- Ky McKeon
Big West Preview
- Long Beach State
- UC Irvine
- UC Santa Barbara
- Cal State Northridge
- Cal Poly
- UC Davis
- Cal State Fullerton
- UC Riverside
All Conference Awards
POY: Justin Bibbins, Long Beach State
Coach of the Year: Reggie Theus, Cal State Northridge
Newcomer of the Year: Evan Payne, R Jr., Long Beach State
1. Long Beach State
Key Returners: Justin Bibbins, Gabe Levin, Noah Blackwell, Mason Riggins, Roschon Prince
Key Losses: Nick Faust, Travis Hammonds, A.J. Spencer
Key Newcomers: Evan Payne, Loren Jackson, Jordan Griffin, Javonntie Jackson, Barry Ogalue
Postseason Projection: 12 - 13 Seed (Auto-Bid)
Fun fact alert: Long Beach State has played the toughest non-conference schedule six of the past seven seasons (per KenPom), ranking third one of those years. Coach Dan Monson isn’t bashful about going out and playing tough competition to season his group before the Big West season kicks off. This year will be no different as the Beach is set to play at Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, Washington, Kansas, and Texas. That’s brutal for any program let alone a Big West school. LSBU could conceivably start the year 4-9 or 3-10, but don’t let their early season record fool you – this is hands down the best team in the Big West.
The Beach loses two highly productive players in Nick Faust and Travis Hammonds, but return the undisputed best point guard in the conference, 5’8” Justin Bibbins. I’ve barely seen this guy play and he’s already one of my favorite players. Last season Bibbins led the conference in true shooting percentage, free throw rate, and three-point percentage and ranked 5th in assist rate. His quickness and court vision is perfect for Monson’s transition-focused offense. Expect Bibbins to compete for Conference Player of the Year during his junior season.
LBSU scored in two distinct ways last season – in transition and behind the three-point line. Faust and Hammonds were two of the 49ers’ most prolific bombers last year, so new and returning are going to have to pick up the slack. The Beach has the tools to do this in Loyola Marymount transfer Evan Payne and rising sophomore Noah Blackwell. Payne was a high usage, high volume scorer at LMU and shot 34% from behind the arc during his two years in Los Angeles. Blackwell specializes as a spot-up shooter and actually isn’t too bad of a secondary ball handler option. Expect Blackwell to greatly increase his volume of deep-ball attempts and percentage from 114 and 34% last season.
Two freshman, Loren Jackson and Jordan Griffin should have immediate impacts in LBSU’s backcourt. Both are ESPN 3-star recruits. Jackson is impossibly quick off the bounce and reminds one of Bibbins, both in stature (5’8”) and in the way he sees the floor. He’ll be an outstanding long-term point guard for Monson’s team. Griffin can flat out score from the 2-guard spot. His outside shooting ability will be a huge addition with the loss of Faust. Barry Ogalue, a JUCO transfer, could also make an impact on the wing.
LBSU’s weaknesses last season lied in their ability to protect the rim and rebound effectively on defense. While the Beach did a pretty good job forcing turnovers and limiting transition opportunities, they were often exposed inside the paint against bigger teams. A trio of bigs should make the majority of starts this season for Monson’s squad: 6’7” junior Gabe Levin, 6’8” sophomore Mason Riggins, and 6’6’’ junior Roschon Prince. Levin is the best rim protector and overall defender out of the three and is an efficient option on the offensive end where he finished on 53.8% of his 2P shots and drew fouls at the 6th highest rate in the conference. His moves on offense aren’t very pretty and he looks to be going in slow motion, but his numbers don’t lie – he’s a good forward in the Big West. Riggins is a behemoth at 6’8” 255 lbs. He started games at the end of last season but didn’t stay on the floor for an extended period of time. Like Levin, Riggins gives the Beach a strong rebounding presence and can be imposing on defense in the paint. Prince is more of a 3-4 tweener capable of guarding out on the perimeter on defense. He’s very much an inside-only scoring threat on offense, but he’s mobile enough to float around the outside and make basket cuts where Bibbins is liable to find him.
The other frontcourt options consist of redshirt freshman LaRond Williams, sophomore Temi Yussuf, and 3-star true frosh Javonntie Jackson. Williams has a ton of potential with his athleticism and build. He was raw coming out of high school last season, but a redshirt season hopefully shored up the finer points of his game. Yussuf is also raw, but started 10 games as a freshman in 2014-15. He brings value as a rebounder and space eater inside. A scout for ESPN.com says Jackson could be the best prospect out of Compton since DeMar DeRozan – that’s high praise. He’s a perfect size for a two-way small forward and could be featured as a defensive stopper on this Beach roster.
