The Big West adds two for 2020-21! CSU-Bakersfield makes its long-awaited move from the WAC to the far-more-convenient Big West, while UCSD gets the call up from D2 after incredible success at that level. Meanwhile, UC-Riverside’s commitment to intercollegiate athletics feels wobbly, so the league may not be at 11 for long. The pandemic may only accelerate some trends in college athletics, and every league is looking for ways to solidify their futures in a shaky time for budgets in college sports.
Alright, enough of me rambling about realignment. Let’s get into it.
- UC-Santa Barbara – Is this the year Joe Pasternack’s group gets over the hump and wins the Big West? With UC-Irvine losing its starting backcourt and the Gauchos bringing in yet another talented group of newcomers to complement a good returning group, it feels like this may be as good a chance as Pasternack gets. The Gauchos return three starters and another part-time starter in Brandon Cyrus from last season’s 21-win team while adding an experienced double-figure scorer in Destin Barnes and former top-75 recruit Miles Norris to the mix. Norris is the type of talent that could push this group over the top: a super-skilled 6-10 forward who began his career at Oregon and averaged 16 points per game while shooting 41% from 3 last season at the City College of San Francisco. While Norris brings upside, Barnes is much more proven and should be an easy plug-and-play starter at either the 3 or the 4. With a star big in Amadou Sow already in tow and a talented point guard to run the show in Jaquori McLaughlin, the floor for this team is very high. If Norris finds the form that made him an elite high school recruit, watch out.
- UC-Irvine – UCI has set the standard in the Big West over the past several seasons, and the Anteaters were a cut above the rest last season before the pandemic canceled the league’s conference tournament. But with four starters having graduated, repeating as conference champs may be a challenge. Things start and end with an incredibly talented frontcourt unit: Colin Welp may not have been a starter last season, but he was probably UCI’s best player as a skilled forward who shot 44% from deep in 2018-19, while Brad Greene is the lone returning starter and is the epitome of steady on both ends. Russell Turner’s teams have consistently won by pounding the glass, and Greene was a huge part of that, ranking in the top 40 nationally both in offensive and defensive rebounding rate. Greene also makes a big impact defensively in the post, leading the team in defensive rating. But working in youngsters without tons of experience (especially in the backcourt) will be a challenge. The Anteaters have 11 freshmen and sophomores on the roster and no veterans at the guard spot. Sophomore Isaiah Lee seems likely to start at point guard: he established a key role off the bench as a freshman and is a capable passer and shooter. I’m also high on freshman guard DJ Davis, who had a strong offer list and played for a great program in the Compton Magic. Davis is wired to score and can really shoot the rock, and it seems likely that Turner will have plenty of minutes to offer him right away. If Lee, Davis, and the other youngsters step up, the Anteaters will be as tough to be as ever.
- UC-Riverside – While the pandemic has certainly taken its toll on college athletics and higher education as a whole, few programs are feeling the heat more than UC-Riverside. There have been reports that the UCR administration is considering abandoning its sports programs altogether, currently the only known D1 program to be openly considering such drastic measures. The basketball program underwent its own turnover this summer when head coach David Patrick departed for an assistant job at Arkansas, with top assistant Mike Magpayo taking over. The first head coach of Asian descent in Division 1, Magpayo inherits a program on the rise that returns four starters from a team that matched the program’s largest win total in program history. Under Patrick, the Highlanders liked to play slow and grind out possessions, forcing teams to break them down in the halfcourt. I’d expect similar strategies to be deployed this season, especially with the addition of yet another massive body in the 7-1 Jock Perry, who joins the program from St. Mary’s. Adding Perry to a frontcourt rotation that already features a pair of returning starters in 7-1 Callum McRae (9.6 ppg), 6-9 Arinze Chidom (11.8 ppg), and 6-10 Angus McWilliam gives UCR size that even Russell Turner might envy up in Irvine. The backcourt also gets a boost through the transfer portal with the addition of DePaul transfer Flynn Cameron, who brings good size and steady playmaking ability to the table. With the departures of Dikymbe Martin and Khy Kabellis, Cameron will have a key role in providing just enough offense for what was the 9th-ranked scoring defense inn the country last season to sneak by.
