Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Conference Calling 31 in 31 Series: 2012-13 Big West Preview

The Conference Calling 31 in 31 preview series will examine each of the NCAA Division I auto-bid conferences (so no Great West or independents), one per day, leading up to college basketball's opening day on November 9.


The Big West Conference is about to experience some major sea changes. Hawaii has joined the league this season, and Pacific is leaving after the season ends. The big power move comes after this season's over, when Boise State (not too big a deal in hoop) and San Diego State (major deal in hoop) arrive and deposit all their athletic baggage in the BWC, except football. Football takes a right turn instead of a left and heads for the Big East.

(Incidentally, we have the Big East, West and South; would it be too much to ask for the Summit or Horizon to call itself the Big North?)

Losing Pacific in exchange for Hawaii, Boise and SDSU is a definite net positive, but before we get to 2013-14, what happens in 2012-13? Read on for predictions on TBI's No. 24 conference.

1. Long Beach State
--49ers coach Dan Monson schedules using the Tom Izzo method: drill your players with a relentless schedule of high-caliber opponents so that conference play is a walk in the park. The hard part with that system is finding players who can take advantage of it. Monson lost his top three stars from last season, so where do replenishments come from? From power-conference transfers, of course.

Center Dan Jennings (West Virginia), wing Tony Freeland (DePaul) and guard Keala King (Arizona State) join returnees James Ennis and Michael Caffey to create a lineup that is still among the Big West's most dynamic. At least, it will be once King joins the team at the semester break.

Of course, it could be one of the league's most volatile, too. Transfers often head to another school because they expect to be the main part of the new team's plans, not part of an ensemble. Monson will have to manage the egos of not just the transfers, but his veterans who expected a chance to shine.

Ennis and Caffey should both become leading talents in the BWC this season if the team is placed in their hands. Caffey's assist and steal rates were both competitive with starter Casper Ware last season, and he was an even more efficient scorer. Ennis finished top-10 in the league in both steals and blocks and was also one of the league's most efficient scorers. If he becomes one of its most prolific as well, look for him to show up on NBA mock drafts at season's end.

Jennings was a crushing rebounder and shot-blocker for the Mountaineers, and should do a lot more of the same for Long Beach. Freeland can do anything he's asked to on a basketball court, but needs to avoid foul trouble to truly reach his potential, and King needs to avoid clashes with his coach.

Freshmen Javion Watson, Branford Jones and Deng Deng will provide backcourt depth. Frontcourt help will come from sophomore Nick Shepherd, a solid shot-blocker, redshirt swingman Kris Gulley and Loyola Marymount transfer Edgar Garibay, who's eligible at midseason.

2. Cal State Fullerton
--The biggest hurdle in the way of Fullerton threatening Long Beach isn't anything with the talent on the roster. It's the issues surrounding the big chair on the bench.

Longtime assistant Andy Newman has taken over on an "interim" basis as the school makes him audition for the job. Luckily for Newman, he inherits a roster that, while it lost three double-figure scorers, still has two of the Big West's best players.

Senior guards D.J. Seeley and Kwame Vaughn are easily the league's best backcourt, coming off a season in which they combined for nearly 33 PPG. They were two of the Big West's top six scorers, and Vaughn also paced the league in assists.

Long Beach is learning from Fullerton's method of building through transfers, and ex-transfers Seeley and Vaughn will be joined by a host of other new faces this season. James "Deuce" Johnson (ex-Louisiana Tech) and Darius Nelson (UTEP) made limited contributions to their former schools, but should see substantial time at CSF. Both weigh more than 235 pounds, so they should be difficult to pry off the block.

Former TCU forward Sammy Yeager, on the other hand, averaged nine point and four rebounds in 23 MPG as a Horned Frog. He may not match the departed Omondi Amoke's 11-and-9 averages, but Orane Chin's 10-and-5 should be easily attained.

6'9" senior John Underwood, himself a former transfer from Missouri, should provide immediate shot-blocking presence and some skill on the glass.

If everybody buys in and plays with passion for Newman, the Titans could catch and surpass Long Beach. If that doesn't get Newman the full-time job, nothing will.

3. Hawaii
--The Warriors' roster is absolutely enormous. Six players standing 6'8" or taller dot the lineup, and unlike some other minor-conference squads, the big guys aren't all big stiffs. The Big West may get a taste of what Japan felt right before Godzilla arrived.