The Beach has a ton of talent this season, so much so that it’s impossible to think of any team finishing ahead of them in the Big West. The 49ers will take their licks during the offseason playing that brutal schedule, but they’ll be ready for anything the other Big West schools throw at them in January.
2. UC Irvine
Key Returners: Luke Nelson
Key Losses: Mamadou N’Diaye, Alex Young, Mike Best, Aaron Wright, Dominique Dunning
Key Newcomers: Eyassu Worku, Tommy Rutherford, Evan Leonard, Justin Wertner
Postseason Projection: NIT/CBI
The Anteaters (a top ten nickname in college basketball) lose a lot of production from their highly successful 28-10 (13-3) team a year ago. The departures include 7’6’’ monster Mamadou N’Diaye who possibly is the scariest player ever to put on a college basketball uniform. Watching him run up and down the court reminded me of those really big spiders from Harry Potter when they chase Harry through the Forbidden Forest. His loss is massive (hehe) for an Irvine team that ranked 41st nationally in defensive efficiency, mostly due to their ability to limit good shots in the interior (4th nationally in 2P% defense). This isn’t to say UC Irvine is due for a catastrophic tumble down the defense rankings; their 3-2 zone will still be played at a high level under the tutelage of Russell Turner, who has had a top 100 defense at Irvine since the 2012-13 season.
Along with N’Diaye, the Eaters lose all but one of their starters from one of the most experienced teams in the country last season. That one returning starter is Luke Nelson, a surefire 1st Team All-Big West selection. Irvine’s offense last season depended on getting the ball inside to a postman, oftentimes to N’Diaye or forward Mike Best. This year, their strength will be their backcourt meaning we should expect a lot more shots being created from the perimeter off spot-up looks and driving to the hole. Nelson’s usage should skyrocket this season, which should only mean good things for the Eater offense – Nelson has a beautiful looking jumper and, as a junior, shot an impressive .523/.356/.863 clip from the field.
Nelson will continue to be one of Irvine’s primary ball handlers along with returning senior Jaron Martin who steps into the vacant point guard slot left by Alex Young. Martin is Irvine’s best returning three-point shooter and also proved to be a reliable protector of the ball. It remains to be seen if his turnover rate will stay low with a significant uptick in usage and point guard duties. If Martin underwhelms, Turner has a stellar freshman class chock full of guards waiting to pounce on available minutes. Eyassu Worku, a 4-star freshman out of L.A., will surely be an enormous piece of the rotation this season. Worku is a lean, lanky combo guard with a gorgeous stroke and a high basketball IQ. Redshirt freshman Max Hazzard and true frosh Evan Leonard will also be in the mix for playing time at the guard spots – both were 3-star recruits coming out of high school. Leonard is a compact, penetrating point guard that uses his quick handles to blow by defenders on his way to the rack. Max Hazzard is a quick PG with an excellent shooting touch from deep; he also projects well as a high-pressure harassing on-ball defender capable of producing steals.
On the wing, the Eaters will be young but athletic. Rising sophomore Brandon Smith looks to be penciled into the starting role with contributions off the bench coming from redshirt freshman Darrian Traylor and, potentially, freshman Justin Wertner (he’s returning from an LDS Mission Trip). Smith didn’t play a whole lot last year, but he’s a 3-and-D capable wing with above average athleticism. He has potential to make one of the biggest leaps in the conference this season. Traylor is in the same mold, a good defender with plus athleticism. He can contribute in several different areas on the floor. Wertner is a long wing that primarily specializes as a spot-up shooter.
The interior is certainly gutted, but it’ll still be one of the tallest in the country. 7’2’’ senior Ioannis Dimakopulous returns to take the anchor role in the 3-2 previously held by Mamadou. Dimakopulous is a downgrade in both rebounding and shot blocking from N’Diaye, but he still can hold his own in both regards. On offense, he offers a bit more versatility with his ability to step outside and hit the three-ball. 6’10’’ sophomore Johnathan Galloway will join I.D. (I got tired of typing his name out) in the starting lineup. Advanced stats-wise, Galloway was the Eaters’ best offensive boarder last season and projects well as a solid interior defender from his limited minutes. 3-star freshman Tommy Rutherford will also see the floor in a frontcourt reserve role. Rutherford is a center/power forward who is skilled on the block on offense. He’ll need to develop his strength a bit to truly be a consistent contributor.
Despite the vast losses Irvine experienced this offseason, the Eaters will look to once again contend in a fairly wide-open Big West conference. Expect a slight downgrade in defensive efficiency offset by a slight improvement on offense, as the talented backcourt should have infinitely more space with which to work.
