Player of the Year: Kyle Allman, Sr., Cal State Fullerton
Coach of the Year: Joe Pasternack, UC Santa Barbara
Newcomer of the Year: JaQuori McLaughlin, Jr., UC Santa Barbara
Freshman of the Year: Lamine Diane, R Fr., CSUN
1. UC Santa Barbara
Key Returners: Max Heidegger, Christian Terrell
Key Losses: Leland King, Gabe Vincent, Marcus Jackson, Jalen Canty,
Key Newcomers: Amadou Sow, JaQuori McLaughlin (Oregon St. - eligible in December), Zack Moore (Seattle), Ar’Mond Davis (Alabama), Devearl Ramsey (Nevada), Jay Nagle, Sekou Toure, Robinson Idehen (JUCO)
Outlook: Ladies and gentlemen, here it is, your Big West All-Newcomer team! Wait, I mean…UC Santa Barbara. It’s just them. Sorry, got a little confused given the amount of high-impact imports this roster has. And all of that is thanks to second-year coach Joe Pasternack, who has been crushing it on the recruiting trail and the transfer market. Cynics would say there’s some nefarious means behind his successes, and the early returns from the FBI trial are not great: Pasternack has been implicated as potentially involved in the pay-for-play “scandal” (click that link if only to see what the outrageous name of the Santa Barbara news site is).
Just like UCSB, though, we’re going to proceed as though that’s not a true threat (it’s not) and discuss the roster/team as it stands. And it is a talented roster indeed!
The Gauchos welcome four transfers into the lineup, including two potential all-conference talents in JaQuori McLaughlin from Oregon State and Ar’Mond Davis from Alabama. Once eligible in December, McLaughlin (a former top 100 4-star recruit) should take over as the primary creator after being a solid contributor as a freshman PG for an admittedly horrendous Beaver team in 2016-17. Davis, on the other hand, is a big wing who will be a physical mismatch in the Big West at 6’6 on the wing. He struggled mightily with his shot in his first year out of junior college, but the change of scenery should help. Nevada transfer Devearl Ramsey is another option at point guard (and can even play alongside the 6’4 McLaughlin), a smaller blur with the ball who brings a different dimension.
Pasternack’s offense is highly structured, featuring a lot of set plays, patience, and superb ball control. That could be a concern given how many new pieces need to be integrated, as freshmen Amadou Sow (a fringe top 200 prospect nationally) and Jay Nagle should earn playing time right away as well. Many of the sets will intend to generate open shots for Max Heidegger, one of the most prolific high volume shooters in the country (90/224, 40%). Heidegger also flashed an off-the-bounce game last year, breaking out into a nearly 20ppg scorer, and his effect on the offense was gigantic. Per Hoop Lens, the offense went from 1.15ppp (that’s very good!) with him on the court to 0.88ppp (that’s hideously bad) when he sat:
He may contend for Big West POY as a junior if he continues to develop his creation skills (and perhaps even if he doesn’t - Pasternack has weaponized his shooting to great effect).
On the other end, one of Pasternack’s biggest changes when he arrived was ditching the zone of long-time coach Bob Williams and moving exclusively to man-to-man:
The roster was largely recruited to play zone, though, and the Gauchos’ defense held them back last year. With big, athletic additions like McLaughlin, Davis, and Nagle along with an intimidating frontcourt led by Sow, JUCO transfer Robinson Idehen, and Ami Lajoku, the Gauchos should be more capable of matching up with opponents in one-on-one scenarios.
Bottom Line: Focusing only on the court, UCSB has a pretty high ceiling this year. With multiple high-major talents and likely the conference’s best shooter lurking on the perimeter, the offense can repeat as the Big West’s best, and the defense should improve with more scheme-appropriate pieces added to the mix. Pasternack has the program on a rapid upward trajectory, and it looks like the only thing that can slow the Gauchos' down is their coach’s past.