Senior Vander Joaquim will be recovering from an MCL tear and may miss a few games at the start of the season, but by conference play, he should be back in rare form. Joaquim was top-six in the league in scoring, rebounding and blocks, and he's a threat to repeat the feat.

Nebraska transfer Christian Standhardinger, who would be at LaSalle if he hadn't gotten freaky in a park, is now eligible at Hawaii. He averaged 8.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in only 16 MPG during his two seasons at Nebraska. That comes out to better than 20 points and 10 boards per 40 minutes, so the guy can play. The 6'8" German should combine with Joaquim to form one of the league's more imposing front lines.

Post reserves include 6'10" freshman Caleb Dressler, 7'0" junior Davis Rozitis and 6'8" freshman Isaac Fotu. Told you this roster was big.

Wing Hauns Brereton (6'6", 210, in case you're curious) should become a double-digit scorer this season after dropping nearly eight per game in less than 20 minutes last year. He scored in double figures in eight of the Warriors' last 13 games, including a double-double against Idaho in the WAC tournament.

The backcourt could be a concern after the departures of seven-APG man Jeremiah Ostrowski and backup Shaquille Stokes. Utah transfer Jace Tavita dropped nearly two dimes a game off the bench as a sophomore in 2009-10 and should be the starter. The backup role may fall to a pair more used to scoring, three-star Canadian freshman Manroop Clair and junior Brandon Spearman.

The shooting guard position is wide open, with defensive stopper Garrett Jefferson the only returnee with experience. A glut of freshmen are in the mix.

4. UC Irvine
--The Anteaters are encouraged by a strong 7-7 finish and the return of nearly everyone of consequence from that roster. 10 players averaged at least nine minutes per game, and they're all back. The upside is that everyone should be content with their role, but the downside is that the assembled talent was sixth-place level last season. Is it better this season, with the competition changing around them?

The key position under dispute may be point guard, where Aaron Wright started as a freshman and was off to a hot start (6.9-3.7-3.0 averages) before injuring his knee in his ninth game. Back as a redshirt, he's now looking up at senior Derick Flowers, who dished 103 assists (fourth in the conference) against 85 turnovers (also fourth in the conference). Wright may be better suited to sit, as his A/T ratio was upside down (27-29).

Perimeter gunners Michael Wilder, Chris McNealy and Daman Starring drained 172 three-point baskets last year, making 39.5 percent of their attempts. Wilder, at 6'2" the smallest of the three, was second on the team in rebounding at 5.2 per game despite his size and making his living on the perimeter. McNealy did a good job taking care of the ball (1.7 A/T ratio), and Starring led the team in steals.

With the outside shooters, size comes in handy to yank rebounds, and Irvine has quite a bit of that, too. Five players stand 6'8" or taller. The one who started the most games was 6'9" center Adam Folker. Folker finished fifth in the league in rebounding at 6.7 per game, but often had to leave the game late due to 34% foul shooting.

Backup Will Davis played only one fewer minute per night, but he set a school record with 55 blocks (Folker blocked 10). Davis's foul shooting was a barely tolerable 59%, but it was better than Folker's.

Freshman Conor Clifford (7'0", 268) and Fresno State transfer John Ryan (6'10", 260) will add further depth. Clifford is considered a prospect with exceptional hands and fast-improving footwork. Turkish freshman Ege Mala (6'7", 210) is a touted prospect as well.

5. Pacific
--The Tigers are set to move to the West Coast Conference next year, and they'll be doing it without longtime coach Bob Thomason, who's retiring after his 25th season. An experienced roster with seven seniors and four returning juniors would love to send Thomason off with a bang.

Size isn't in long supply, at least not as long as at Hawaii and Irvine, but post duo Khalil Kelley and Travis Fulton are hard to outwork. Fulton ranked eighth in the conference at 6.1 RPG, and posed an offensive perimeter threat by making 35% of his threes. The 6'8" Kelley was much more of a traditional post player, but struggled with fouls, both committing them (5.1 per 40 minutes) and making shots when he drew them (36% from the line).

The problem with the returning bigs is that the Tigers struggled to compete on the glass (-4.2 rebounding margin), and the entire team blocked only 54 shots all season, one fewer than Irvine's Will Davis. 6'10" juco transfer Tim Thomas is expected to help on the glass, as is 6'8" forward Tony Gill, who averaged 18-and-9 for Cosumnes River College.