- Hawaii – The departure of experienced point guard Drew Buggs for Missouri makes competing for a conference title tough, but the Rainbow Warriors should remain in the top half of the Big West regardless. One guy worthy of significant excitement is sophomore guard Justin Webster, a former standout at Hargrave Military Academy who averaged close to 9 points per game as a freshman. With Buggs and Eddie Stansberry both gone, Webster seems likely to have the ball in his hands plenty. Also a factor is second-leading scorer from a season ago Samuta Avea, a solid two-way wing who has increased his production every season of his career. Eran Ganot brought in three veterans during the late period to help out in grad transfers Casdon Jardine (Utah Valley) and James Jean-Marie (San Diego) as well as JUCO import Manel Ayol. Jardine is an impressive wing shooter who averaged 10 points per game at Utah Valley, while Jean-Marie started 28 games in the WCC last season and brings great size and versatility at 6-8. Ayol is the x-factor: an impressive combo forward capable of hitting outside shots and attacking off the bounce at 6-7. If he makes an immediate impact, this team will be dangerous.
- Long Beach State – No transfer out of the conference was a bigger deal this spring than incredibly talented center Joshua Morgan leaving LBSU for USC. Morgan may only have averaged 8 points and 6 rebounds per game, but he was likely the conference’s best pro prospect thanks to his remarkable upside as an athletic big man who moved well and protects the rim at a high level. The chance to develop a player like Morgan for multiple years is exactly what a program like LBSU needs, especially given the 49ers are coming off their worst season of the Dan Monson era last season. The news is not all negative: a trio, of double-figure scorers in Chance Hunter, Michael Carter, and Colin Slater return to produce a very talented wing duo that is about as good a place to start as any. I’m also bullish on Alabama transfer Raymond Hawkins, a load down low who saw his stock rise significantly late in his high school career but rarely earned minutes for the Tide as a freshman. That’s a pretty good core four, and a waiver for Iona transfer Isaiah Washington would but the icing on the cake. Washington earned his fair share of criticism for being more Instagram hype than production, but really turned it on late last season for the Gaels and is a legitimately good mid-major point guard. His presence would give the 49ers a true point guard, which would be huge given their constant turnover problems a season ago.
- UC-Davis – The main reason for optimism for Jim Les’ club is without a doubt the pair of talented young guards they’ll trot out. Sophomores Ezra Manjon and Elijah Pepper were excellent during their freshman campaigns: I remember speaking highly of Pepper last preseason, but Manjon was the better of the two, averaging 12 points and 4 assists during an impressive rookie season. Manjon and Pepper have big shoes to fill as they add a larger scoring load to replace the graduated Joe Mooney and Stefan Gonzalez. Both were very efficient scoring guards and high-level shooters, and replacing a pair of guys that were main reasons for the Aggies ranking 3rd nationally in 3-point percentage a season ago will be a major challenge. The other pressing concern is the defense: UCD was a trainwreck on that end of the floor a season ago, particularly defending the paint. A waiver for San Jose State transfer Christian Anigwe would be huge in helping that –he’d be a big upgrade in the rim protection department.
- Cal State Bakersfield – One of two additions to the conference this season, CSUB finally departs the WAC for home in what may as well be known as the California Bus League. The timing to move over is ideal from a logistical perspective with travel during the pandemic, but maybe not from a hoops perspective. CSUB makes the move following the worst season of the Rod Barnes era per KenPom, with an offense that really struggled to put the ball in the basket and a defense that sent opponents to the free throw line at unsustainable clips. Meanwhile, a guy many expected to be a star in Richmond transfer De’Monte Buckingham was disappointing in his first season with the Roadrunners, averaging just 9 points and 5 rebounds per game. Buckingham, Taze Moore, Czar Perry, and Shawn Stith represent an experienced returning core, and CSUB has an old team with 12 juniors and seniors on the roster. A trio of JUCO imports in Grehlon Easter, Travis Henson, and Cameron Smith need to give this group a jolt if the Roadrunners hope for immediate success in their new home.
- UC-San Diego – We’ve seen several examples of strong Division 2 programs having immediate success at the D1 level, and the Tritons are the next club looking to make the successful jump. UCSD has climbed the D2 ladder rapidly under Eric Olen, capping off its time at that level with an incredible 30-1 campaign in 2019-20. Back from that group is star guard and leading scorer Tyrell Roberts, and elite-level shot creator who shot an insane 46% from 3 on 111 makes last season. Roberts is the perfect type of player to lead a program into its D1 era, and his ability to shoot the ball sets the tone for a team that absolutely loves to fire away from deep. UCSD made 12.6 threes per game last season at a 40% clip, both numbers which would rank first and second nationally in D1 last season respectively. The Tritons do lose three key cogs from last season’s group in Christian Oshita, Chris Hansen, and Scott Everman, and the jump to D1 is a big one (for reference, the 30-1 group lost by 16 points to UC Irvine in the preseason last year). But this group is very well-coached and should be a tough team to match up with in year one given their 3-point-happy style.
