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Big West Conference Preview: Is this UC Irvine’s league to lose?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big West.

While basketball out west tends to be associated with a “run and gun” style of play, the key to winning the Big West in recent years has been what teams have been able to do on the defensive end of the court. In three of the last four seasons the team that has either tied for or won the Big West regular season title has led the league in adjusted defensive efficiency (all games) according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. However, there are a lot of holes to fill on rosters acorss the conference.

Nine of the eleven players on the Big West’s first and second team all-conference squads have moved on, and many of the usual suspects at the top of the league have questions to answer in the backcourt. Those factors should make for an interesting title race this winter.

One team that has the ability to contend is UC Irvine, which under head coach Russell Turner has won at least 20 games in each of the last five seasons. The Anteaters, who won the Big West regular season title last year, has to account for the loss of their top three scorers in Big West POY Luke Nelson, fellow guard Jaron Martin and center Ioannis Dimakopoulos. Guards Eyassu Worku and Max Hazzard will need to step up, and inside forwards Brandon Smith, Tommy Rutherford and Elston Jones will all have the opportunity to contribute as well.

Defending Big West tournament champion UC Davis has the conference’s best returning player in senior Chima Moneke, who was named Big West Newcomer of the Year and is the lone first team all-conference selection still in the league. With Moneke, guard Siler Schneider and Pepperdine transfer A.J. John, head coach Jim Les has some talent to work with. But if the Aggies are to contend they, like a few other teams in the conference, will need guards such as Saddleback College transfer TJ Shorts II to hit the ground running.

Long Beach State, which annually prepares for conference play with a rigorous non-conference slate, may have the best front court tandem in the Big West in senior Gabe Levin and junior Temidayo Yussuf. Yussuf was a second team All-Big West selection last season and Levin, who began his college career at Loyola Marymount, appeared on his way to meriting a postseason mention before going down with a season-ending knee injury in late January.

Yussuf and Levin will be key for a team that has some major holes to fill on the perimeter, with Justin Bibbins transferring to Utah and Evan Payne moving on as well. Gonzaga transfer Bryan Alberts should help matters, and the same can be said for junior college transfers Breamon Richard and Deishuan Booker. Cal-State Fullerton, which won ten conference games last season, has to account for the loss of three starters including first team all-conference guard Tre’ Coggins, but head coach Dedrique Taylor has some talent to work with as well. That includes Big West Freshman of the Year Jackson Rowe and guards Khalil Ahmad and Kyle Allman.

Hawai’i returns four starters from last season’s team, and the return of Mike Thomas to the court will help Eran Ganot’s squad as well. Thomas, who averaged 7.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in 2015-16, redshirted last season after suffering a wrist injury. With their postseason ban rescinded last season, the Rainbow Warriors no longer have that hanging over the program. Losing Noah Allen is a big deal, but look for Hawai’i to make a move after finishing tied for fourth last season.

Cal Poly may be the team most capable of jumping from the bottom half of the conference into contention, with three of the team’s top four scorers from a season ago back led by guards Victor Joseph and Donovan Fields. UC Riverside welcomes back guards Chance Murray and Dikymbe Martin, with the latter being one of the conference’s top freshmen last season. CSUN lost four of its top six scorers, most notably guard Kendall Smith, with seniors Tavrion Dawson and Micheal Smith being the key returnees.

The lone head coaching change occurred at UCSB, with Joe Pasternack being hired to take over a program that won six games last season. Look for Nevada transfer Leland King II, who began his career at Brown, to figure prominently in the Gauchos’ plans along with forward Jarriese Blackmon and guards Gabe Vincent and Clifton Powell.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule


Moneke was the Big West’s best newcomer last season, and his play throughout the conference tournament was one reason why the Aggies were able to earn their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament. The 6-foot-6 Australian averaged 14.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game as a junior, shooting 52.7 percent from the field.


  • G Gabe Vincent, UCSB: Vincent averaged 14.8 ppg last season, and if he can become more efficient he’ll be a more productive player.
  • G Dikymbe Martin, UC Riverside: As a freshman, Martin averaged 9.4 points and 2.6 assists per game and was one of the top newcomers in the Big West.
  • G/F Tavrion Dawson, CSUN: Dawson averaged 14.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season, and the Matadors will need him to do even more in 2017-18.
  • F Temidayo Yussuf, Long Beach State: Yussuf (9.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) joins Chima Moneke as the only first or second-team All-Big West selections who are back on campus.


1. UC Irvine
2. UC Davis
3. Cal-State Fullerton
4. Hawai’i
5. Long Beach State
6. Cal Poly
7. UC Riverside

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.