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 NBCSports.com 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

PRESEASON BIG WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: F Chima Moneke, UC Davis

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.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG WEST TEAM:

  • 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.

PREDICTED FINISH

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