3. UC Santa Barbara
Key Returners: Gabe Vincent, Eric Childress
Key Losses: Michael Bryson, John Green, Sam Beeler
Key Newcomers: Jalen Canty, Clifton Powell, Christian Terrell, Max Heidegger
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
UCSB has the distinct honor of playing in one of the coolest named arenas in all of sports – the Thunderdome. If you’re a Gaucho, how do you not get super pumped every game playing at the freaking Thunderdome?? Putting kickass arena names aside for a second, let’s talk about how the UCSB basketball program stacks up this season in Coach Bob Williams’s 19th year. The Gauchos lose their best player from last year’s squad in Michael Bryson, a do-everything athletic wing. They also lose another important wing in John Green. Despite the losses, UCSB looks to be in pretty good shape with the addition of some talented newcomers and the return of their starting point guard and shooting guard.
Eric Childress, the PG, and Gabe Vincent, the SG, return to lead the charge for UCSB. Childress led the conference in assist rate last season while proving to be a highly efficient shooter when he decided to let it fly (45.1% from three). Turnover issues have plagued Childress a bit in each of his three seasons, but he is one of the very best facilitators in the conference and brings value to the Gauchos as a rare pass-first point guard. Vincent is all about the three-ball. The 6’3’’ rising junior attempted 202 threes last season, connecting on 37.6% of them. Both Childress and Vincent will be in the All-Conference conversation throughout the entire season.
Freshmen guards Clifton Powell and Christian Terrell will look to fill the voids left by Bryson and Green. Powell is an athletic wing with a very good shooting stroke. Coach Williams has already given him comparisons to Bryson, so that should be a good indication of the production we should expect out of Powell the next couple seasons. I think he starts right away. Terrell is capable of running either guard position or slotting in as the 3-man for the Gauchos. He has good length and athleticism coupled with solid passing and ball handling skills. Max Heidegger, a high-scoring freshman combo guard could also contribute in the backcourt.
UCSB is thin up front after the departure of senior Sam Beeler. Returners Maxwell Kupchak and Alex Hart look have the inside route into the starting five on opening day, but they’ll be pushed for PT from JUCO transfer Jalen Canty, rising sophomore Jarriesse Blackmon, and redshirt freshman Tyler Jackson. Kupchak (Mitch's kid) didn’t “wow the crowd” by any means last season as a freshman. He functions as a pseudo-stretch four with so-so rebounding ability. His spot is vulnerable in the starting five. Hart could be the Gauchos’ best rim protector this season and posted good rebounding numbers in limited minutes a season ago. He’s also a versatile offensive threat, able to shoot the ball from distance. Blackmon started the final 8 games of the season for UCSB implying he may get the nod on day one this year. His efficiency numbers were not good at all last year, but he did have a couple good games in March. Blackmon brings value on the defensive end where he can guard multiple spots, and on the glass where he has potential to be the Gauchos’ best carom-coraller. Canty tore up the JUCO circuit last season; the 6’8’’ forward is a lanky post presence who was recruited heavily out of the community college ranks. My money is on Canty starting at the five in what should be a small Gaucho frontcourt. Jackson was a 3-star recruit coming out of high school and he’s 7’2’’. He’s probably still a bit too raw offensively to make a huge impact, but the defensive potential is there. Ami Lakoju, a redshirt sophomore, could see some run up front as well.
The Gauchos boasted the Big West’s best in-conference defense last season thanks to their smothering 3-2 zone that makes opponents have to deal with hands in their faces on nearly every shot attempt. UCSB allowed teams to shoot a ridiculous 30% from three-point land (5th nationally) despite playing primarily this 3-2 zone. They also rebounded pretty well out of the zone, which can be an Achilles heel for most teams practicing that type of D. Offensively, UCSB was just average at most things, including shooting, rebounding, and protecting the rock. They shot free throws at one of the lowest rates in the country as a result of their preference to take mid-range jumpers and three-pointers and rarely pushed the ball out in transition. Despite this mediocrity, UCSB had the 3rd best offense in the conference, a rank that is almost surely going to fall with the Bryson departure. I think we’re going to see another top-four conference finish from the Gauchos, but I’m not sure they have the firepower to truly contend for a Big West title.
4. Cal State Northridge
Key Returners: Kendall Smith, Michael Warren, Aaron Parks, Tavrion Dawson, Jerron Wilbut
Key Losses: Tre Hale-Edmerson, Olalekan Ajayi
Key Newcomers: Rakim Lubin, Darin Johnson, Reggie Theus Jr., Dylan Johns
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT/Vegas 16
This is your most improved Big West team folks – the CSUN Matadors. Coach Reggie Theus has a comical amount of depth at his disposal on the wing and in the backcourt and adds some solid replacements for the departed frontcourt. The Dors lose only two key players from last year’s 10-20 squad (their best rebounders) but return one of the better Big West backcourts and add tons of talent by way of transfer. Theus likes to play up-tempo (#1 pace in the Big West last season) on offense and pressure ball defenders to force turnovers on D. While this is a good idea in theory, CSUN hardly put it into practice last season. The Dors were creamed on the boards last season and couldn’t stop teams from scoring from the perimeter – however, they did force a good amount of turnovers.
