UCSB Gauchos

Mamadou Ndiaye
Associated Press

Big West Preview: UC Irvine looks to make national splash

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big West.

Picked to win the Big West in the preseason, Russell Turner’s UC Irvine Anteaters managed to win the league’s conference tournament and throw a scare into Louisville before falling in the NCAA tournament. And with three starters back from that team, guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson and center Mamadou Ndiaye, the expectation entering the 2015-16 campaign is that UCI will once again be the preseason favorite to win the Big West.

The Anteaters got the job done defensively, limiting opponents to 39.4 percent shooting from the field and blocking nearly five shots per contest with the 7-foot-6 Ndiaye (who’s also more skilled offensively than he’s given credit for) being their most imposing deterrent in the paint. That will once again be the case, even with the one starter they’ll have to replace being a forward in Will Davis II who was one of the conference’s best defensive players.

In total UCI returns ten players with game experience, and the combination of that and a non-conference schedule that includes games against Boise State (as part of the Wooden Legacy), Saint Mary’s, Utah State, Oregon, and Kansas should have the Anteaters prepared to make a run at the Big West crown.

Who’s the biggest threat to UC Irvine? One option is UCSB, even with the graduation of Alan Williams. Head coach Bob Williams welcomes back three of last season’s top four scorers led by senior guard Michael Bryson. The Gauchos will need junior Eric Childress to take a step forward at the point, and in sophomore guard Gabe Vincent they have a player who can be an All-Big West selection in the very near future. UCSB’s greatest question mark lies in the post, where it would be unfair to expect one player to “replace” Alan Williams. But if they can get a collective effort on the boards, UCSB can threaten for the Big West’s top spot.

There’s also a Long Beach State team that’s chock full talented transfers eager to hit the ground running. Dan Monson will have options such as Nick Faust (Maryland), Roschon Prince (USC) and Gabe Levin (Loyola Marymount) at his disposal, which will help with the loss of all five starters from last season. The most important of those departed starters was point guard Mike Caffey, a three-time first team All-Big West selection. Who steps forward in that leadership role, with junior Branford Jones and senior A.J. Spencer being two possible options with Spencer having missed last season due to injury, will determine just how good the 49ers can be.

Hawai’i, which reached the Big West title game in March, returns most of last season’s rotation and under first-year head coach Eran Ganot can hit the ground running as they look to start a new era. The focus may be on the top half of the Big West but as UC Davis, which won the regular season title despite being picked seventh in the preseason poll, proved last season a contender can come from a seemingly unlikely position. With that in mind keep an eye on Cal Poly, which returns its top five scorers from last season led by senior forward Brian Bennett.

While UC Irvine enters the season as the clear favorite to win the Big West, they won’t lack for challenges along the way. And as the Anteaters would tell you themselves, while a regular season title is great their season (along with the rest of the Big West’s) boils down to three days in Anaheim in March.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: UC Irvine. “They’re the champions until someone says otherwise. They won the regular season two years ago with this group of guys, they won the (Big West) tournament last year with this group, and it’s their league until somebody dethrones them. It’s going to be a tall task because they’re a veteran group that has a lot of balance between their inside and outside. They’re well-coached, and they don’t really have a lot of weaknesses.”
  • Sleeper: “The two (teams) I would look at are UC Riverside and Cal-State Fullerton. Riverside was very competitive last year and finished in the middle of the pack, which was a very good place for them, and they have virtually everybody back. And Fullerton had a couple kids sitting out that are very good players, one being Tre’ Coggins who’s a prolific scorer and that’s something they really could have used last year. I think those two teams are on the rise.”
  • Star to watch: “I think Mamadou Ndiaye right now is the one who stands out. People love to talk about how tall he is and how big he is, but they fail to mention how good he is and how he impacts the game. We tried to just go at him one game last year and he had like 11 blocks. That’s like 11 turnovers, and that’s very impactful on the game.”

