- Jim Root
(check out the Big West preseason preview here)
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Lamine Diane, R Fr., CSUN
Coach of the Year: Russell Turner, UC Irvine
Newcomer of the Year: Lamine Diane, R Fr., CSUN
Freshman of the Year: Lamine Diane, CSUN
1. Let the Anteaters Eat
As you can tell by my projected standings, the Big West appeared to have multiple contenders entering the year, as UC Davis returned the conference's Player of the Year, Fullerton brought nearly everyone back from an NCAA Tournament team, and Santa Barbara had hauled in copious amounts of talent via the transfer wire. UC Irvine was having none of that, however, ripping off several impressive non-conference wins (@ Texas A&M, @ St. Mary's, Montana) to announce its presence. That dominance continued into Big West play, where the Anteaters ran up a 15-1 record against their overmatched foes.
The Anteaters' defense is their catalyst, and Jonathan Galloway sets the tone. Galloway has won the league's Defensive Player of the Year for three consecutive years, a 6'10 destroyer whose mobility is an almost unfair weapon in the Big West at his size. Of course, Irvine also ended up having the Big West's best offense and best defense in league play, so they're hardly one-dimensional.
2. CSUN's Supernova
Lamine Diane has the strange honor of being 3MW's preseason Big West Freshman of the Year two years running, as an unexpected redshirt in 2017-18 delayed his debut in Northridge. He was well worth the wait, though, amassing a monstrous statline of 24.8ppg, 11.1rpg, 1.9apg, 1.5spg, and 2.1bpg. He'll likely reign as the conference's POY for as long as he cares to stay at CSUN. If Mark Gottfried can find some more help for him beyond Terrell Gomez and Darius Brown and build a competent defense (I'm betting yes on the former and absolutely not on the latter), the Matadors can contend for the league title in short order. Oh, and he also has to somehow stay employed through the FBI's probe. That too.
3. Davis's Dive
After a 22-11 (12-4) campaign in 2017-18, UC Davis returned four starters, including the league POY in TJ Shorts, and the Aggies had to feel pretty confident entering the season. Instead, a disastrous nonconference performance ensued (2-10 against D-I competition), and they never really recovered, finishing a disappointing sixth in Big West play. Shorts did find his form, but Siler Schneider had a season from hell: 28% from deep and turnover-prone. It also didn’t help that starting center AJ John struggled with injuries throughout the season, either.
For the 19th straight year (!!), the Big West Tournament will be held in Anaheim, California (last 9 years at the Honda Center). It’s also one of the few tournaments that still re-seeds in the semifinals, giving a benefit to the higher seeds and making it much harder for a Cinderella to win a title. Cal Poly (who just fired Joe Callero) did not qualify for the tourney due to its last-place finish.
Because of the late tip times (midnight on the east coast!), this one often gets forgotten, but I can assure you I will be up late on both Friday and Saturday monitoring…
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
Any team that has the league's best offense and defense is going to be the clear favorite, and the Big West's futures odds reflect that: UC Irvine is currently -150 to win the league, while the field is +130. The Anteaters enter the tournament having won 13 in a row, which is appropriate because they're nearly certain to get a 13 seed if they earn a bid. One thing to keep an eye on, though: point guard Eyassu Worku got hurt on March 2nd against UC Riverside and has missed the two games since then, and reserve forward John Edgar has missed five straight games himself. It clearly hasn't hurt them to this point, but I'd get nervous if Worku can't return and they're forced to rely on Robert Cartwright full-time.
Dark Horse Team
UC Santa Barbara has plenty of talent, but I’ll go with the winner of UC Davis and Cal St. Fullerton. AJ John seems to finally be healthy-ish for the Aggies (started the season finale), and the backcourt of Shorts/Schneider/Stefan Gonzalez (St. Mary’s transfer) could get hot in a hurry. On the other side, Fullerton is second in the entire country in minutes continuity, a measure of how much they bring back from last year, and that roster has already won this event once. Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad are a high-scoring perimeter duo, but Irvine is a terrible matchup for the Titans due to Fullerton’s reliance on scoring at the rim via penetration.
(1) UC Irvine over (8) UC Riverside
(2) UCSB over (7) CSUN
(3) Cal St. Fullerton over (6) UC Davis
(5) Long Beach St. over (4) Hawaii
(1) UC Irvine over (5) Long Beach St.
(3) Cal St. Fullerton over (2) UCSB
(1) UC Irvine over (3) Cal St. Fullerton