2. Cal State Fullerton
Key Returners: Khalil Ahmad, Kyle Allman, Jackson Rowe, Austen Awosika, Jamal Smith, Davon Clare
Key Losses: Arkim Robertson
Key Newcomers: Wayne Arnold, Amel Kuljuhovic (JUCO), Gaber Ozegovic (redshirt)
Outlook: After three frustrating seasons to begin his tenure in Fullerton, Dedrique Taylor finally succeeded in pushing the Titans to respectability in 2016-17 (mainly because the rest of the league crumbled around them). However, the true progress was seen last year, as the Titans jumped 99 spots in KenPom vs 2017 and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. Unfortunately, they ran into an absolutely nightmarish matchup in Round 1 and were trounced by Purdue, 74-48.
What made the Boilermakers such a tough opponent? Well, Purdue takes away the two things that Fullerton does at a nationally elite level – drive to the rim and earn trips to the foul line. Fullerton ranked second in the entire country in free throw rate (free throws attempted / field goals attempted), displaying the Titans’ immense reliance on earning free trips to the charity stripe. Purdue doesn’t foul, and they also had monstrous size protecting the rim, diffusing the frequent drives that Kyle Allman, Austen Awosika, and Khalil Ahmad attempt. That gets to a very basic tenet that comes with playing against Fullerton: if you can wall off the paint and force them to make shots over your defense (and don’t hack), they’re going to struggle tremendously to score points. Even big man Jackson Rowe wants to get to the line – Allman, Rowe, and Awosika ranked 3rd, 7th, and 12th in the Big West in individual free throw rate.
It’s not that the Titans can’t make shots – Allman and Rowe both made over 40% – they just can’t at a high volume. They’ll eventually drive into the teeth of the defense, and when opposing bigs exhibit the verticality rule, it frustrates them, and the Titans struggle mightily with turnovers (307th nationally in TO rate).
Defensively, Taylor emphasizes shot distribution – run opponents off the free throw line and force them into difficult two-point jumpers. Fullerton opponents took 34% of their shots from the midrange last year, per hoop-math, and they shot an abysmal 34.3% on those shots thanks to Fullerton’s long, athletic guards challenging them. The big loss from last season is starting center Arkim Robertson, the team’s only true rim protector, meaning the rim may be more exposed if teams get all the way to the rim. JUCO transfer Amel Kuljuhovic put up absurd per-minute numbers at Lake Land College last year (14ppg, 8rpg, and 2bpg in only 17 minutes a game), showing some post moves and even a smooth outside jumper at 6’10, and he could start right away in the Robertson role. He blocks shots more with size than true instincts, but either way, his frame will be a welcome deterrent in the paint. Josh Pitts is the other candidate, also standing 6’10, and he may have the edge after being in the system for a year.
With so few personnel losses, depth shouldn’t be an issue, although Taylor didn’t use a very deep rotation last year. Jamal Smith and Davon Clare are the other returning rotation players, but freshman Wayne Arnold likely cracks the rotation thanks to his lights-out shooting ability. The “AAA” backcourt will only be more deadly with a floor spacer like Arnold joining them on the court, and Taylor will downshift the lineup to playing Rowe at “center” with four guards fairly often. Those lineups didn’t have the offensive impact I’d expect, though, so perhaps they’re better playing a true center for defensive purposes.
Bottom Line: With so many pieces back from a Big West tournament champ, Taylor should have a ready-made contender on his hands. Allman should challenge returning Player of the Year TJ Shorts (UC Davis) for the award, and the rest of the team has a set plan of attack already in place. As long as the defense doesn’t suffer too much without Robertson roaming the middle (and the team can cut down on its alarming turnover habit), the Titans will be right at the top of the league competing for back-to-back NCAA bids.
