlis Garoza, Marcellus Garrick, Eric Toles Jr., Iziah James, Jared Rice


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: After a relatively promising start to his career at Cal Poly, Head Coach Joe Callero has faced some tough times over the past four years or so. Callero’s 2013-14 Mustangs made a miraculous run to snatch away the auto-bid after going 13-19 (6-10), and since haven’t eclipsed the 6-win mark in conference play. Cal Poly has a good shot of reversing its recent fortune with the return of seven players that started at least one contest in 2016-17. With an experienced group of upperclassmen and a promising crop of newcomers, the Stangs should compete for a top four league finish in 2017-18.

Offensively, Callero’s teams traditionally run a pick-n-roll centric offense that features four players on the floor that can (theoretically) shoot the ball. Shooting was a major issue last season for the Stangs, as they ranked 305th in effective FG% and didn’t have the rebounding ability to make up for the brick laying. Kyle Toth was by far the best shooter on the roster, so his absence doesn’t bode well for a Stang squad looking for improved shot-making. Josh Martin was off to a promising start last season before going down with an injury – he should help make up for Toth’s lost production.

Callero’s Cal Poly squads are always sure-handed on offense, ranking 32nd, 15th, 5th, 11th, 6th and 50th over the past six seasons in turnover rate. Guard play will be a source of strength once again for the Mustangs with the return of Victor Joseph and Donovan Fields, the team’s two returning leading scorers. Fields is more of the on-ball presence, a speedy point guard that can cut through the teeth of the defense and knock down the occasional trey. Joseph prefers to work off the ball where he complements a strong shooting stroke (36.1% from 3P) with a strong slashing ability. Freshman Iziah James, a pass-first 2-way PG, looks to be the next ball handler up in line. He’ll provide bench support in the backcourt along with bouncy wing Marcellus Garrick (JUCO) and quick combo guard Eric Toles Jr. (JUCO).

Some combination of Josh Martin, Luke Meikle, Hank Hollingsworth, Aleks Abrams, and Jakub (Kuba) Niziol will start in the frontcourt, which will likely feature three forwards. Martin and Abrams are the best rebounders of the bunch, while Hollingsworth posted a 9.5% block percentage during his freshman season. Meikle will provide shooting as a stretch-four; his 3P% dropped severely in his junior season. Niziol is burgeoning with potential as a combo forward, but he struggled with efficiency last year. Freshman Karlis Garoza is the newcomer to watch up front; his experience on the U20 Latvia national team should pay dividends in college.

Cal Poly has historically been a solid defensive team, the past two years notwithstanding. Callero implements a matchup zone that mimics a switching man-to-man. This defense takes away the three pointer, but can often be defeated once the ball gets past the perimeter shell. Cal Poly likes to retreat back and set up in the zone rather than crash the glass, which factored into their strong transition defense ranking. Improved rebounding and rim protection in and out of the zone would go a long way towards conference competitiveness.

Bottom Line: Cal Poly promises to be one of the deepest teams in the league this season, which should translate to a much improved conference and overall record. The dynamic duo of Joseph and Fields in the backcourt will pace the offense, while the matchup zone should improve with another year of continuity amongst the team.

8. Cal State Northridge

Key Returners: Michael Warren, Tavrion Dawson
Key Losses: Kendall Smith, Rakim Lubin, Aaron Parks, Darin Johnson
Key Newcomers: Lamine Diane, Terrell Gomez, Lyrik Shreiner, Jalon Pipkins, Carl Brown, Zeno Lake, Jarred Pearre


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: I was high on CSUN last season in my Big West preview, but then again the Matadors had quite a bit of hype surrounding them from multiple outlets. Reggie Theus’s squad had experience, scoring, and athleticism, all major assets in the Big West. Unfortunately, injuries and chemistry issues reversed a promising conference start and the ‘Dors ended up 11-19 (7-9) and 6th place in the league. Theus loses three of his best scorers and his big man this season, which doesn’t bode well for a team looking to improve. However, Theus believes the chemistry on this year’s squad will be vastly improved and his recruiting class is one of the better groups in the conference.

The Matadors can be a fun team to watch with the way they push the tempo. CSUN is all about transition and attacking the basket on offense, ranking 4th in the country in percentage of points scored from the free throw line and 18th in percentage of points scored from inside the arc. Theus has always emphasized a high octane attack, but that’s also partially to make up for his teams’ glaring weakness – outside shooting. CSUN has ranked 350th, 348th, 351st, and 350th in the country in three-point attempts during Theus’s four seasons at the helm – they simply don’t care about the long ball.

Returning guard Michael Warren may flip the narrative on that trait in his third season in Northridge. Warren showed boundless potential last season off the bench, ranking 1st in the conference in offensive rating, 1st in true shooting %, and 1st in 3P%. If he maintains even some of his ridiculous efficiency on a much higher volume this season, Warren could be one of the best scorers in the conference. He’ll be joined in the lineup by two promising freshmen in Lamine Diane and Terrell Gomez. Diane could be the Newcomer of the Year in the Big West this season; he’s an athletic 3-star (some places 4-star) wing that projects as a high-level defender and slasher that should thrive in CSUN’s transition attack. Diane turned down an offer from Baylor out of high school and was given looks by other high-majors during his time at Findlay Prep. Gomez is only 5’8” but the 2-star recruit out of LA can light it up from outside. He’s a blur in the open floor and possesses great ball handling skills, which should also play well in Theus’s style.

