- Ky McKeon
(Check out the preseason preview here)
3MW’s All Conference Team:
1. Long Year for Long Beach
Long Beach State looked to be the clear favorite to sit atop the regular season standings before the year. With the return of All-League point guard Justin Bibbins and the addition of high-scoring LMU transfer Evan Payne, LBSU was expected to cruise to victory in a down year for the Big West. After playing a ridiculously difficult non-conference schedule that featured blowout losses to Wichita State, UNC, Louisville, UCLA, and Kansas, the 49ers never fully got into the swing of things as they entered conference play. Despite all the talent, LBSU limped to a 9-7 Big West finish and picked up some head-scratching conference losses along the way. This team is still perhaps the most talented in the league and should be feared by conference foes.
2. Anteaters are Awesome
While LBSU slept at the wheel, UC Irvine quietly amassed an impressive 12-4 conference record and established themselves as the class of the Big West. With a focus on defense, particularly in the paint, the Anteaters were able to vanquish every opponent in the Big West at least once. The Anteaters’ non-conference record of 5-9 is a bit misleading due to the fact they were without leading scorer and conference POY Luke Nelson, who racked up 17.3ppg in conference play. UC Irvine’s defense, anchored by 7’2” behemoth Ioannis Dimakopoulos makes them a tough out in the postseason tourney.
3. UC Davis Hangs Tough
UC Davis finished a surprising 11-5 this year in the Big West, good for second in the league. Like UC Irvine, the Aggies succeeded due to their stout defense, and were a far better version of their 2015-16 selves thanks to JUCO transfer Chima Moneke, who captured the Newcomer of the Year award. Moneke was the Big West’s best rebounder and shot blocker this season. The Aggies are vulnerable in the postseason due to their offense and shaky ball-handling, but Moneke and senior guard Brynton Lemar give them a shot to win every night.
The tournament tips off Thursday, March 9th, and concludes on March 11th. The entire tournament is played at the Honda Center in Anaheim, home to the Anaheim MIGHTY Ducks. Only 8 teams make the postseason tournament – sorry UC Santa Barbara.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
The Big West was one of the worst overall conferences this season thanks to a down year from just about every team. UC Irvine is the only real shot the conference has at earning an auto-bid higher than a 16-seed. Given recent tournament results, it’s likely the Anteaters would receive a 15-seed if they take home the top prize. If any other squad takes the championship, say LBSU, then a 16-seed (likely a play-in game) is in their future.
Dark Horse Team
Long Beach State was picked to win this conference in the preseason, and I thought they would win it easily. Given this, I’m all in on the 49ers pulling off an upset in Anaheim. The 49ers haven’t been to the Big Dance since 2012, but are talented enough to get there this season. LBSU has wins over every team in the conference except Cal State Northridge this season.
I would call CSUN a dark horse, but the loss of Rakim Lubin is too much to overcome. Instead I’ll go with Cal Poly, a team that has won 4 out of their last 6 contests including a victory over Long Beach State. Cal Poly’s big strength is ball security, always a valuable asset to have in a 3-day tournament.
(1) UC Irvine defeats (8) UC Riverside
(4) Long Beach State defeats (5) Hawaii
(7) Cal Poly defeats (2) UC Davis
(3) Cal State Fullerton defeats (6) Cal State Northridge
(4) Long Beach State defeats (1) UC Irvine
(3) Cal State Fullerton defeats (7) Cal Poly
(4) Long Beach State defeats (3) Cal State Fullerton
LBSU picks up the conference title and enters the Big Dance as a play-in 16-seed. The 49ers win their play-in game before ultimately falling to a much larger 1-seed (likely North Carolina or Kansas).