Theus teams do not shoot a ton of threes (CSUN has been in the bottom three in the nation in 3PA% each of the last three seasons under Theus). They’ll have better shooters this year via transfer, but we should still expect to see a focus on attacking the rim via transition and half-court penetration this season. CSUN brings back a slew of talented guards and wings in Kendall Smith, Aaron Parks, Michael Warren, Jerron Wilbut, and Jason Richardson. Smith is the best player on the team and also spotlights as the team’s primary ball handler (though Parks and Richardson are both capable point guards as well). Smith is most effective in transition attacking the rack after an opponent score or steal; he ranked 8th in the conference in free throw rate, a testament to his effectiveness at getting to the bucket. Smith is a terrible shooter (26.3% from two; 43.4% from three) but he is good around the rim, a place where he attempts nearly half his shots. With more talent around him this season perhaps we see an efficiency spike. Parks only played 15 games last season but was effective during those contests, particularly on defense where he ranked 9th in the conference in steal percentage. Parks’s style is nearly identical to Smith’s – he attacks the basket relentlessly where he gets to the foul line often (more often than Smith) and he can’t make a bucket outside 15 feet if his life depended on it. Warren is the best returning outside shooter on the team, which is laughable when you consider he shot 25/75 (33.3%) from downtown last season. Like Smith and Parks, Warren is one of the Big West’s best at drawing fouls and getting free trips to the charity stripe. Wilbut has the potential to be the best shooter on this roster; he just needs to, you know, hit more than 29% of his threes this season. Richardson will provide value as a steady point guard off the pine.
So I just named 5 guys that all had substantial impacts on CSUN’s lineup last season. This year, Theus adds two more wings that should play crucial roles and likely cannibalize playing time from the returning core. The coach’s son, Reggie Theus, Jr., comes over from South Carolina. Theus, Jr. should be able to play both the 3 and the 4 for the Dors. He’s a strong wing player with plus rebounding potential. Darin Johnson from Washington could be the answer to CSUN’s impotency on the perimeter. Though he was absolutely brutal in his two seasons with the Huskies (24.1% and 18.6% from three freshman and sophomore year, respectively), he has a ton of potential as an outside shooting threat on the wing. Johnson’s excellent free throw percentage at Washington over two seasons offers hope that he may in fact be a good shooter.
The Dors should be just fine inside and have almost as much depth up front as they do in the backcourt. Aside from adding Theus, Jr. who could play a small-ball 4-role, Coach Theus welcomes Rakim “Rock” Lubin from UConn and Dylan Johns from Texas A&M to the team to join forces with incumbent starting forward Tavrion Dawson (fun fact – his Dad’s name is Tavrio which is kind of funny). Lubin couldn’t find court time in the UConn frontcourt as a freshman but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a talented prospect. Many high-major transfers have found success in the lesser Big West (chief example, Stefan Jankovic). Rock will give the Dors a legitimate rebounding presence, something they haven’t had the last two seasons under Theus. Johns isn’t quite the boarder Lubin is, but he represents the best shot-blocking option on the Dors. Dawson is a talented rising sophomore who can be a weapon on both ends of the floor. He could play upwards of 30 minutes per game for Theus this season. 6’10’’ freshmen Si Sun could also play a role up front this season as an offensive contributor.
CSUN will be one of the deepest, most experienced teams in the conference this season. Their shooting ability will continue to be a concern this season but should be improved with the emergence of Wilbut and addition of Johnson. One of their weakest points last year, rebounding, should also be improved with the import of strong frontcourt players. The Dors will get out and run and throw a ton of bodies at their opponents all game long making them a dark horse candidate to compete at the top of the league.
5. Cal Poly
Key Returners: Luke Meikle, Josh Martin, Taylor Sutlive, Ridge Shipley, Jaylen Shead
Key Losses: David Nwaba, Reese Morgan, Brian Bennett, Joel Awich
Key Newcomers: Josh Misler, Victor Joseph, Jakub Niziol, Mark Crowe, Donovan Fields
Postseason Projection: None
Joe Callero’s Cal Poly team last season was one of his worst in his seven year tenure. The Mustangs were uncharacteristically bad on the defensive end primarily due to allowing opponents to shoot 40% from deep (yes that is unlucky as well) and not being able to force turnovers at all. Callero’s teams play a combination of zone and man with an emphasis on stopping transition opportunities, they play excruciatingly slow on offense, and they let it fly from the outside. The Mustangs lose four key players from last year’s team including three consistent starters. Their two best players from 2015-16, David Nwaba and Reese Morgan, are included in the departed. Despite this, Cal Poly won’t be an inexperienced team thanks to Callero playing the 6th most bench minutes in the country. The Stangs went 10 deep last year and, as a result, their players stepping into the starting lineup are well seasoned.