PRESEASON BIG WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Michael Bryson, UCSB

Bryson’s become a more consistent player throughout his time at UCSB, and last season he managed to earn first team All-Big West honors. Bryson averaged 13.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 36.0 percent from three. And with Alan Williams moving on, he’ll be asked to produce even more offensively.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG WEST TEAM:

  • Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine: Ndiaye averaged 10.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game in 15 games last season.
  • Taylor Johns, UC Riverside: A first team All-Big West selection last season, Johns averaged 16.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest.
  • Roderick Bobbitt, Hawai’i: Bobbitt, who averaged 8.9 points and 5.3 assists per game, was a handful defensively for the Rainbow Warriors last season (2.9 spg).
  • Luke Nelson, UC Irvine: The Big West’s best freshman in 2013-14, Nelson averaged 14.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigWestMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

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

Reigning Big West POY out at least two weeks with shoulder injury

Alan Williams , Jamari Traylor
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With one of the nation’s best big men in Alan Williams leading the way, UCSB entered the season with expectations of not only contending in the Big West but also earning their first NCAA tournament bid since 2011. While both goals remain on the table for Bob Williams’ team, things got tougher this week as Alan Williams suffered a left shoulder injury in practice on Tuesday.

According to the school Williams, who got tangled up with freshman Alex Hart late in Tuesday’s practice, will miss at least two weeks of action. And Williams wasn’t the only player to suffer an injury this week either, as junior DaJuan Smith injured his hip in a bike accident and is out indefinitely.

Alan Williams was averaging 17.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game at the time of his injury. Thursday night the Gauchos moved to 2-2 in Big West play with an 83-75 win over UC Riverside, shooting 51.7% from the field with John Green scoring a team-high 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds.

Without Williams the Gauchos started four guards with Sam Beeler in the post, and both Hart and Mitch Brewe served as reserves in the front court. Brewe played well against the Highlanders, finishing with 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists in 26 minutes of action. Brewe, who’s averaging 3.4 points and 2.6 rebounds per game, becomes an even more important player for UCSB with Williams out of the lineup.

In UCSB’s five games prior to Thursday, Brewe accounted for a total of ten points and nine rebounds.

Led by senior forward Alan Williams, UCSB capable of earning first NCAA tournament bid since 2011

UCSB's Alan Williams (AP Photo)
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UCSB’s Alan Williams (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Under head coach Bob WIlliams the UCSB Gauchos have made three NCAA tournament appearances, with the most recent appearance coming in 2011. Those last two tournament teams were led by the perimeter tandem of Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally, who combined to average 32.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per contest in 2009-10 and 37.3 points and 11.9 rebounds the following season. Both Johnson and Nunnally returned in 2011-12, meaning that their careers at UCSB overlapped that of one Alan Williams.

And in three seasons at UCSB, Williams has developed into one of the top big men in college basketball.

As a freshman the 6-foot-7 Williams started 20 of the 30 games he played in, accounting for 6.9 points and 6.5 rebounds in just over 17 minutes of action per contest. With Nunnally and Johnson moving on after the 2011-12 season more was required of Williams and from a statistical standpoint he produced, averaging 17.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest. But during that season Williams had trouble staying on the court, playing just over 28 minutes and averaging 3.2 fouls per game and fouling out of seven contests.

Williams made strides in each of those areas last season, playing 31 minutes per contest and fouling out of just two of the 28 games in which he played (3.0 fouls committed per game). More time on the court resulted in more production from Williams, as he averaged 21.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots per game. That led to Williams winning Big West Player of the Year honors, and Williams’ work to improve his stamina is the biggest reason as to why the senior has developed into one of the country’s best front court players.

CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Big West Conference Preview

“The biggest thing for me was improving my conditioning,” Williams told NBCSports.com earlier this month. “With that, I’ve been able to stay on the floor longer and be more productive.”

In addition to improving physically Williams has also expanded his offensive repertoire, as he enters the 2014-15 season as a more consistent mid-range shooter. Another area in which Williams has improved is in how he deals with double teams, with the senior even more capable of finding open teammates on the perimeter. And while Williams will get most of the attention due to his status, the fact of the matter is that the Gauchos have enough pieces returning to Santa Barbara to make a run at the Big West crown that eluded them a season ago.

In addition to Williams three other starters return for coach Williams, including junior guard Michael Bryson and senior guard Zalmico Harmon. Bryson took a step forward for the Gauchos last season, averaging 11.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per contest and shooting 47.2% from the field and 41.7% from beyond the arc. Bryson reached double digits in 20 games last season, and he was an honorable mention All-Big West selection. The key for Bryson when it comes to his taking another step forward for the Gauchos is a simple one: consistency.

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Junior guard Michael Bryson (Getty Images)

“That’s the key for Michael, just being more consistent,” UCSB head coach Bob Williams told NBCSports.com.