3. UC Irvine
Key Returners: Evan Leonard, Eyassu Worku, Tommy Rutherford, Jonathan Gallaway, Max Hazzard, John Edgar Jr., Brad Greene, Elston Jones
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Robert Cartwright (Stanford), JC Butler, Devin Cole, Aiden Krause, Collin Welp (redshirt)
Outlook: Ky’s pick to win the Big West last year, the Anteaters came up a game short in both the regular season and the conference tournament. That roster consisted almost entirely of sophomores (plus a couple key juniors), though, and they’re all back for another go-round at the conference title. Russell Turner’s distinct brand of defense is also in for its ninth season, and it is upon that defense that Irvine will build its game plan.
Turner is one of the country’s greatest advocates of size – Irvine’s 2FG% defense has ranked 4th, 6th, 4th, 16th, and 1st nationally over the past five seasons, using a variety of massive individuals to swallow up shots and overwhelm the smallish, penetration-reliant guards that inhabit the Big West. The most extreme example of this was 7’6 man-mountain Mamadou Ndiaye, who was the west coast’s answer to Tacko Fall until he graduated in 2016 (the world still whispers about their epic clash in November 2015). Once Ndiaye graduated, though, Turner had a far more mobile lineup, and thus he employed significantly less zone over the past two years:
What still remained were the same principles: dominate the defensive glass, and make scoring inside a complete nightmare. Jonathan Galloway (6’10) starts at center alongside versatile forward Tommy Rutherford (6’8), but Turner isn’t afraid to unleash Galloway alongside 6’10, 320-pound Brad Greene or 6’9, 275-pound Elston Jones, either. The starting combo was by far the team’s best, though:
Hopefully Turner sees this and avoids the Jones + Galloway pair that got thrashed. The Anteaters will also have 6’9 redshirt freshman Collin Welp (I have too many terrible jokes for that last name, just forget it) and 7’1 redshirt freshman Solomon Ruddell, if for some reason Turner decides they need more size.
Irvine still has some lineup flexibility, though, thanks to the presence of John Edgar, a 6’5 ‘tweener who can guard multiple spots. Given the roster makeup, Turner rarely slid him to the four, but he at least gives the option to play one big by himself and not suffer too much inside.
All of this is burying the lede – it’s the backcourt that powers the Anteater offense. Eyassu Worku is the floor general, a strong passer who has struggled to put the ball in the basket through his first two years. For that, he defers to Evan Leonard, a knockdown 2-guard who also ranked third in the Big West in steal rate, and Max Hazzard, a 5’10 change of pace sixth man who also excels on the perimeter. At times, Worku may move off the ball with the arrival of Robert Cartwright, a Stanford grad transfer. Cartwright was one of my least favorite players in college hoops the past two seasons as a bricky shooter and frustrating non-athlete in the Pac 12, but he’s a good passer and should be much more suited to the Big West competition. He doesn’t solve the team-wide turnover issues, though – that will need to come from experience.
The offense could use a major jolt, and it may come from JC Butler, son of former UConn and NBA star Caron Butler (that’s right, star! I think that’s fair! His ‘06-09 stretch was excellent). He brings a similar build to Edgar at 6’5, but he has considerably more offensive talent. If he can get buckets right away off the bench (or even challenging to start), the Irvine offense has a chance to rise from the league’s middle of the pack.
Bottom Line: With so much coming back, Irvine is a logical top 3 selection heading into the season. It took a lot for me to hold back making a “subtraction by addition” argument with Cartwright, but that’s probably going too far; he and Butler should help boost an anemic offense. The defense should once again be the best in the league – Irvine took that honor by a gigantic margin last year – so the offense will dictate just how far the Anteaters can go.