Junior wing Ross Rivera was named conference Sixth Man of the Year, scoring 11 PPG in a highly efficient manner (.532 eFG% and .625 TS%). If he doesn't start, his name could be engraved on another trophy now, as there may be no one in the league providing a bigger spark off the bench.

Senior point guard Lorenzo McCloud was third in the league in assists and eighth in steals, and while he didn't shoot a great clip from the floor (.419 eFG%), he was one of the league's best in drawing contact. A full 37% of his points came from the foul line, where he was a 75% shooter. Gunner Markus Duran made 55 shots from outside the arc, only 10 inside. A 36% shooter from deep, he's likely to keep that green light.

McCloud's former juco teammate Sama Taku averaged 18 points and more than three assists per game last season and may force his way into the rotation.

6. Cal Poly
--The Mustangs lost their top three scorers, which may make it hard to continue their three-year trend of three more wins every season. From 12 to 15 to 18, Poly has made gradual improvements, but 21 would likely entail 11 or 12 conference wins. That may be a tall order for a not-very-tall roster.

The backcourt is where Poly's talent is concentrated. Shooting guard Dylan Royer was one of America's most accurate three-point shooters, knocking down better than 46% last season. Senior Drake U'u (pronounced like it's spelled, you-you) was one of the league's most efficient defensive rebounders (10th at 17.8 percent).

Redshirt freshman Reese Morgan is expected to contribute heavily, even after his third knee surgery in two years. Morgan was one of California's most prolific high school scorers and still ranks first in state history with 740 free throws made.

The only bigs on the roster are freshmen. Illinois native Brian Bennett (6'9", 240) joins 6'8" Washington product Zach Gordon to give the Mustangs the majority of their interior size.

Another 6'8" player, freshman Joshua Hall, weighs only 190 pounds, so post play may be tough for him even in the Big West. San Luis Obispo product Zach Allmon (6'7", 205) averaged 15-and-11 with 2.4 blocks per night in his senior season.

Wing Chris Eversley may be needed to handle the biggest part of the scoring load. Averaging 8.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in only 19 minutes, Eversley was one of the Big West's most efficient rebounders on both ends. Now that he's in line for a starting position, he could have all-conference potential.

7. UC Santa Barbara
--NBA draft pick Orlando Johnson was one of the Gauchos' best players ever, and now that he's gone, coach Bob Williams has to rely on a large recruiting class. Not large as in "there are a bunch of big dudes," even though three do stand 6'8" or taller. This class is large as in "there are a lot of dudes." Nine freshmen are listed on the UCSB roster, and only one senior is set to be gone after this season.

Santa Barbara is led by sophomore forward Alan Williams, who averaged 6.9 points and 6.5 rebounds in only 17 MPG last season. Williams led the entire nation with a 22.5 OR% and ranked fourth in the conference with a 20.6 DR%. Translation: he'll be near-impossible for Big West forwards to keep off the glass this season. A double-double average is well within his reach.

Junior guard Kyle Boswell is one of the BWC's deadliest long-range shooters, racking up a .639 eFG% and a .655 TS% last season. Look for him to drain more than 54 three-pointers this season, and likely average 10 PPG in doing so.

Other returnees include point guard T.J. Taylor, who started 14 games but only averaged 17 MPG. Taylor's best attribute last year was ball security, recording a 2.2 A/T ratio. Forward Keegan Hornbuckle showed a flash of stat-stuffing ability when he lit UC Irvine for 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals last year.

From here, it's all about the freshmen. Five of UCSB's freshmen were listed as two-star prospects by ESPN. Guards Dalante Dunklin, Aamahd Walker and Michael Bryson were all ranked among California's top 30 prospects, and it's possible that the three could all play together sooner rather than later. Bryson is a pure shooter, Dunklin loves to attack the basket and Walker can rebound and play a solid mid-range game.

Bob Williams drew in four other freshmen 6'8" or taller, accounting for the roster's only substantial length. San Diego's Sam Beeler (6'10", 215) joins 6'8" trio Mitch Brewe, Taran Brown and Drew Dickey in the huge recruiting class. Brown is a wiry player who can play the three or a stretch four role. Brewe and Dickey are more traditional power forward types, and Beeler is a center who swatted seven shots per game as a senior.

