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.
- 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
1. UC Irvine
3. Long Beach State
5. Cal Poly
6. UC Riverside
7. Cal-State Fullerton
8. UC Davis