4. UC Davis
Key Returners: TJ Shorts, Siler Schneider, AJ John, Garrison Goode, Joe Mooney
Key Losses: Chima Moneke, Michael Onyebalu
Key Newcomers: Stefan Gonzalez (St. Mary’s), Matt Neufeld (SLU), Jonah Underwood (JUCO/redshirt), BJ Shaw, Cameron Ba, Gio Nelson (redshirt), Damion Squire, Caleb Fuller
Outlook: Despite losing a conference Player of the Year-caliber player in Chima Moneke halfway through the Big West season, UC Davis won 6 of its final 8 games en route to a regular season championship. It helped to have the actual Player of the Year in TJ Shorts, and with everyone but Moneke and role player Michael Onyebalu back, hopes are high to contend for another title. Jim Les turned out to be a terrific hired after getting dumped by Bradley, another added chip in the Aggies’ stack as they aim to avenge a tournament semifinal loss to eventual champion Cal State Fullerton.
Moneke was a massive piece of the offense, ranking 26th nationally in possession usage prior to his suspension. With him out of the lineup, Les had to re-shuffle the offense, and despite AJ John’s admirable emergence inside, a large portion of the shots shifted to the backcourt. Just look at the usage spikes seen by Shorts and Siler Schneider in the 12 games played without Moneke:
Schneider wasn’t able to translate it into much more production, but Shorts exploded; it was this late-season run of dominance (and the team’s success) that propelled him to POY honors. Those two guards will once again be the focal point of the offense, particularly in one of the most pick-and-roll dominant schemes in the country. Per Synergy, the Aggies ranked 11th in the country in pick-and-roll frequency, running some sort of PnR action on nearly 36% of their possessions. John actually far out-produced Moneke as a roll man, making him an even better fit alongside an ace creator like Shorts.
Schemes such as this demand shooting around the perimeter to help space the floor, but Davis lacked this to a degree last year, so Les went out and plugged that hole as best he could. Stefan Gonzalez is a lights-out shooter from St. Mary’s, while redshirt freshman Gio Nelson and English true freshman Caleb Fuller will be candidates (along with returning Joe Mooney) to fill the low-usage, efficiency-centric role vacated by Onyebalu. Six-foot-11 SLU transfer Matt Neufeld could even help the shooting by allowing John to shift to the four at times, where his 40% rate from deep can be a threat. Garrison Goode is entrenched as the starter at power forward, but his lack of range crowds the other action, and Les will play quite a few lineups with junior Rogers Printup or freshman Fuller as the nominal PF to produce further spacing.
Even with all of Shorts’s brilliance on offense, Davis’s defense was its true strength, ranking 2nd in the Big West per KenPom. They led the league (and ranked 13th nationally) in forced turnover rate, forcing long possessions and allowing the sticky-fingered Shorts to relentlessly harass ball-handlers (#2 in the league in steal rate). Mooney rising into the starting lineup (or simply earning more minutes off the bench) would give Les another excellent defender on the perimeter, accentuating what is already a definitive strength.
Bottom Line: The natural instinct might be to place UC Davis right back atop the league with so much returning from a regular season champion, but the truth is that differentiating among the Big West’s upper tier requires a microscope the size of California. Also, I refuse to give in to natural instinct and want to watch the world burn! The top of the league could go any number of ways, and with talented, experienced point guards throughout the rest of the league’s best teams, I’m shying away from the defense that so heavily relies on forcing miscues.
5. Long Beach St.
Key Returners: Bryan Alberts, Deishaun Booker, Temi Yussuf, Edon Maxhuni, KJ Byers, Mason Riggins, Jordan Roberts, Jordan Griffin
Key Losses: Gabe Lev
Key Newcomers: Demetrius Mims, Breyon Jackson (JUCO)
Outlook: My favorite aspect of the Beach every year is the annual Dan Monson “I want my cut of the buy games” murderball schedule (Note: he got a new, winning-centric contract this offseason). Let’s check in on the Beach’s outrageous slate this year:
That’s…not THAT bad? Monson is losing his touch, Texas Southern’s schedule puts that to shame! Ok, it’ll still probably be a top 10 non-conference schedule, but even last year, Beach’s docket wasn’t quite in the absurd stratosphere that it’s been in the past:
Monson’s squad returns everyone of note outside of star forward Gabe Levin, meaning they’ll have plenty of depth – the 49ers just need someone to emerge into a starring role to lift them out of the middle of the Big West pack.
