Long Beach State and Cal-State Fullerton staged a thriller at Titan Gym Wednesday night, and it was 49er point guard Justin Bibbins who played the role of hero.
Long Beach State led by two but made the mistake of fouling Cal-State Fullerton’s Khalil Ahmad while he was attempting a three-pointer. Ahmad made two free throws to tie the game at 73, with Bibbins immediately receiving the inbounds pass after the second make.
From there Bibbins made a mad dash to the basket, converting a layup with three tenths of a second remaining. Final score: Long Beach State 75, Cal-State Fullerton 73.
The win keeps Long Beach State game behind UC Irvine in the loss column in the race for second place in the Big West. In order to overtake the Anteaters for the two-seed in next week’s conference tournament, the 49ers will need to beat first-place Hawai’i Saturday while also getting help in the form of two Anteater losses.
2014-15 Big West Preview: UC Irvine, UCSB lead highly competitive race
The 2013-14 season was a very competitive one for the Big West, with preseason favorite UC Irvine winning the regular season title. Big West Coach of the Year Russell Turner’s Anteaters were one of the nation’s best defensive teams and that was to be expected, with 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye anchoring their zone defense in the middle and defensive stalwart Will Davis II also figuring prominently in their plans. UC Irvine went 13-3 in conference play, finishing a game ahead of a very good UCSB squad led by Big West Player of the Year Alan Williams.
With those two teams combining to go 25-7 in Big West play they were a lock to reach the conference tournament final, right? Wrong.
The Anteaters and Gauchos received a painful reminder of how rough conference tournaments can be in one-bid leagues, as both were bounced from the Big West tournament with seven-seed Cal Poly getting hot at just the right time. Joe Callero’s Mustangs, who entered the tournament having lost five of their final six regular season games, beat UCSB and UC Irvine on consecutive days before holding off CSUN in the title game.
The favorite in 2014-15 will once again be a UC Irvine team returning nearly 84 percent of its scoring from a season ago. In addition to Ndiaye (8.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.1 bpg) and Davis (11.0, 6.4) the Anteaters also welcome back guards Alex Young (junior; 8.9 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Luke Nelson (sophomore; 11.8 ppg), the last two winners of the league’s Freshman of the Year award. UC Irvine will be favored to repeat as Big West regular season champs, and UCSB could once again be the Anteaters’ greatest threat.
The Gauchos also return four starters, with Williams (21.3 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg) and junior guard Michael Bryson (11.5, 4.3) leading the way offensively. UCSB also has one of the steadier hands in the conference in point guard Zalmico Harmon, who ranked second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.64). Yet even with the amount of talent returning at both UC Irvine and UCSB, as many as six teams harbor realistic thoughts of winning the Big West.
One team to keep in mind is Long Beach State, which will be led by senior guards Michael Caffey and Tyler Lamb. Those two combined to score more than 31 points per game last season, and the addition of FGCU graduate transfer Eric McKnight will help the 49ers in the paint. Dan Monson’s put together another brutal non-conference slate, so Long Beach State will once again be tested before the start of league play.
CSUN returns the tandem of Stephen Maxwell and Stephan Hicks, and Cal Poly returns three starters led by junior David Nwaba. UC Davis can’t be ignored either, as the Aggies are led by one of the more prolific perimeter scorers around in senior Corey Hawkins. There’s a lot of returning talent in the Big West, which should make for a highly competitive 2014-15.
PRESEASON BIG WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Alan Williams, UCSB
Williams won the honor last season and with good reason, as he averaged 21.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots per game. Williams shot 53.3% from the field, and he was the best player in the Big West in both offensive (14.6) and defensive (26.9) rebounding percentage.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG WEST TEAM:
Corey Hawkins, UC Davis: Hawkins accounted for 18.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game as a redshirt junior.
Michael Caffey, Long Beach State: Caffey’s been a first team All-Big West selection in each of the last two seasons, averaging 16.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game in 2013-14.
Isaac Fotu, Hawaii: No Christian Standhardinger means even more attention for Fotu, who accounted for 14.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season.
Stephen Maxwell, CSUN: Maxwell was very good last season, shooting 54.7% from the field and averaging 17.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per contest.
Former Air Force guard Tre Coggins has found a landing spot, according to a report from ESPN.com.
The 6-foot-1 Coggins is heading to Cal-State Fullerton where he will have to sit out a year before becoming eligible to play his final two seasons in 2015-2016.
Coggins averaged 16.0 points as a sophomore with the Falcons, but he made the decision to leave the program in early May. Staying for his junior season would have triggered a five-year military commitment, and that’s something that Coggins was not prepared for. He also struggled with the requirements that come with being a cadet at a service academy.
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.
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.
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.
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.