If Bob Williams' eye for talent scores a couple of major hits out of this large class, look for UCSB to rise up the standings in the next couple of seasons. If not, the sheer number of freshmen will send this program down the dumper quickly.

8. Cal State Northridge
--The Matadors could have a solid starting lineup if they can fill those two most difficult positions: center and point guard.

Forwards Stephan Hicks and Stephen Maxwell and guard Josh Greene all had very good seasons last year, and any of the three could be capable of All-Big West honors. Hicks was eighth in the league in scoring, third in rebounding and joined Greene among the conference's top five free throw shooters. Maxwell finished seventh in rebounding and was a slightly more efficient scorer than Hicks, if not quite as prolific. Greene drilled about 36% of his threes, but had only a similar rate on his twos. At three assists and only two turnovers per game, Greene could play the point in a pinch.

Coach Bobby Braswell hopes that it doesn't come to that, however. Sophomore Allan Guei and freshman Landon Drew (son of Larry, brother of Larry II) should fight it out for the point guard position. Guei had a 1.9 A/T ratio last season, but Drew is touted as a steady distributing point guard with a better shooting stroke than Guei. If neither works out, 6'3" swingman Donovan Johnson could fit into the role, but he's more effective as a scoring option.

Up front, size is at a premium. 6'10" sophomore Frankie Etueati averaged just under eight boards and four blocks per 40 minutes, but nearly 10 fouls per 40 makes the whole discussion moot. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks to the fellas over at the Big West Boards for bigging up this post...but who has the 411 on Etueati's situation? I see "suspended indefinitely" in various places, but no explanation. Drop me a comment if you're in the loop.] Freshmen Brandon Perry (6'7", 275) and Tre Hale-Edmerson (6'9", 215) should push for starting jobs early. Hale-Edmerson racked 28 double-doubles last season, and Perry needs to expand his mid-range game to be a strong BWC scorer.

9. UC Davis
--The Aggies couldn't win a game against D-I opposition until just before Valentine's Day. They were outscored by 12 PPG and outrebounded by nearly six, both figures worst in the conference. There is hope, though, with a pair of skilled juniors on the roster, one of whom missed most of last season with a knee injury.

Ryan Sypkens' return to health will be key for Davis, as he was off to a 14-and-5 start before getting hurt. He averaged 9.7 PPG as a sophomore, so the ability is there. His percentages were slightly off in the early going last season, however. If his sophomore efficiency (.569 eFG%, .583 TS%) matches his junior prolificacy (13.5 FGA/game), he can perhaps threaten the conference scoring lead.

Drawing defensive attention away from Sypkens will be the job of swingman Josh Ritchart. The 6'9" junior was a highly effective defensive rebounder, but not so much offensive. Of course, it's hard to crash the offensive glass when one is busy putting up 180 three-pointers. Ritchart put down 38% from deep, making him an absolute matchup nightmare.

Guard Ryan Howley is a 6'5" scale model of Ritchart, a deadly shooter (41% from deep the last two seasons) who is hard to keep off the glass (5.6 RPG as a junior). Coach Jim Les's son Tyler is another sensational shooter, drilling 41% from long range last season. Keep an eye on Arizona State transfer Corey Hawkins, son of longtime NBA gunner Hersey Hawkins. Corey played limited minutes in Tempe, but could be another in Jim Les's stable of mad bombers.

Forward J.T. Adenrele (6'7", 225) led the team with a .523 FG% and 24 blocks. Look for 6'10" Spencer Clayton and 6'8" Clint Bozner, both juco transfers, to make a push for frontcourt minutes.

10. UC Riverside
--The Highlanders are another team bringing in a solid freshman class. That's a lucky development for them, because there's not a lot of pieces returning.

Guard Robert Smith (5'11", 190) became eligible at the semester break and proceeded to finish second on the team in scoring and eighth in assists. Not a great shooter, Smith could do the offense more of a solid by focusing on setting up others.

Eight freshmen show up on the early roster. Guards Tajai Johnson and Dayton Boddie could step right into the backcourt from day one.

Up front, UCR at least has a little bit of D-I experience in the form of Portland State transfer Chris Harriel (12.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG with 41 steals in 2010-11) and UCSB transfer Lucas Devenny (6'9", 240, not much else). Look for Harriel to assume a large portion of the scoring load. 6'10" juco transfer Chris Patton was a 15-and-10 man last season.