The biggest flaw in last year’s team was Monson’s zone-heavy defense. When in man, the 49ers run opponents off the three-point line but struggle a little inside, but that’s far better than the zone that was cut to ribbons. Per Synergy, when in man, Beach gave up 0.872 points per possession (53rd percentile), but in zone, that skyrocketed to 1.088ppp (9th percentile). Despite having a ton of depth, Monson still played that horrendous zone 21% of the time, and the team’s rebounding and ability to force difficult perimeter shots suffered accordingly. KJ Byers is the most versatile returning defender at 6’7, and Deishaun Booker creates turnovers with his quick hands, but the team struggled as a whole. More minutes for the ultra-lanky Jordan Roberts, who showed his potential after emerging into a starter late in the season, could help – provided he further grasps the mental part of the game.
The team’s center rotation looms as a crucial tipping point for the year. Neither Mason Riggins nor Temi Yussuf are true rim protectors, but Yussuf is a goliath on the glass and a physical presence in the paint (drew 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes), and the lineup numbers paint a much brighter picture when he plays:
Yussuf took over as the starter for the entirety of Big West play, helping the team improve its KenPom rating by nearly 50 spots over that timespan. Of course, he also committed 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes himself last year and struggled with conditioning, completely derailing his ability to play for extended periods. If Monson can get him to quit hacking, the Beach becomes a real Big West contender.
The 49ers will need Yussuf to emerge into a full-time offensive fulcrum, because Levin’s graduation robs them of their most significant threat. Deishaun Booker had his ups and downs at point guard (highly efficient shooter, but also turnover-prone), and Bryan Alberts was solid after emerging from the depths of Gonzaga’s bench, but the highest upside in the backcourt belongs to Edon Maxhuni, a 6’2 guard who nailed 39% of his triples in limited time last year. He’s not shy, but that often manifested itself in poor shot selection and questionable decisions with the ball. There’s solid potential for a breakout, though, if he can channel the aggression into more productive plays, raising the ceiling for an already-solid offense.
Bottom Line: Monson’s teams in the middle of the decade showed a propensity to shoot threes, but the past two versions have taken very few, likely due to not having true high-volume threats. Instead, they’ve used a ton of off-ball movement to create shots (3rd in the entire country in percentage of plays finished via cut), allowing skilled forwards like Levin and even Yussuf to facilitate from the high post. With some maturity from the younger players and a fully healthy season from Alberts (missed nine games in the middle of the year with a knee injury), the defense should improve, and LBSU can contend back at the top of the league.
Key Returners: Drew Buggs, Brocke Stepteau, Sheriff Drammeh, Jack Purchase, Leland Green
Key Losses: Mike Thomas, Gibson Johnson
Key Newcomers: Eddie Stansberry (JUCO), Mate Colina (redshirt), Justin Hemsley (redshirt), Owen Hulland, Dawson Carper,
Outlook: Did you know that Rick Pitino’s coaching career began at Hawaii way back in 1974, including his first two official head coaching wins when he took over as interim head man for the final 6 games in 1976? I can honestly say that I did not! Probably less surprising, given current events: the man with the new podcast was cited for multiple NCAA infractions, including giving false information to the sport’s governing body. That doesn’t really sound like him, so it’s probably not true. Let’s move on!
Hawaii and current coach Eran Ganot return a strong core from an 8-8 Big West team; unfortunately, with so much talent returning/joining the teams that finished ahead of them, pushing further up the standings may be a difficult task. A top three defense in the league will be the Rainbow Warriors’ calling card, a disruptive man-to-man that extends on the perimeter with a bevy of quick guards and locks down the defensive glass. The first part should be easier to replicate, as rising sophomore Drew Buggs was one of the Big West’s peskiest perimeter defenders, constantly buzzing around the ball-handler like a – well, yes, like a bug. Sheriff Drammeh and Leland Green are solid complements as bigger guards who can also get after it, and despite being picked on due to his size at 5’9, Brocke Stepteau actually graded out extremely well per Synergy’s defensive stats. Little-used Brandon Thomas and Samuta Avea have the athleticism and size to be a lockdown defender; they just need to demonstrate competence offensively to earn minutes.