Two of CSUN’s four returning players (yes, that’s all they return) will start in the frontcourt. Seniors Tavrion Dawson and Reggie Theus Jr. (coach’s kid) will look to step into leadership roles in their final years in college. Dawson asserted himself as one of the better all-around players in the league last season, proving to be a top-notch rebounder, scorer, and shot-blocker. He’s a shoo-in for an All-Conference team this year. Theus Jr., a former SC Gamecock, should see a dramatic bump in playing time in 2017-18. He has potential on both ends of the floor as a combo forward.

The remaining members of Theus’s recruiting class all have shots at cracking the rotation. Freshmen Jalon Pipkins, a quick, athletic combo guard will provide depth in the backcourt. JUCO imports Carl Brown and Zeno Lake will fill roles on the wing and in the frontcourt, respectively. Brown can shoot and drive from the perimeter while Lake prefers working down low and projects more as a rebounder and shot blocker. Freshman Jarred Pearre has perhaps the most potential of anyone in the class not named Lamine Diane. The 6’9” power forward is still a bit raw and skinny, but he’s clearly talented and could develop into a really good player over the next couple of years.

CSUN’s offense should remain competent, but the defense has to improve for Theus’s squad to improve upon their 6th place 2016-17 finish. The Matadors were terrible on that end of the floor, ranking 8th in the conference in defensive efficiency and 332nd in the country, per KenPom. Theus teams always take away the three ball, but the ‘Dors were brutalized inside last season and allowed far too many trips to the free throw line.

Bottom Line: Newcomers like Diane and Lake should help sure up the defensive woes for the ‘Dors, but the sheer amount of youth this team has gives me pause on thrusting them too high up the conference standings. Dawson is one of the better players in the league already – if Warren develops into one of the better guard scorers, there’s potential for CSUN to make some noise.

9. UC Riverside

Key Returners: Chance Murray, Dikymbe Martin, Brandon Rosser, Alex Larsson, Menno Dijkstra
Key Losses: Secean Johnson, Gentrey Thomas, Malik Thames
Key Newcomers: Ajani Kennedy, Alec Hickman, Jayvon Brown, Idy Diallo


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: Dennis Cutts enters his 5th season at the helm of UC Riverside looking to finally get his Highlanders over the hump conference futility. UCR looked to be on the right track last season after its surprising non-conference victory over Grand Canyon and 4-2 Big West start, but team suspensions derailed what was left of the year. Cutts loses three key pieces from his 2016-17 squad, but he returns an experienced roster and adds a couple intriguing newcomers.

UCR will have to find a way to replace the production lost from Secean Johnson’s departure. The Highlanders were a net 0.14ppp better when Johnson was on the floor versus when he sat last season, per Hoop Lens. Look for Chance Murray, a former Arizona State Sun Devil, to take on more of the scoring load in his second season in Riverside. Murray has struggled with his jump shot during his college career, but he’s a proven playmaker and distributor and is one of the better rebounding guards in the league.

Dikymbe Martin will line up next to Murray in the starting five, continuing Cutts’s dual-PG system he ran out last season. Martin turned in a solid freshman year, stepping in for both Murray and Mailk Thames when the pair were suspended. The 6’1” point guard shot 37.7% from downtown for a Highlander team that didn’t shoot a lot of threes (and when they did, they shot poorly), and doubled as the squad’s best on-ball defender (7th in the Big West in steal rate). Martin should spread his wings in his second season as he becomes the undisputed lead guard.

Backing up Martin and Murray in the backcourt will be JUCO import Jayvon Brown, freshman Alec Hickman (who initially committed to Cal), and returning players Koh Flippin and DJ Sylvester. Brown is a tough point guard who averaged 17.3ppg in JUCO last season and Hickman is a quick, high-scoring 2-guard that should thrive getting out in transition. Sylvester missed most of last year with an injury, but he played well in the team’s off-season Canadian trip. Flippin is a walk-on that was thrust into a rotation role last year and proved his worth by shooting 41.7% from downtown.

The frontcourt will be a strength for UCR with four experienced forwards returning and the influx of two impact newcomers. The Highlanders were a good defensive team last year because of their ability to defend in the paint and protect the rim. Part of this was the zone looks Cutts showed last season, which went against his normal aggressive “take away the three” approach. On offense, UCR likes to work inside-out, working the ball through the post and reversing it to cause defenders to become off-balanced, leading to blow-by chances for UCR guards.

Alex Larsson and Menno Dijkstra are the two key pieces in the middle. The big men rarely saw court time together last season, so expect to see Larsson to reprise his starting role and Dijkstra to come off the bench. Both centers had success in the post last season and Dijkstra proved to be a deadly outside shooter, knocking down 45.5% of his 33 long ball attempts. Returning role players James Jackson and Brandon Rosser will bolster the frontcourt rotation.

Boston College transfer Idy Diallo and freshman Ajani Kennedy should make an immediate impact up front. Diallo is a big body at 6’11” 250 lbs. giving Cutts three legit options at the center spot. Kennedy will probably start from day one; he’s a long, athletic power forward with pretty good lefty jumper.

Bottom Line: UC Riverside won’t be picked to finish very high by any media or coaching outlet, but the Highlanders have some talented pieces on their roster. If Martin and Murray can improve their efficiency on the offensive end, UCR could make some noise in the Big West with its ability to defend.