To coach’s point, there were multiple occasions last season in which Bryson followed up a very good outing with a quiet night. After scoring 21 points in a December victory over San Diego, Bryson managed to score just five in a win over Troy four days later. And his longest stretch of double-digit outings in 2013-14 was six, with those efforts coming in UCSB’s final six games of the season. The 2014-15 season sets up as one where Bryson, who also performed well defensively last season, can cement his status as one of the best guards in the Big West. The best way for him to do that is to produce on a nightly basis, which would benefit his team as well.

Another perimeter returnee whose play will greatly impact UCSB’s fortunes is senior point guard Zalmico Harmon. The Washington, D.C. native joined the program after a stint at Ventura College, and his arrival was an important one for the program. With T.J. Taylor undergoing hip surgery prior to the start of last season, the Gauchos were without the player who started at the point in each of the last two seasons. But thanks to Harmon, the team didn’t miss a beat, as he accounted for 7.8 points and 5.1 assists per contest and led the Big West in assist-to-turnover ratio.

The addition of Harmon undoubtedly impacted UCSB on the offensive end, as they ranked second in the Big West from an efficiency standpoint after being ranked ninth the season prior.

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“He just knows how to run a team,” Alan Williams noted. “He gets guys the ball in the spots where they can be most effective.”

Taylor will return to the fold, but Harmon will remain at the controls on the court and with good reason. However even with this being the case Taylor is expected to help UCSB, and the same goes for a forward in Mitch Brewe who showed signs of improvement last season despite finishing with averages of 4.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. UCSB lost a starter in forward Taran Brown (7.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg), and while guard Kyle Boswell (10.2 ppg) started just five games he was a valuable contributor who was also the team’s best perimeter shooter. With Boswell’s departure two newcomers, junior college transfer DaJuan Smith and freshman Gabe Vincent, are expected to compete for a starting spot.

That will result in a team that looks a little different than last season’s edition, with both players capable of making the Gauchos a better team with regards to perimeter defense.

“We lose Kyle, but with Gabe and DaJuan we’ll have a different look this season,” Bob Williams said. “We’ll be a little more athletic at that spot, which should help us defensively.”

UCSB won’t lack for talent, but the same goes for many of their competitors in the Big West. UC Irvine is loaded and will be expected by many to repeat, with Long Beach State and Cal-State Northridge among the other teams hoping to cut down the nets in Anaheim. How will UCSB look to get over the hump and earn its first NCAA tournament bid in four seasons? With a multi-faceted attack led by a gifted big man who’s better equipped to shoulder the load now than he was as a sophomore.

With that being the case, Williams and his teammates enter 2014-15 using their Big West tournament loss to Cal Poly as motivation. The season is a marathon, but those final strides to the proverbial finish line have the greatest impact in the end.

2014-15 Big West Preview: UC Irvine, UCSB lead highly competitive race

UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner (AP Photo)
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UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

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

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UCSB’s Alan Williams (Getty Images)

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.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @BigWestMBB

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UC Irvine
2. UCSB
3. Long Beach State
4. CSUN
5. Cal Poly
6. UC Davis
7. Hawaii
8. Cal-State Fullerton
9. UC Riverside

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.

UCSB issues statement regarding Thursday’s fan incident

Gib Arnold
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In one of the more bizarre occurrences of the 2013-14 season, a UCSB fan rushed onto the court during the first half of the Gauchos’ win over Hawaii to confront Hawaii head coach Gib Arnold. The situation occurred with just over six minutes remaining in the first half and the Gauchos leading 30-16, with Hawaii’s Brandon Spearman having been called for an intentional foul and Arnold being assessed a technical foul.

Surprisingly the fan was able to not only rush onto the floor but also return to his seat before eventually being escorted from the gym and arrested. On Friday the school issued a statement on the matter, apologizing to the Hawaii athletic department for the incident.

On behalf of the UCSB student-athletes and staff we are disappointed and saddened by the singular act of a student during the first half of last night’s men’s basketball game versus Hawai’i.  We have apologized to Hawai’i athletics director Ben Jay and Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell. Head Coach Bob Williams also apologized to Hawai’i head coach Gib Arnold on behalf of the department.

That’s just the first paragraph of the statement, in which UCSB also thanked the Hawaii players for properly diffusing the situation. Luckily nothing violent came of the incident, with the players deserving credit for their ability to step between the fan and their head coach.

But there are some questions that UCSB will need to address in regards to security, given the student’s ability to run onto the floor and leave without immediately being escorted from the premises. According to UCSB head coach Bob Williams the gym was being used as a storm shelter in the days prior to Thursday’s game, which may have contributed to the fact that there was a lack of security.