- Cal State Fullerton – With four JUCO recruits and two transfers joining the program and four starters graduating, it’s a new-look Titans team for Dedrique Taylor following a 20-loss campaign in 2019-20. Perhaps most important from the JUCO contingent is Jalen Harris, who fills a major need at the point guard position and averaged 16 points and 5 assists per game while shooting 37% from three at Casper College this past season. Taylor also added pop on the wing with a pair of experienced scorers at the JUCO level in Christian McCray and Landis Spivey as well as grad transfer Josh Hall, who spent time at Nevada and Missouri State in his career. Hall has never been a big scorer, but he’s a long, versatile player capable of guarding 4-5 positions in the Big West and is effective in transition. Re-uniting with Gus Argenal, who was on staff at Nevada with Hall in 2017-18 when Hall had his best season of his career, could pay dividends. Still, it will be a challenge to mesh together all these new parts, particularly in a state that has had the most restrictions of any on gathering to practice college sports this summer due to COVID.
- Cal State Northridge – Much of the progress made by Mark Gottfried in year two went down the drain this spring with the early departures of three star players that combined to average over 55 points per game last season. Lamine Diane has a chance to get drafted after averaging 25 points and 10 boards this past season, while elite-level shooter Terell Gomez is off to San Diego State and two-way wing Elijah Harkless is headed to Oklahoma. That leaves this group in rebuild mode outside of solid point guard Darius Brown, who does a great job running the show and taking care of the basketball. The Matadors do make a pair of high-profile (albeit risky) additions in TJ Starks (Texas A&M – midyear) and Vante Hendrix (New Mexico – needs waiver). Few players who put up numbers like Starks did at the high-major level wind up at a place like CSUN, but Starks was also horrifically inefficient and was a problem off the court. He should be eligible at the semester break, and reigning in a guy like that at the MM level has its challenges. Hendrix sparred repeatedly with Paul Weir last season, but his talent on the wing is undeniable. It’s not clear if he’ll be able to play right away, but if he does he should make a significant impact.
- Cal Poly – There wasn’t a ton to like from the Mustangs in John Smith’s first season at the helm. Cal Poly finished 300+ in KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency metrics and won just five Division 1 games. Making matters worse was the offseason departure of Junior Ballard for Fresno State, who was by far the team’s best scorer a season ago. Smith seems like he wants to build it with freshmen: Iowa transfer Riley Till brings some veteran experience (but just 11 career made field goals), but otherwise the program brings in five freshmen. Things might get ugly this year as Smith and staff try to lay the groundwork with a young group.
All-Conference First Team:
- Tyrell Roberts (UCSD)
- Jaquori McLaughlin (UCSB)
- Collin Welp (UC-Irvine)
- Amadou Sow (UCSB)
- Brad Greene (UC-Irvine)
Player of the Year: Collin Welp – Welp will likely make his transition from super sixth man to starter and star in 2020-21. He makes such a big impact when on the floor because of how versatile he is on the offensive end – capable of draining threes, handling the ball, and creating from the elbows. I love how Russell Turner uses him as a trailer in early offense to get open threes and quick-hitter ball screen looks. He should have yet another big year for the Anteaters.
Breakout Player: Justin Webster (Hawaii) – The ‘Bows need someone to step up as a high-volume scorer this season, and Webster is a promising talent to do just that. His 33% mark from beyond the arc last season doesn’t accurately represent how good he can be from deep when he gets going: his jumper is so smooth and he’s capable of really heating up at any time. Webster needs to be more consistent as a sophomore and likely starter for this group, but I’m bullish about his long-term potential on the island.
Newcomer of the Year: Miles Norris (UCSB) – I mentioned Norris at length in my section about the Gauchos, and I believe he’ll be the most impactful newcomer in the league this season. Guys with his combination of size, skill, and athleticism simply don’t wind up in the Big West often. He may not be the highest-scoring newcomer in the conference, but I think Norris can be the piece that pushes Joe Pasternack’s club over the top and wins them a Big West title.