By Kevin Sweeney
The Big West is back on the rise.
A league that had developed a reputation as one of the best one-bid leagues in the nation over the past several years bottomed out in 2016-17, with the league’s RPI plummeting to 29th out of 32 after hovering in the teens for multiple years. The turnaround began last year, as the Big West climbed to 22, and I expect the league to continue its ascent this season. So much of mid-major basketball is coaching, and the league’s recent hires have been strong. Joe Pasternack is crushing it at UCSB, UC Riverside made a nice hire this offseason in David Patrick, and CSUN hired a former high-major coach in Mark Gottfried in an attempt to reinvigorate its program. With an already-solid stable of proven coaches in Jim Les, Russell Turner, and Dan Monson, as well as the strong job Dedrique Taylor continues to do at Cal State Fullerton, the league appears in good shape on the coaching front.
#1. UC Santa Barbara
There may not be a better recruiter in mid-major basketball right now than Joe Pasternack, and his ability to consistently attract high-level talent to UCSB in the early stages of his tenure has already made him a hot name to watch for high-majors in the future. Last season, a pair of grad transfers helped him engineer a 17-win increase from 2016-17’s dreadful 6-22 mark, and now he gets his full compliment of players for this season. Devearl Ramsey (Nevada), Zack Moore (Seattle U), JaQuori McLaughlin (Oregon State– eligible at semester break), and Ar’Mond Davis (Alabama) will team up with returning star scorer Max Heidegger in a dynamic backcourt full of high-major talent, while JUCO big Robinson Idehen and 4-star freshman forward Amadou Sow both had bigger offers before choosing the Gauchos. It may take some time to mesh all this talent together, but Pasternack is on a similar trajectory to what Eric Musselman did at Nevada. The sky is the limit if the Gauchos can keep him around.
#2. UC Irvine
A tough schedule ended UCI’s streak of 5 straight seasons with 20+ wins last season, but the Anteaters still contended for a Big West title and will do so again in 2018-19. The top 8 scorers on last year’s club are all back, and the Anteaters add a high-level grad transfer in Stanford’s Robert Cartwright who should provide a strong scoring presence in the backcourt. Russell Turner’s clubs are always excellent on defense and on the glass, and this team has high offensive potential as well.
#3. UC Davis
Perhaps no coach is more underrated nationally for the job he has done at his current program than Jim Les, who has won at least a share of 3 of the last 4 Big West titles at a program with virtually no history of basketball success. And while the Aggies officially lose star big man Chima Moneke (who wasn’t with the program late in the season last year due to suspension), they should have an outstanding backcourt. TJ Shorts stepped up huge to carry the load in Moneke’s absence, while Siler Schneider is a more than capable secondary scorer and ballhandler. They also add Saint Mary’s transfer Stefan Gonzalez to the mix, a shifty combo guard who can really shoot the ball. The Aggies only won the rebounding battle in 2 out of 11 games after Moneke’s departure last season, so they’ll have to solidify the boards if they want to claim another conference title.
#4. Cal State Fullerton
With such a strong top 4, there was bound to be a team that I felt bad about ranking 4th. Cal State Fullerton hardly fits the bill of the 4th-best team in a one-bid league, bringing back their top 4 scorers from a team that won 20 games and made the NCAA Tournament last season. The high-scoring backcourt duo of Kyle Allman (19.5 ppg) and Khalil Ahmad (15.1 ppg) should carry the load once again, but a lack of size up front is a bit concerning. With the margins so close in the top 4, I could make about as strong a case for CSUF to win the league as I can for them finishing 4th.
#5. Long Beach State
2 straight sub-par seasons made some speculate that Dan Monson would enter this year on the hot seat. Those job security concerns were quelled when Monson signed a restructured 5-year contract that actually includes a pay cut. It’s a more incentive-laden contract that takes away some of the unique language that allowed Monson to take the money received from “buy games”, now capping the amount of compensation he can claim from that area at 200k.