The biggest question for this year’s Cal Poly squad is who will step as the go-to guy on offense. Remember this is a team that scores points from the perimeter, so three-point shooters have a natural advantage in the leading-scorer race. Taylor Sutlive and Ridge Shipley are each good deep-ball shooters, particularly Sutlive who connected on 41.9% of his treys last season on 105 attempts. Shipley also can handle the rock a bit in a supporting ball handler role. Neither of these two players can create their own shot so they won’t be handed the ball when the Stangs need a bucket in crunch time. Those duties will likely fall to returning point guard Jaylen Shead who could be due for a breakout campaign in his sophomore season. Shead posted the 6th best assist rate in the Big West last season and shot significantly better from downtown as the season progressed. With no other creators in the backcourt to speak of, Shead will be handed the keys and given the green light all game long.
The Mustangs really aren’t in too bad of shape in the interior. Returners Luke Meikle and Josh Martin look poised to take consistent starting roles while senior Zach Gordon and redshirt freshman Hank Hollingsworth will play key roles off the pine. Cal Poly was the best rebounding team in the Big West last season. Graduates Nwaba and Brian Bennett were major contributors in that realm last year, but Martin and Gordon were the best overall rebounders on the team. With their return, Cal Poly should once again be a top tier rebounding squad. Meikle doesn’t rebound, especially on offense where he prefers to jack threes from the perimeter. The 6’9’’ forward shot only 17.4% of his total field goal attempts at the rim last season and shot 41.5% of them from outside the arc. What Meikle lacks on defense and rebounding, he makes up on offense where he’s a potent weapon and mismatch candidate. Martin is a very good defender and solid rim protector. Gordon is so-so on both sides (rebounding is his strength). Hollingsworth projects as an above average rebounder and shot blocker with range out to 15 feet on offense. Also, watch out for a potential “coming out of nowhere party” from redshirt sophomore Aleks Abrams. He went for 13 points and 16 boards in the team’s Green vs. Gold scrimmage, which, yes, is like a preseason game and means nothing, but is still pretty impressive.
Aside from Hollingsworth, Callero will turn to a slew of other newcomers for production (he’ll once again play a lot of bodies). Freshman Mark Crowe and transfers Kyle Toth, Josh Mishler, and Jakub Niziol should all see opportunities this season. Crowe is an athletic wing type who likely needs another year or two to fully develop. Toth is a former Army guard who won the Patriot Rookie of the Year back in 2013. Though he’s built like a point guard, Toth prefers to be off the ball where he’s a lethal outside shooting threat. He’ll look to reinforce Cal Poly’s three-happy offense. Mishler and Niziol represent two rarities on the Poly roster – they’re wings. Mishler has the size and quickness to defend smaller guards and also has terrific vision on offense. Jakub (or Kuba) Niziol averaged 12 and 4 for Poland’s U-2) Men’s National Team last summer. He’s a very good shooter and capable of playing either the 3 or 4 spot. Expect Niziol to be one of the first Mustangs off the bench this season or compete for starting duties.
Cal Poly finished second to last in the Big West a season ago primarily due to their horrific defense. While their 4th ranked offense could fall off a tad, they should be much improved on the defensive end and will once again be one of the toughest rebounding squads in the conference. They still may finish in the bottom half of the Big West, but they’ll improve on a 10-20 (4-12) record.
6. UC Davis
Key Returners: Brynton Lemar, Darius Graham, Siler Schneider, Lawrence White, J.T. Adenrele
Key Losses: Josh Fox, Neal Monson
Key Newcomers: Chima Moneke, Peter Hewitt
Postseason Projection: None
After the wildly successful 2014-15 season that saw UC Davis achieve a 25-7 (14-2) record, Jim Les’s team took a giant step back last year as they struggled to replace the production of graduated guard Corey Hawkins. The ’14-15 version of the Aggies was a highly efficient and effective offensive unit that struggled to stop opponents on D. Last year’s Davis squad was the exact opposite. The Aggies were absolutely brutal on the offensive side the ball, moving away from their usual three-happy attack and turning the ball over at an alarming rate. On the other end though, UC Davis ranked 2nd in the Big West in conference-only defense, a stat propelled by the Aggies’ excellent transition D, luck in opponent three-point shooting, and relative success keeping teams off the glass.
