Revised All-Conference selections:
Best call(s): UC Irvine tied for first place, but that was pretty easy after last year’s performance. Within their preview, though, I talked about how Luke Nelson could make another leap by cutting turnovers, and upping shooting percentages – he was able to do both, and as a result, he was right on the fringe of first-team all-conference (the media’s weird 6-player first-team actually included him). I nailed Nick Faust as the newcomer of the year, as the Maryland transfer was immediately one of the best 5 players in the conference.
Worst call(s): This is basically three teams – UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, and Cal St Fullerton. I had no idea Taylor Johns was such a complete moron, ruining Riverside’s chemistry before ultimately getting kicked off the team. He was an incredibly talented Big West player, but he kind of (completely) torpedoed their season. Santa Barbara brought back three good wings in Bryson, Vincent, and Green, but I didn’t think they’d be enough to keep the Gauchos in the top half. I was right early, as they started 3-5 in the conference (1-5 vs the top 3 teams), but then they rattled off 8 straight wins against bottom-5 teams so outstrip my projection. Fullerton was a disaster – I loved the impact newcomers (and Coggins, Brooks, and Ahmad were all decent offensively), but the team just never came together to be competitive. I won’t make that mistake with them again.
One notable thing about this tournament is that like the America East they re-seed the field after the quarterfinals. This didn’t end up mattering this year, though, as 1-2-3-4 all won in the quarters.
Who I want to win: I want to see the Beach win. I’m normally not a huge proponent of teams built through the transfer market, but I like the makeup of this team with Bibbins as the tiny floor general, Hammonds playing a sort of stretch-4 role, Levin on the interior, and the wing group of Faust/Spencer/Blackwell/Prince/Jones providing varying degrees of slashing and shooting. Beach has a rare combination of short offensive possession length and long defensive possession length (meaning they’ll get out in transition, but will also get back and take yours away). Having a stable of athletes helps Dan Monson employ this strategy, and I think they can matchup with almost anyone in the NCAA Tournament.
Who I think will win: One of the top 2 teams probably will win. Hawaii’s parts seem to fit together extremely well, with the three-headed pressure monster of Bobbitt, Valdes, and Smith complementing the strong scoring and rebounding duo of Thomas and Jankovic down low. Add in a 6th man gunner like Sai Tummala, and I’m guessing the Rainbow Warriors take the crown. I won’t count out the defending champ Anteaters, though.
Chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament: I really think any of the top 4 teams could do damage, so whoever wins the tournament will just need to find the right matchup. Irvine has absurd size, but is actually powered by their smallish guard trio; Hawaii can speed you up and disrupt your offensive flow; Santa Barbara has three excellent wings who can rotate taking over the game with a heady point guard to boot; and Long Beach may actually be the most talented team of the whole bunch (and yet again played a murderous non-conference schedule). I will look long and hard at whichever of these squads makes the field of 68.
How I Think It Will Play Out: Gonna pick with my heart a little bit here…
(1) Hawaii defeats (8) CS-Fullerton
(4) UC-Santa Barbara defeats (5) UC-Davis
(3) Long Beach St. defeats (6) UC-Riverside
(2) UC-Irvine defeats (7) Cal Poly
^^A day late posting this, but I swear I would have gone all chalk no matter what (and did so in my conference tournament pick’em pool).
(1) Hawaii defeats (4) UC-Santa Barbara
(3) Long Beach St. defeats (2) UC-Irvine
(3) Long Beach St. defeats (1) Hawaii
The BEACH earns a 13 seed (the Big West is good, guys!) and loses in the last minute to a 4-seed in the first round.