As for the team, Monson loses star combo forward Gabe Levin but returns a strong nucleus from last year’s club. Edon Maxhuni’s play for Finland at the U20 European Championships this summer was impressive, and I’m excited to see his development this season. However, LBSU must take better care of the ball and improve defensively to turn things around.
A pair of talented big men graduate, leaving a pretty big hole in the frontcourt for the Rainbow Warriors. Redshirt freshman Aussie forward Mate Colina shined on UH’s trip to Australia this summer, and big minutes could be in store for him right away. Eran Ganot’s backcourt looks to be in good shape though, with promising sophomore Drew Buggs and diminutive combo Brocke Stepteau both able to create for themselves or others. Middle of the pack seems about right for this club.
#7. UC Riverside
I loved UCR’s hire of David Patrick this offseason. Patrick has earned an excellent reputation around the nation as a strong recruiter. While he’s best known for helping land Ben Simmons at LSU, Patrick did a great job with Jamie Dixon’s staff at TCU and was well overdue to get his own program. His ties in Australia should allow him to land some talented players from Down Under as well. However, Patrick doesn’t inherit much at UCR, a program that has only finished over .500 once in its 17-year D1 history. He’ll have to rely heavily on junior guard Dikymbe Martin to carry the load offensively in year one while he gets his players into the program.
#8. Cal State Northridge
Reggie Theus’ time at CSUN ended with a physical altercation with his athletic director. His replacement was unconventional to say the least, with the Matadors hiring former NC State head coach Mark Gottfried despite him being implicated in the widespread NCAA/FBI college basketball scandal. Gottfried has assembled a staff of old friends, including former UCLA head man Jim Harrick and NBA veteran Mo Williams. It’s unclear whether Gottfried is using this gig as a slide into retirement like Al Skinner at Kennesaw State or if he has aspirations of cleaning up his reputation and getting one last crack at a high-major. Year one of the experiment will likely be a trying one, with a 9-man freshman class incoming that features Ron Artest’s son. Reality show coming?
#9. Cal Poly
Joe Callero enters the season with a warmer seat than any other coach in the conference. Unable to capitalize on the program’s miracle run to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, the Mustangs have lost 20 games in 3 straight years and appear likely to do so again in 2018-19. The team’s defense has slumped in recent years, and the offense has been inefficient with the exception of being strong from downtown. Callero is under contract through the 2019-20 season, but Cal Poly’s administration may not wait that long to make a change with another finish in the cellar of the Big West.
All-Conference First Team:
- TJ Shorts– UC Davis (14.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, .521/.345/.745)
- Max Heidegger– UC Santa Barbara (19.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, .432/.404/.765)
- Kyle Allman– Cal State Fullerton (19.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.3 apg, .489/.429/.746)
- Khalil Ahmad– Cal State Fullerton (15.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, .418/.320/.829)
- Tommy Rutherford– UC Irvine (10.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 0.8 apg, .583/.429/.713)
Player of the Year: TJ Shorts (UC Davis)
Shorts won Player of the Year honors last year in his first year in the conference, and he has an excellent chance to repeat this season. Shorts got better as the season went on, averaging almost 18 points, 5 assists, and 2 steals per game in Big West play. I can’t wait to see the season he puts together for the Aggies this season.
Breakout Player: Edon Maxhuni (Long Beach State)
The Finnish combo guard’s minutes fluctuated in consistency throughout his rookie campaign, but Maxhuni certainly had some bright moments as a freshman. He showed signs of growth this summer, averaging 13 points and 3 assists per game at the U20 European Championships. The LBSU backcourt is crowded with veterans in Deishaun Booker and Bryan Alberts, but Maxhuni should play a key role for the 49ers this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Devearl Ramsey (UCSB)
Ramsey is going to be unbelievably fun to watch at UCSB this season. The diminutive point guard was highly regarded out of prep powerhouse Sierra Canyon, but things didn’t work out for him at Nevada. Ramsey is a great passer and excellent ball-handler who will be the perfect point guard for this club, and I can’t believe hype isn’t surrounding his arrival at UCSB. I expect him to be an all-league player.