The strength of the Aggies lies in their backcourt, an area that wasn’t affected by the exodus of graduates Josh Fox and Neal Monson. Darius Graham, Siler Schneider, and Brynton Lemar form a formidable tandem, one that should tip the offensive balance back in the favor of the perimeter this season. All three guards shoot the three-ball well but none achieved the volume necessary for Aggie success. Graham runs point for the squad and tends to err on the side of a “shoot-first” PG mentality. The senior leader was successful from deep last year (38.4%) but struggled mightily on pull-up mid-range jumpers; he also was the one of the major culprits of the Aggie turnover fiasco, posting a 26.1 TO Rate last season. Schneider was wildly inefficient last season as a freshman (not shocking) but he showed the potential for developing into a sharpshooter and reliable secondary ball handler. Lemar is a wing that put up similar shooting stats as Graham last season. Lawrence White will once again play a key role as a reserve; he’s one of the better perimeter defenders at Jim Les’s disposal. Joe Mooney, a promising young freshman could also carve out a role in the Aggie backcourt.
With the loss of Monson and Fox, UC Davis’s frontcourt will be severely depleted and undersized. Chima Moneke, a JUCO transfer, and J.T. Adenrele, a senior returning from a knee injury, are the two likely candidates to start in the frontcourt this season. Moneke, and Australian native, was a beast last year in JUCO pouring in nearly 17 points, pulling down 12 boards, and swatting 2 shots per contest. He may be undersized at the 4-spot, but Moneke should be able to hold his own against Big West opponents. Adenrele’s career started very promising; the big man earned Honorable Mention All-Conference as a freshman with 12 points and 6 boards per game. Since then, Adenrele has missed two seasons due to separate knee injuries. It’s unclear how effective he can be in his final year, but he has the potential to be a major interior asset for the Aggies. Peter Hewitt and Mikey Henn, two 2-star forward prospects, will likely be relied upon to provide meaningful minutes. Henn is a brawny post player capable of bullying opponents under the basket. He’ll work hard and earn his keep. Hewitt has tremendous rim protection potential but offers little as of now on the offensive side of the ball.
UC Davis should be an improved offensive team this season as their focus shifts from an interior to a perimeter attack. Defensively, the Aggies may struggle to stop opposing teams inside and keep bigs off the glass. 2016-17 will likely bring another bottom tier conference finish for Jim Les’s program.
Key Returners: None
Key Losses: Mike Thomas (will medical redshirt in 16-17), Stefan Jankovic, Aaron Valdes, Roderick Bobbitt, Isaac Fleming, Quincy Smith
Key Newcomers: Noah Allen, Leland Green, Drew Buggs, Matt Owies, Jack Purchase, Zigmars Raimo, Gibson Johnson, Larry Lewis
Postseason Projection: None (they're banned)
Eran Ganot had a spectacular season in his first year as head coach of Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors (one of the best nicknames in college sports) finished 28-6 and knocked off the mighty Cal Bears in the NCAA Tournament as a 13 seed. This year will be significantly different to say the least. Hawaii returns zero (0) starters from last year’s squad after it was announced that forward Mike Thomas would take a medical redshirt this season. With such turnover, a second straight Big Dance bid would seem to be out of the question. Conveniently enough, Hawaii won’t have a say in their postseason fate this year, as they were handed a postseason ban back in the winter as a result of sanctions stemming from former coach Gib Arnold’s tenure. This will be the definition of a rebuilding year in Honolulu.
Offensively, Hawaii is going to be a perimeter-oriented team and heavily reliant on rising sophomore Sheriff Drammeh and UCLA grad transfer Noah Allen. Drammeh will take over as the team’s point guard after playing largely off the ball in limited minutes last season. He didn’t show great poise in terms of limiting turnovers last season, but did show flashes of potential as a scorer from all over the floor. A lot rests on Drammeh’s shoulders this season, as he will be one of the better outside shooters on the squad and the team’s primary ball handler. If Hawaii’s Green and White scrimmage is an indication of things to come, Allen should lead this team scoring. The 6’7’’ wing poured in 23 points to go along with 10 boards as he asserted himself as the team’s #1 option on the offensive end. Allen was a 3-star coming out of high school back in 2013 and was heavily recruited on the West Coast. He has an opportunity to be one of the best players in the conference this season as the alpha dog for the Bows.