The bigger problem is maintaining the dominant defensive rebounding, where Mike Thomas and Gibson Johnson’s departures will be felt profoundly. Stretch big man Jack Purchase is an outstanding glass eater on the defensive end, but he’ll need help, and Latvian Zigmars Raimo struggled in that regard. A trio of seven-footers offer potential, and Aussie Mate Colina is the most likely match alongside his countryman Purchase (a third Aussie, Owen Hulland, is Purchase’s heir apparent). Brandon Thomas or Justin Hemsley may end up playing as an undersized four if the young bigs are too raw.
Thomas’s graduation also hurts the offensive end, where Hawaii thrived by getting to the line at the country’s 25th-highest rate. The bricky-shooting guards will continue to invite contact on drives, though, as Drammeh and Buggs both prefer to attack. Stepteau is more of a shooter, and his 64.4% true shooting ranked 54th in the country. His presence really loosens the floor for the rest of the team; per Hoop Lens, the Hawaii offense was 12 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court. As long as he continues to hold up defensively, the former walk-on get as many minutes as he can handle. Likewise, JUCO sharpshooter Eddie Stansberry should play right away for a teamed starved for spacing.
Bottom Line: Hawaii seems slightly stuck in the mud this year. The backcourt is solid, with scoring and defense complementing each other nicely, but the lack of a true inside scorer and/or a high-impact newcomer will hamper the ‘Bows’ ability to gain ground on the top of the league. Ganot has demonstrated an ability to overachieve versus expectations in the past, though – going 8-8 with his 2016-17 team was almost more impressive than winning an NCAA Tournament game in his debut campaign – but he may hard-pressed to repeat that feat this year.
7. UC Riverside
Key Returners: Dikymbe Martin, DJ Sylvester, Menno Dijkstra
Key Losses: Chance Murray, Alex Larsson, Brandon Rosser
Key Newcomers: Zac Watson, DJ McDonald, Dragan Elkaz, Jordan Gilliam (JUCO), Kendall Stubblefield, Callum McRae
Outlook: Entering its 19th season in Division I, UC Riverside is still hunting for the illusive first NCAA Tournament bid, but to this point, that is far too high of a goal. The Highlanders are 0-for-18 at finishing above .500 in conference, peaking at 8-8 in 2008-09 but never summiting that rather low mountaintop. Now ex-coach Dennis Cutts topped out at 14-17 (7-9), eventually leading to his dismissal, and the administration decided to look far and wide – and down under – for a replacement.
Longtime assistant David Patrick takes over in his first head coaching gig; he’s best known for being the godfather of Australian hoops prodigy Ben Simmons, but he’s also responsible for countless other southern hemisphere talents finding their way to the college ranks (he was a Randy Bennett assistant from 2006-2010 – does the name Patty Mills ring a bell?). Most recently, he aided TCU in securing Kouat Noi, Yuat Alok, and Lat Mayen, all Australian talents who will bolster a strong Horned Frog squad this year.
Knowing all that, there was no way Patrick’s first team wouldn’t have an Aussie on the squad: enter Dragan Elkaz, a 6’5 sharpshooter who should play immediately. He’ll help space the floor for the dynamic backcourt duo of Dikymbe Martin and DJ Sylvester. Martin is the facilitator, a skilled passer and shooter who will have the ball in his hands a to this year. Given his varied background, it’s hard to nail down exactly how Patrick will want to play, but I’m guessing the spread pick-and-roll scheme employed by Randy Bennett will find its way into his arsenal. Martin will be tough to stop in that scheme, and 7’0 pick-and-pop threat Menno Dijkstra adds an interesting wrinkle for defenses.
