By Kevin Sweeney
Last season, the Big West lacked parity. It saw an impressive 4 out of its 9 teams finish the season in the top 100 of the RPI rankings, but its bottom 5 teams all failed to win more than 12 division 1 games and each had RPI’s greater than 230. Hawaii, who won the league last season, busted many brackets in March with a huge upset win over Cal, but are ineligible for the postseason this season due to multiple NCAA rules violations during that took place prior to Eran Ganot’s tenure as head coach. With Hawaii out of the running to repeat as conference champions, a door opens for one of the other highly competitive teams from last season, or one who struggled and can turn it around.
- Long Beach State
- UC Irvine
- Cal State Northridge
- UC Davis
- Cal State Fullerton
- UC Riverside
- Cal Poly
Champions: Long Beach State- Despite playing an incredibly difficult schedule that included games against Seton Hall, Virginia, Oregon, Arizona, and Duke, among others, the 49er’s still found a way to win 20 games last season. They do lose their leading scorer and rebounder from a year ago in Nick Faust, but bring back 3 starters from last season’s team that earned an at-large bid to the NIT, something that has become very difficult for mid-majors to accomplish. Much of the scoring void left by Faust will be expected to be filled by Evan Payne, who averaged 18 points per game as a sophomore at Loyola Marymount before transferring and sitting out last season. Payne is an excellent backcourt complement to returning point guard Justin Bibbins, who was 2nd in the Big West in assists per game last season and also knocked down 44% of his 3 point attempts. The 49er’s will once again be tested rigorously in the nonconference, including an opening gauntlet of 5 road games at Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, and Washington in 10 days. Don’t be surprised if a big name goes down at the hands of LBSU early this season.
Dark Horse: Cal State Northridge- The Matadors are an interesting team to watch in the Big West this season. They return their 5 leading scorers from a season ago, including Kendall Smith, who averaged over 15 points per game after becoming eligible in mid-December due to NCAA Transfer rules. Smith, who transferred from UNLV to join the Matadors, will be one of many high-major transfers playing for CSUN this season, with players from UConn, Washington, South Carolina, and Texas A&M becoming eligible this season. If the new faces can gel well with an experienced, core, the Matadors have a chance to double their 10 win total from last season.
Preseason First Team:
- G: Luke Nelson- UC Irvine
- G: Gabe Vincent- UCSB
- G: Tre’ Coggins- Cal State Fullerton
- G: Kendall Smith- Cal State Northridge
- G: Justin Bibbins- Long Beach State
Player of the Year: Gabe Vincent- After 2 impressive seasons with the Gauchos as the second option on offense behind star guard Michael Bryson, it is now Vincent’s turn to lead the way. Vincent is a critical piece for UCSB, who lose their other 3 top 4 scorers from a season ago. Vincent’s 14.1 points per game a season ago is the 3rd most of any returning player to the Big West for this season, and without Bryson’s 18 points per game, Vincent could be one of the elite scorers in college basketball this season. If he is, the Gauchos have a chance to be the best team in the Big West.
Newcomer of the Year: Evan Payne (Long Beach State)- It’s not often that a mid-major team is able to add a transfer who averaged over 15 points per game at his previous school. LBSU has added one in Payne, who put up gaudy scoring totals in his two seasons with Loyola Marymount before coming to the 49er’s. Payne may only stand 6-1, but his leaping ability is off the charts, having made SportsCenter for one of his ridiculous dunks. Payne shot around 35% from 3 in his 2 seasons with Loyola Marymount, and if he improved on that during his redshirt season, he has a chance to be an unstoppable offensive force and a player of the year candidate in the Big West.