By Kevin Sweeney
Things were a lot more fun in the Big West than perhaps many might have expected in 2018-19. The league had it all: star power, good coaching, exciting offenses and sturdy defenses. In the end, UC Irvine’s dominant display didn’t put enough of the country on notice, as the Anteaters were able to sneak up on Kansas State and thoroughly outplay the Wildcats to earn an NCAA Tournament berth. It should be a similarly-fun 2019-20 in the Big West– let’s get into the rankings:
#1. UC Irvine– Max Hazzard grad-transferring to Arizona takes some wind out of the sails of the Anteaters entering the 2019-20 season, but there’s still a lot to like. While Hazzard earned much of the fanfare, Evan Leonard was quietly UCI’s best player last season and was the best player on the floor against Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament. The continued growth of Collin Welp should be help the offense as well. This is a young team with seven scholarship freshmen, but Russell Turner will have his guys ready to defend and rebound. That’s enough to make them the favorite once again in the Big West.
#2. UC Santa Barbara– Never getting a fully healthy Max Heidegger hindered the Gauchos in 2018-19, but a strong defense and the emergence of Amadou Sow up front kept UCSB in the Big West mix. Sow was terrific as a freshman, controlling the glass and asserting himself as a dynamic offensive weapon down low. Joe Pasternack’s club also has plenty of guard depth, and DePaul transfer Brandon Cyrus should help fill the void left by Ar’Mond Davis.
#3. Hawaii– Guard depth was the main question for Eran Ganot’s group entering the offseason with the graduations of Brocke Stepteau and Sheriff Drammeh, but Ganot was able to fortify that unit with a pair of savvy late adds in JUCO wing Junior Madut and prep guard Justin Webster. Webster can really shoot the ball and put up big numbers at Hargrave Military Academy, and should be an immediate impact player for the Rainbow Warriors next to Drew Buggs. Another potential factor in the backcourt is Washington State transfer Ahmed Ali, who was solid for the Cougars in 2018-19 and is seeking a waiver to play immediately.
#4. Cal State Northridge– Three freshmen since 1992 have averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds per game: Michael Beasley, Kevin Durant, and Lamine Diane. Inheriting the athletic forward was an absolute coup for Mark Gottfried, and Diane singlehandedly can keep CSUN in games. Significant defensive improvement will be necessary to compete for a league title, but it’s hard to beat the Diane/Terrell Gomez duo as a core.
#5. Cal State Fullerton– CSUF was the rare mid-major program to see two staffers leave for D1 head coaching gigs this offseason, with Danny Sprinkle landing the Montana State gig and John Smith jumping across the conference to Cal Poly. Dedrique Taylor hired well, landing a pair of well-regarded assistants from Nevada in Gus Argenal and Brandon Dunson. Taylor will also have to deal with losing a pair of high-scoring guards in Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad, though grad transfer Brandon Kamga should help fill the void.
#6. UC Riverside– Despite a rough year one, David Patrick has things moving in the right direction at Riverside. The guard play should be significantly improved with the additions of Khy Kabellis (Pacific) and George Willborn (UTSA), and the young frontcourt of Zac Watson and Callum McRae should take nice steps forward as sophomores. The Highlanders lost five league games by eight points or less– slight improvement could make a big difference as they look to climb the Big West standings.
#7. UC Davis– Despite still having TJ Shorts in the backcourt, the Aggies were brutal offensively last season, ranking 310th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom. It’s hard to see that changing too much this season, though the introduction of talented freshman guard Elijah Pepper should help. Pepper averaged 18.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.2 assists on the Adidas circuit last summer and should be a piece to build around for Jim Les.
#8. Long Beach State– Dan Monson’s tenure at LBSU has really stalled, finishing under .500 in five of the last six seasons. His seat may heat up with another rough season, and with the team’s top five scorers departing from last season, bottoming out seems possible. Tulane transfer Colin Slater will likely take the reigns at the point with Washington transfer Michael Carter next to him in the backcourt, and significant production will be needed from both for the 49ers to be competitive.
#9. Cal Poly– I have heard nothing but positive things about John Smith since he took over at Cal Poly, but he has an uphill climb ahead of him. Smith inherits the league’s worst roster, as years of poor recruiting by Joe Callero has left Smith with a team lacking the talent necessary to consistently win games early on. Roselle Catholic (NJ) import Colby Rogers should be an impact freshman, and Smith will almost certainly lean on transfers Keith Smith (VMI), Malek Harwell (Boise State), and Jamal Smith (Cal State Fullerton) to provide experience and help establish the culture Smith wants to put in place.
All-Conference First Team:
- Terell Gomez (CSUN)
- Dikymbe Martin (UC Riverside)
- Lamine Diane (CSUN)
- Zigmars Raimo (Hawaii)
- Amadou Sow (UCSB)
Player of the Year: Lamine Diane (CSUN)
Diane is the clear choice here, and seems almost certain to put up ridiculous numbers once again in 2019-20. He has some areas he can improve– he turns it over too much and has to improve his defensive awareness. Still, he’s one of the best mid-major players in the country and could set all kinds of records if he stays all four years at CSUN.
Breakout Player: Collin Welp (UC Irvine)
After being incredibly productive on a per-minute basis as a freshman, look for Welp to step into a bigger role in his sophomore campaign and establish himself as one of the best players in the Big West. Welp has a versatile offensive game that makes him a matchup nightmare for a guy of his size.
Newcomer of the Year: Elijah Pepper (UC Davis)
Like I’ve said before, these awards are often equal parts opportunity and talent. Pepper has both. A guard with good size who is wired to score, Pepper should step into a big role from the jump for the Aggies, and projects to me as an all-conference player down the line.