The third backcourt slot will be filled by a newcomer (which should be an obvious statement given the Warriors welcome 10 newbies this season). Drew Buggs is the highest ranked recruit Ganot has coming in, but the 6’2’’ point guard is still recovering from an ACL tear and likely won’t be ready for the start of the season. JUCO transfer (and former UTSA Roadrunner) Larry Lewis, Jr. will compete with freshman 2-guard Leland Green for starting duties on day one. Lewis was actually a 4-star recruit the same year Allen came out of high school. He originally committed to USC before bolting to the prestigious University of Texas-San Antonio. Lewis is a strong guard that brings toughness, defense, and slashing ability to the Bows lineup. Green has loads of potential with his athleticism and shooting ability, but he’ll need to improve his basketball IQ to truly be a key contributor. I also don’t like his low release on his jumper – he’s going to find it difficult to get shots off at the D1 level.
Hawaii is weak inside with only three true frontcourt players on the roster. JUCO transfer Gibson Johnson (two last names) will be the biggest asset in the interior. He’ll team up with Auburn import Jack Purchase to form the Bow starting frontcourt. Johnson won a JUCO National Championship a year ago with Salt Lake CC, so he’s used to performing against stiff competition on a big stage. Johnson will bring rebounding and shot blocking to a Warrior team in sore need of both. Purchase will bring neither of those two things. The former Auburn Tiger is strictly a stretch four on the offensive end and a poor interior defender. While Purchase is certainly a good shooter, his defense is going to make him a net negative. Freshman Ido Flaisher from Israel will play out of necessity.
Hawaii won’t be near the top this season in the Big West, but Allen and Drammeh could be All-Conference level players. Ganot will use this season as a rebuilding and teaching opportunity to bring a full force onslaught upon the conference next season.
8. Cal State Fullerton
Key Returners: Tre’ Coggins, Khalil Ahmad, Lionheart Leslie
Key Losses: Malcolm Brooks, Lanerryl Johnson, Jamar Akoh
Key Newcomers: Arkim Robertson, Richard Peters, Dwight Ramos, Davon Clare, Riley Dearring, Austen Awosika, Jackson Rowe, Darcy Malone
Postseason Projection: None
No need to sugarcoat it, CS Fullerton was a bad basketball team last season; bad on offense, even worse on defense. In fact the only thing the Titans did well last year was scoring from the free throw line (ranked 22nd nationally in FT rate). Relying on free throws to score while stopping virtually no one on the other end isn’t a formula for success as evidenced by the Titans last place Big West finish and 10-20 overall record in 2015-16. CSUF should be better this season. Coach Dedrique Taylorhas talent on this roster, particularly in the backcourt, and incoming transfers give hope to an improvement in interior scoring and defense.
That talented backcourt is going to carry the Titans’ offense this season. Two Honorable Mention All-Conference performers, Tre Coggins and Khalil Ahmad, return this year to lead the charge. Coggins is the senior leader on the squad and specializes in bombing from outside the three-point line. CSUF’s offense last season often focused on running Coggins off screens on the baseline to open him up for a deep-ball look or having him attack off a pick ‘n’ roll. He should once again be CSUF’s number one outside threat and likely eclipses 215 three-pointers this year. Ahmad is dripping with talent. The 6’4’’ wing was named the Big West Freshman of the Year last season after posting 14.3ppg and 4.4rpg. Ahmad can shoot the long ball like Coggins (slightly less effective) but his real strength lies in his ability to attack the rim. Ahmad ranked 12th in the conference in free throw rate last season and converted his attempts from the charity stripe at a solid 77.5% clip (82.8% in conference play).
Coggins and Ahmad will have free reign this season to score off the ball with the emergence of point guard Lionheart Leslie. Aside from having a kickass name, Leslie is a strong basket attacker like Ahmad and was one of only two Titans to convert shots inside the arc over a 50% clip last season. CS Fully plays a lot of isolation ball (as evidenced by their 337th ranked assist rate last year), but that could change this season with Leslie taking on a more ball dominant role. Sophomore Kyle Allman and Wisconsin transfer Riley Dearring will also play major roles in the backcourt this season. Allman was pretty terrible while on the floor last year coughing up a very high amount of turnovers and shooting at a piss poor rate, but he was just a freshman. An improvement should be expected from him in his second year under Taylor. Dearring can’t play until January due to transfer rules, but he should make an enormous splash in the lineup – like 400-pound guy doing a cannonball splash. Dearring was a top three recruit coming out of the state of Minnesota in 2013 but didn’t get much of a chance with the Badgers. In the lesser Big West, the athletic wing could be one of the better players in the conference. He’ll bring much needed shooting to the Titans and versatility on defense. There are too many freshmen on this team to discuss at length but Davon Clare and Dwight Ramos have a chance to see the floor on the wing.