The addition of Jordan Gilliam should augment the scheme, as well. He can be a primary or secondary ball-handler, and at 6’5, he offers an added dimension that Martin simply can’t match. Crosscourt passes out of the spread attack can cut a defense to ribbons, and at his size, Gilliam should be very adept at seeing over his man or a zone. Patrick will need to find a roll man to fit his system, and the candidates are exceedingly young (if not all overflowing with potential): sophomore Ajani Kennedy and freshmen Zac Watson and Callum McRae will get first crack at it, although like Dijstrka, Kennedy and Watson may be more comfortable shooting over defenses than rolling through them. McRae, on the other hand, is a 7’1 New Zealander who might have followed Patrick to TCU had he not gotten a head gig. He’s a massive human with surprising passing aptitude, and he’ll be the more physical bookend to Dijkstra in the 7-footer rotation.
Bottom Line: One thing that’s hard to figure with Patrick: what tempo will the Highlanders play at? Randy Bennett’s teams have always crawled, while the LSU teams that Patrick helped with played at a breakneck pace (and TCU was right in between). My bet is more of the former, given the roster makeup, as UC Riverside isn’t overflowing with athletes or depth quite yet. This is a hire worth monitoring, particularly to see just how influential the Aussie/NZ connection ends up becoming.
8. Cal Poly
Key Returners: Donovan Fields, Marcellus Garrick, Kuba Niziol, Hank Hollingsworth, Mark Crowe
Key Losses: Victor Joseph, Josh Martin, Luke Meikle
Key Newcomers: Tuukka Jaakkola, Job Alexander (JUCO), Jared Rice (redshirt), Daxton Carr, Colin McCarthy, Junior Ballard, Kyle Colvin
Outlook: The Joe Callero enters year 10, and the previous four have been a steep decline from the “heights” of 2013 and 2014. In those years, the Mustangs went 18-14 (12-6) in 2013 and made the NCAA Tournament in 2014. From there, the ‘Stangs have tumbled to a combined 43-78 (20-44) record, struggling to generate any momentum in Callero’s grind-it-out, ball control system.
Several rotation players return, but only 5’10 point guard Donovan Fields is a proven shot creator, a necessity given how many pick-and-roll sets Callero runs. Victor Joseph was the perfect complement as another creator, meaning Job Alexander likely needs to be ready ASAP to ease Fields’s burden. Callero would like to see Fields play more off the ball so that he can use his electrifying quickness to create for himself, free from having to create for his more role-playing teammates. Marcellus Garrick showed some skill with the ball in his hands, but he’s more of a “get his” type of player (or better yet, a standstill shooter) – he only managed 3 assists in the 14 conference games in which he earned legitimate minutes.
Point guard play is especially crucial for a Callero team because he absolutely, positively will not tolerate turnovers. This chart, from Jordan Sperber / @hoopvision68 on Twitter, shows the most “turnover-averse” coaches on both ends of the court:
When you’re in the same “value possessions” company as Dave Paulsen (George Mason), Mike Brey, and Bo Ryan, you know where your priorities lie. That’s a big reason Kuba Niziol earned such big minutes last year; the Polish forward wasn’t really exceptional in any one area, but his 9.6% turnover rate (48th-lowest nationally, per KenPom) earned him plenty of favor with his coach.
Of course, that chart focuses on both sides of the court – the Mustangs’ defense is just as allergic to changes of possession as they are on O. Callero varies his defensive alignment from year to year – last year, he played zone only 15% of the time, compared to 44% in 2016-17 – but a few things remain constant: they rarely force turnovers, and opponents knock down perimeter shots. Over the past three years respectively, Mustang opponents have lit it up from downtown, shooting 40.0% (ranking the Poly defense 345th in the country), 39.8% (341st), and 40.0% (347th). Opposing 3FG% can be a high-variance stat, but when it’s been that high for three years running, it’s indicative of the elite shot quality that can be had against Callero’s defense. It’s not for lack of trying – the Mustangs close out hard – but the lack of perimeter size and length has been a killer.
