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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 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

Gonzaga lands commitment from top Lithuanian prospect

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Gonzaga has landed their third commitment in the Class of 2019, as Martynas Arlauskas, a 6-foot-6 Lithuanian wing, announced that he will be heading to Spokane for college instead of signing a professional contract.

Arlauskas ranks 42nd in the Class of 2019, according to 247 Sports, although he does not show up in their composite rankings; not even recruiting outlet ranks foreign prospects in their top 100. He spent last season played with the second division team from BC Zalgiris, one of the biggest clubs in Lithuania. He averaged 5.2 points as an 18-year old.

The last player Gonzaga recruited from Lithuania was Domantas Sabonis.

A skilled perimeter that is at his best playing on the wing, Arlauskas is the third member of Gonzaga’s 2019 recruiting class, joining Anton Watson, a top 50 prospect from Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, and three-star guard Brock Ravet.

Oklahoma lands four-star 2019 forward Victor Iwuakor

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Oklahoma landed its second four-star prospect in the Class of 2019 on Wednesday as forward Victor Iwuakor pledged to the Sooners.

The 6-foot-7 Iwuakor is a long-armed, undersized forward who has the strength and motor to still compete against other players on the interior. Rivals rates Iwuakor as the No. 116 overall prospect in the Class of 2019, as he joins top-40 point guard De’Vion Harmon in Oklahoma’s group.

Iwuakor is a great start to rebuilding Oklahoma’s frontcourt as they have a lot of scholarships to work with in this class. Now with two four-star prospects in the fold, head coach Lon Kruger is continuing to recruit at a high level — which is also a good sign that they’re capitalizing on Trae Young’s successful season becoming a top-five pick. Oklahoma was in a recruiting battle with Baylor and Texas Tech for Iwuakor, as all three schools received official visits, but the Sooners were able to pull the promising forward out of Texas.

Report: Oklahoma State’s Michael Weathers, arrested and suspended

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Oklahoma State has suspended potential go-to player Michael Weathers indefinitely after he was arrested and charged with felony grand larceny and knowingly concealing stolen property.

According to a police report obtained by CBSSports.com, Weathers is accused of stealing a wallet with a debit card and credit card, among other things, from a local bar called J.R. Murphy’s on Sept. 9. The estimated stolen value is $85, according to the incident report. Weathers was released on recognizance bond on Sept. 10 and arraigned Sept. 11 as a preliminary hearing for the case set for Oct. 1.

A transfer guard from Miami of Ohio, the 6-foot-2 Weathers was the MAC Freshman of the Year following his season with the RedHawks in 2016-17. He put up 16.7 points, 4.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks per game as the stat-sheet stuffing guard was expected to be a major contributor for the Cowboys this season. Weathers often had his practice performances praised by Oklahoma State coaches last season while he sat out a transfer year.

If Weathers misses any sort of significant time from this, then it will undoubtedly hurt the Cowboys’ perimeter rotation as he could be facing a suspension. We’ll have to see how everything with this plays out in court, but Weathers being suspended indefinitely so close to the start of the season doesn’t help Oklahoma State.

Tennessee beats Duke to commitment for five-star prospect

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Tennessee’s Rick Barnes is up to his old recruiting tricks.

The man that brought the likes of Kevin Durant and T.J. Ford to Texas, the coach that is currently the reigning SEC regular season championship, has gotten things going in the Class of 2019 as five-star guard Josiah James committed to Tennessee on Wednesday.

James picked the Vols over Clemson and Duke. He visited Tennessee the first weekend of September and took a trip to Clemson last weekend before cancelling his visit to Duke and announcing his commitment.

A top 15 prospect in the Class of 2019, James is a 6-foot-6 left-handed combo-guard. He’s more of a smooth athlete than he is super-explosive, but he has a strong frame that can absorb contact, the vision to create for teammates and the tools to be a switchable and versatile defensive piece. He needs to get more skilled — he’s not a great shooter, and while he is a good passer and creator, his handle could stand to get better if he truly wants to be a lead guard — but the potential is there for James to blossom into a first round pick one day.

James is the third commitment for Tennessee in the Class of 2019, joining a pair of three-star forwards in Drew Pember and Davonte Gaines.

This has been an incredible 12-month stretch for Barnes.

In his third season as the head coach of Tennessee, he took the Vols to a share of the SEC regular season title with a team that didn’t have a single player on the roster that was a top 100 prospect in high school. Everyone of significance from that team returned to the program, meaning that Barnes now has a preseason top 10 team heading into the 2018-19 season.

And now he’s beating out the likes of Duke and Michigan State for a five-star, potential one-and-done player?

Impressive.

Washington lands second 2019 verbal commitment

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With three of its four seniors heading into the 2018-19 season being perimeter players, Washington has some holes to address in its 2019 recruiting class. Thus far Mike Hopkins and his staff have done just that, with both of the program’s commits to date being perimeter players.

The second verbal commitment was received Tuesday afternoon, as three-star combo guard Marcus Tsohonis announced that he will be a Husky. Tsohonis, a Jefferson HS (Portland, Oregon) product who played his grassroots basketball for Seattle Rotary Elite on the Nike EYBL circuit, joins four-star wing RaeQuan Battle in Washington’s 2019 class to date.

The 6-foot-4 Tsohonis, who can play on or off the ball, held offers from multiple Pac-12 programs but ultimately made the decision to make the trek north from Portland to Seattle for his collegiate career. His verbal commitment comes on the heels of an official visit to Washington that was taken this past weekend.

As noted above Washington will loose some key contributors on the perimeter after the upcoming season, with David Crisp, Mathysse Thybulle and Dominic Green all entering their final season of eligibility (big man Noah Dickerson is also a senior). The additions of Tsohonis and Battle should help Washington when it comes to filling those holes and continuing to build upon the foundation laid during Hopkins’ first season at the helm.