A vast improvement will be needed in the frontcourt if the Titans are going to be even mildly successful this year. CS Fully shot 44.4% from inside the arc last season (326th nationally) and couldn’t get shots off at the rim consistently. Tim Myles returns for his senior season. Myles is one of the best rebounders in the conference but he his absolutely atrocious on the offensive end. His value is strictly as a high-octane rebounding machine. Two grad transfers, Richard Peters (Albany) and Darcy Malone (LSU), will occupy the 5-spot. Like Myles, Peters is a strong rebounder, but unlike Myles, Peters can actually score around the bucket. He also offers potential as a rim protector around the cup. I’m not sure about Malone because he barely saw the court in three seasons with LSU. He’s 7-feet tall so shot blocking is an inherent strength of his, but his rebounding rates in limited minutes were disappointing. JUCO transfers Jhan Paul Mejia and Arkim Robertson will play major roles in the frontcourt as well. Mejia has the most offensive talent out of anyone previously mentioned in the paragraph. He can shoot from the outside and put the ball on the floor. Robertson is a banger with above average rebounding potential and good “catch-and-dunk” skills.
The Titans are still likely a bottom half Big West squad, but you have to like their backcourt talent. If Coach Taylor gets anything resembling competency up front, CSUF could compete in majority of their conference contests.
9. UC Riverside
Key Returners: Secean Johnson, Gentrey Thomas, Malik Thames, Alex Larsson
Key Losses: Jaylen Bland, Taylor Johns
Key Newcomers: Chance Murray, Dikymbe Martin, Brandon Rosser
Postseason Projection: None
This could be the year Dennis Cutts leads the UC Riverside Highlanders to a winning record. UCR hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since they went 17-13 in back in 2009 (and even then they finished 8-8 in the BW). The Highlanders lose their two leading scorers in Taylor Johns and Jaylen Bland, but top to bottom this team is solid all-around.
All-conference performer Secean Johnson will lead the way for the Highlanders. Johnson is a high-usage wing who excels at attacking the basket and drawing contact. The rising senior owned the 4th highest FT rate and 13th best FT% in the conference last season. While he was pretty terrible shooting the ball from the floor last year, I’m thinking we see dramatic improvements to his percentages in 2016-17; Johnson has a good-looking stroke and should make better decisions now with the benefit of one full season in Riverside under his belt. Johnson will play both the 3 and 4 spot for Coach Cutts this season. He’s a good rebounder for his size and can hold his own against bigger bodies on the defensive end.
Johnson will likely be joined by returning forward Alex Larsson and JUCO import Brandon Rosser in the starting lineup (assuming Cutts goes with a three forward opening lineup). Larsson is the Highlanders’ best rebounder, particularly on the offensive side of the ball (though he offers little to nothing in the realm of scoring). He isn’t a great shot blocker, but he’s serviceable. Rosser stuffed the stat sheet for his JUCO squad two seasons ago. The forward is a talented scorer from both inside and outside the paint and has potential to be one of the better rebounders and shot disturbers on the squad. 7-foot senior Menno Dijkstra will reprise his backup center role behind Larsson. As a freshman, the tall Dutchman showed flashes of being a useful rebounder and shot a blazing 61.4% (62/101) from the field and 92.3% from the line (12/13). I’d love to see him get more time in his second season; he could be an efficiency machine in 2016-17.
The backcourt will be in good hands with a couple steady returners and promising newcomers. Malik Thames returns to the lineup as a combo guard that was forced to play point guard almost exclusively during his junior season. While Thames did pretty well (7th in the BW in assist rate; 12th in TO rate), he’s better served as an off-ball weapon due to his outside shooting ability. Prized freshman point guard Dikymbe Martin should allow Thames to slide over to the 2-guard spot. Martin is not big by any means, nor is he necessarily the quickest guard around, but he is very crafty and appears to have a great mind for the game. Returning senior Gentrey Thomas and Arizona State import Chance Murray should both start a few games this season for the Highlanders. Thomas was 4th on the team in scoring last season primarily functioning as a slashing wing. Murray is a combo guard with solid ball handling capabilities and a knack for getting to the bucket in traffic. He could really flourish this season in the Big West. D.J. Sylvester and Eric Rwahwire are two fringe wing players that could carve out roles off the pine.
The Highlanders have a chance to be much improved from last year but it will depend a lot on how big an impact the transfers and Martin have on the lineup. UCR should be a so-so defensive unit once again – a team focused on taking away the three-ball and boxing out hard on shot attempts, but one that doesn’t force turnovers. Offensively is where UCR could really take a step forward. Johnson is ready to breakout in a leading role and the Thames/Murray/Martin backcourt has potential to be a potent offensive combination. They won’t shoot as many threes as last season with the departure of Bland (277 attempts), but they’ll be one of the better slashing teams in the conference. There’s no sure thing in the Big West outside of LBSU this year, so UCR may have the capacity to surprise a few teams.