Freshmen Taylor Johns, Tre Owens and Davin Guinn will fight it out for more frontcourt playing time. One of the three redshirting would not be a major surprise.

UCR has no postseason to look forward to, thanks to a pesky APR ban, so the motivation will have to be more self-improvement than anything else. A team built on defense, as Riverside was last season (63 PPG allowed, second in the Big West), has to thrive on effort and motivation. If coach Jim Wooldridge can't motivate his club, a doormat finish is highly possible.

In this section: each team's most compelling non-conference matchup, weighted for visibility and possibility of a win.
Cal Poly: Nov. 19 vs. Fresno State
--Fresno's making a move to the Mountain West and has a roster full of transfers and freshmen.
Cal State Fullerton: Nov. 12 at Stanford
--Opening the season against the NIT champions could give a good measure of how good the Titans are, or if Stanford needs to reassess expectations.
Cal State Northridge: Dec. 21 at Utah
--The Utes got absolutely hammered by the likes of Boise State, Fullerton and Weber State last year. How much have they improved? Northridge would get a substantial boost from beating a Pac-12 team, even this one.
Hawaii: Dec. 22 vs. Miami (Diamond Head Classic, Honolulu)
--Vander Joaquim and Christian Standhardinger vs. Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji. If the 'Canes are jet-lagged, it could be an interesting matchup.
Long Beach State: Nov. 16 vs. North Carolina
--Dan Monson's non-conference meat grinder attracts the Tar Heels out to the Beach. While Carolina likely has enough athleticism to win, point-guard and rotation questions may not quite be answered yet.
Pacific: Dec. 4 vs. Nevada
--If Pacific can hang with a talented Nevada team, maybe it can challenge the Beach in conference.
UC Davis: Nov. 20 at Sacramento State
--Honestly, there aren't many games on the Aggies' schedule that look to be competitive. It's this or trips to Nevada or Oklahoma State.
UC Irvine: Dec. 18 vs. LSU
--LSU's strength is its undersized backcourt. Irvine's strength is its size. UCI can serve major notice as a Big West contender if it knocks off a visiting SEC squad.
UC Riverside: Dec. 15 at USC
--Riverside has two power-conference opponents on its slate this season, DePaul and USC. When in doubt, go with the blowout that requires less gas to get there.
UC Santa Barbara: Nov. 28 vs. Wyoming
--Alan Williams vs. Leonard Washington will be a pretty sweet matchup.

Joaquim crushing Fresno State.
G Michael Caffey, Long Beach State (6'0", 170, Soph.)
--May be the league's best playmaker on both ends.
F James Ennis, Long Beach State (6'6", 190, Sr.)
--Can defend anyone in the league, now gets the chance to show he can score on anyone. Dropped 16 points and six steals on Kansas last season.
C Vander Joaquim, Hawaii (6'10", 245, Sr.)
--Conditioning may be an issue early, but by midseason, there shouldn't be anyone in BWC who can stop him on the block. Big West POY favorite in his only league season.
G D.J. Seeley, Cal State Fullerton (6'4", 195, Sr.)
--Capable of scoring anywhere at any time, and also capable of snagging POY if Joaquim's health slows him.
G Kwame Vaughn, Cal State Fullerton (6'3", 195, Sr.)
--Vaughn may not have as many great targets this year, but there are plenty of good ones. Capable of taking on more scoring load himself if he has to.

F Chris Eversley, Cal Poly (6'6", 210, Jr.)
--Double-figure scorer in 13 of 18 conference games last season. Now, can he do it against UCLA, Saint Mary's and Washington?
F Stephan Hicks, Cal State Northridge (6'5", 190, Soph.)
--12 games over 18 points, only five games under 10. Already owns a double-double against Hawaii.
F Ross Rivera, Pacific (6'7", 225, Jr.)
--Nine games over 15 points, despite no games over 27 minutes.
F Christian Standhardinger, Hawaii (6'8", 215, Jr.)
--He and Joaquim will form the league's most potent post duo by far.
F Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara (6'7", 240, Soph.)
--The Charles Oakley of the Big West if he sees starter's minutes.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Vander Joaquim, Hawaii
COACH OF THE YEAR: Dan Monson, Long Beach State
--Keeping the train rolling after losing three all-conference performers is a tremendous feat. Doing it by integrating baggage-laden transfers may be genius.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Christian Standhardinger, Hawaii

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