2014 Big West Tournament Preview: UC Irvine, UCSB lead the way in Anaheim

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The top eight teams in the Big West descend upon the Honda Center in Anaheim, and even with the regular season champion going 13-3 in league play this shapes up to be a highly competitive three days. UC Irvine, the preseason pick to win the Big West, rode their stingy defense to the top of the conference pecking order but they didn’t lack for challengers either. UCSB finished a game back in the standings, with Long Beach State (10-6) and Hawaii (9-7) also finishing above .500. And with the lower-seeded teams also posing a threat, don’t be surprised if one of the top four teams fall in the quarterfinals.

The Bracket

When: March 13 – 15

Where: Anaheim, Calif. (Honda Center)

Final: March 15, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Favorite: UCSB

While the Gauchos didn’t win the conference’s regular season title, Bob Williams’ team is the pick to grab the automatic bid. One reason is their efficiency on both ends of the floor, as in conference games UCSB ranked second in adjusted offensive efficiency and third in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. This is a group that was tested during non-conference play, picking up convincing wins over UNLV (road) and California while also dropping an eight-point decision at Colorado. Big man Alan Williams (21.6 ppg, 11.6 rpg) is one of the nation’s best, and both Michael Bryson (11.3 ppg) and Kyle Boswell (10.7 ppg) have been quality secondary scoring options.

And if they lose? UC Irvine

Russell Turner’s Anteaters were the preseason pick to win the Big West and they made good on that promise, with their defense being the biggest reason why. Irvine was the league’s most efficient defensive team in conference play, limiting teams to 28.7%  shooting from beyond the arc and 37.7% inside of it with 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye and forward Will Davis II being key figures on that end of the floor. Davis, Luke Nelson and Chris McNealy have all been capable scoring options, but UC Irvine’s had issues with turnovers (eighth in turnover rate) and foul shooting (ninth at 65.3%) in conference play. Those issues clearly didn’t cost them the regular season title, but in a one-and-done scenario that may not be the case.

Sleepers:

  • Long Beach State: Dan Monson’s team finished the regular season with an overall record of 14-16 but they won ten games in Big West play, which shouldn’t be a surprise given the 49ers’ penchant for playing brutally difficult non-conference schedules.
  • Hawaii: The Warriors may have the best front court tandem in the Big West, with both Isaac Fotu and Christian Standhardinger earning first team All-Big West honors.

Studs:

  • Alan Williams (UCSB): Williams is a player much of the nation should be well-aware of by now. He’s pretty much a guarantee to go for 20 points and ten rebounds…at least.
  • Mike Caffey (Long Beach State): A two-time first team All-Big West selection, Caffey led the 49ers in both scoring (16.2 ppg) and assists (4.3 apg).
  • Stephen Maxwell (Cal-State Northridge): Reggie Theus landed a very good player in Maxwell when he was hired last spring, with the forward averaging 17.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per contest.
  • Michael Williams (Cal-State Fullerton): Averaging 17.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest, the guard has reached double figures in every game he’s played this season.

CBT Prediction: Look for their balance on both ends of the floor to land UCSB the Big West’s automatic bid.

Swanigan to stay in draft

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Caleb Swanigan is leaving Purdue and staying in the NBA draft.

The Boilermaker big man held as much sway on the college basketball landscape with his decision as nearly any player who declared for the draft without an agent. After a season in which he became a double-double machine and averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, Swanigan would have been one of – if not the – favorites for National Player of the Year while also making Purdue right at the top of the Big Ten with Michigan State.

Instead, he’ll end his collegiate career after a pair of seasons and one Sweet 16 appearance in West Lafayette. As a professional prospect, Swanigan is an interesting case. He was as productive of player as college basketball has seen in recent years as a sophomore, putting up 20-20 games with ridiculous consistency. He’s got some range, but limited quickness and athleticism. The question will be how his game – and frame – will translate into the new NBA that prioritizes versatility, shooting and athleticism. Right now, not many have him pegged as a sure-fire first-round pick.

The loss for Purdue is hard to overstate given just how good “Biggie” was. There’s just no replacing that type of production in the lineup. Still, Matt Painter and the Boilermakers still have an intriguing group, with Isaac Haas and Vince Edwards both electing to return to school after dipping their toes in the NBA waters. There’s some other intriguing young pieces there that will keep Purdue interesting in the Big Ten race.

Florida State picks up late commit from McDonald’s All-American

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The losses sustained by Florida State have been numerous and significant. Three players declared early for the NBA Draft. Another two contributors were lost to graduation. All in all, the Seminoles haven’t had the greatest of springs.

Wednesday, though, they got some good news.

McDonald’s All-American wing M.J. Walker committed Leonard Hamilton’s program to give Florida State a late, and important, addition to its 2017 recruiting class, beating the likes of Ohio State, Georgia Tech and UCLA.

Walker, a 6-foot-5 guard, gives the Seminoles yet another five-star prospect after landing Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac in the last two recruiting classes. Walker will help Hamilton and Co. reboot after both Bacon and Isaac, along with Xavier Rathan-Mayes, all left school to pursue professional careers after the Seminoles’ 26-9 season that saw them advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Walker becomes the sixth member of Hamilton’s 2017 recruiting class that was previously headlined by four-star 7-footer Ikechukwu Obiagu. That group will be tasked to retool a team losing not only major NBA-level talent, but also major production. The Seminoles won’t return a single player who averaged double-digit points per-game last year and just one who played at least 20 minutes per night.

Michigan returns Mo Wagner, loses D.J. Wilson

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The best-case scenario did not take place for Michigan this week.

The Wolverines waited for four weeks to hear back from their pair of mobile big men, and the news on Mo Wagner was positive. The 6-foot-10 junior from Germany announced on Wednesday that he will return to school after testing the NBA Draft waters.

The news was not as fortunate with D.J. Wilson, who announced less than ten hours before the deadline that he will be signing with an agent and turning pro. Wilson is projected as a late first round or early second round pick.

Without Wilson in the fold, Michigan lacks some front court depth, which will probably be enough to keep them out of the preseason top 25.

Gonzaga to return Johnathan Williams III

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Losing Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins to the professional ranks probably torpedoed Gonzaga’s chance of making another run to the NCAA tournament national title game, but after Johnathan Williams III announced on Wednesday that he will be returning to school and withdrawing from the NBA Draft, Gonzaga does appear to be a favorite to win the WCC title again.

Williams is now Gonzaga’s leading returning scorer and rebounder, anchoring a front court that also loses Przemek Karnowski to graduation. He was expected to go undrafted.

With Williams back in the fold, the Zags should be right there with Saint Mary’s in the race for the WCC title. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Killian Tillie all return as well.

ESPN was the first to report the news.

Injured Gamecocks point guard Blanton gives up basketball

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina guard TeMarcus Blanton is giving up basketball after struggling with a serious hip injury he suffered before his freshman season.

Gamecocks coach Frank Martin says Blanton told him he could not get his body to respond to a level that would allow him to continue playing basketball. Blanton is a 6-foot-5 junior from Locust Grove, Georgia, who hurt his hip during preseason for the 2014-15 season. He needed surgery and could not return to the court until his sophomore year.

Blanton played in 29 games, averaging 1.4 points a game.

He said on social media he is grateful to his coaches, teammates and South Carolina fans, “but my journey of basketball has come to an end.”

Blanton received a medical exemption from the Southeastern Conference to remain part of the Gamecocks’ program moving forward.