Bottom Line: The Mustangs have a lot of minutes coming back (Mark Crowe and Hank Hollingsworth started 15 and 22 games, respectively, to go with the above-mentioned guys), but it’s hard to see where the significant improvement comes from. Freshmen Junior Ballard and Tuukka Jaakkola offer some intrigue, at the very least, and they likely will earn playing time right away as Callero searches for a spark. Otherwise, the losing trajectory appears likely to continue, despite the brilliance of Fields.
9. Cal State Northridge
Key Returners: Terrell Gomez
Key Losses: Tavrion Dawson, Michael Warren, Lyrik Schreiner, Reggie Theus, Jalon Pipkins
Key Newcomers: Lamine Diane (redshirt), Darius Brown II, Rodney Henderson (JUCO), Elijah Harkless, Teddy Ochieng, Avery Martinez, Jared Pearre (redshirt), Michael Ou, Brendan Harrick
Outlook: I honestly can’t wait for the 2018-19 Cal State Northridge season. Hiring Mark Gottfried (and subsequently allowing him to hire 80-year-old and noted NCAA rule-breaker Jim Harrick as an assistant) opens the door for unlimited possibilities at Northridge this year. To top it all off, they hired former NBA and Alabama guard Mo Williams as an assistant as well. Bill Simmons invented the concept of the “Tyson Zone,” which means you’ll believe anything you hear about someone (inspired by the inimitable Mike Tyson), and I think the CSUN program has entered that mythical stratosphere. If you told me Mo Williams was hosting the LA Lakers for a practice against the Matadors, I’d ask which guys showed up. If you told me Gottfried and Harrick had a Minnesota Vikings-esque yacht party for recruits out near Catalina Island featuring strippers and drugs, I’d ask how big the boat was. This could be a great hire – Gottfried DID make a Sweet 16 at NC State and had some success at Alabama – but it also could be an epic disaster, and I commend the Northridge administration for throwing caution to the wind here.
The roster is as uncertain as the program’s future, with just one contributor back from a team that won only four Division I games. That one returner is promising 5’8 sophomore point guard Terrell Gomez, a small but skilled player who stuck it out through the coaching change. Small PGs have a history of success in the Big West (Justin Bibbins at LBSU, Donovan Fields at Cal Poly), and Gomez could be a star in his second year. Gottfried will likely run a ton of pick-and-roll, just as he did at NC State, and Gomez will be the mini maestro of that attack.
Gottfried is widely known as being an offensive coach, and the numbers back it up: in 14 seasons as a head honcho during the KenPom era, he’s only had one offense finish outside the top 55. Conversely, though, he’s only had one defense finish inside the top 50 (all the way back in 2002), and his last two NC State units finished 152nd and 229th, respectively. With a roster of brand new players – almost all of whom are in their first year of Division I competition – there’s a chance CSUN is one of the worst defenses in the entire country.
The most promising of the newcomers are redshirt freshman forward Lamine Diane, who was a stud at Las Vegas’s Findlay Prep and has surprising handles for his size, JUCO wing Rocket Henderson, and true freshman point guard Darius Brown II (may start in a small backcourt with Gomez). Pretty much all of them will have a chance to play, though, including nepotism specials Cameron Gottfried and Brendan Harrick. In fairness, Harrick actually looks like a legit player, but Gottfried is far more Brad Calipari than Doug McDermott, as far as sons of coaches go.
Bottom Line: The Matadors are a complete guessing game this year, but the safest bet is probably “decent-to-meh offense, sieve defense.” Gottfried, Harrick (the coach versions), and Williams should keep this team interesting as a curiosity, at the very least, although I’m extremely bearish on them being relevant in Year One.