Page 2 From The Tournament: Men's Basketball Preview
Big West Blogger Abbey Mastracco takes a look at the field of the 2016 men's basketball tournament, and what the head coaches had to say leading up to the conference's marquee event.
After making school history with its first ever trip to the Big Dance, UC Irvine will continue its quest to return to the NCAA Tournament this week in Anaheim as the No. 2 seed in the Big West Conference Tournament.
The biggest threat to their title defense appears to be top-seeded Hawaii, but the conference is deep this season and even the bottom seeds are capable of making a run. It was only two years ago that Cal Poly won the tournament as a the 7th seed.
“The bottom four teams all have explosive players, they all have players that can make shots and make plays,” UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Williams said. “I’m not going to be surprised on Thursday to see an upset or two.”
The action begins Thursday at Honda Center and concludes Saturday with the championship game.
Here’s a look at this year’s field.
No. 1 seed Hawaii (24-5, 13-3)
The Rainbow Warriors leaped every hurdle they faced this season. Since falling in the championship game to the Anteaters last year, Hawaii hired a new head coach in Eron Ganot, who guided the ‘Bows to a tie for their first Big West regular season championship. Ganot was rewarded for his efforts by being named Big West Coach of the Year.
Junior forward Stefan Jankovic led the team with 15.7 points, 6.8 rebounds per game and 35 blocks. It’s only Jankovic’s first full season of college basketball. He was sparsely used at Missouri with only limited action last year at Hawai’i.
“We thought he could make a jump and he made a significant jump,” Ganot said. “From not being all-conference to being player of the year, that’s a credit to the work he’s put in, the improvement he’s made, the versatility he has to pretty much be a consistent force night in and night out. And it’s been huge for us.”
Point guard Roderick Bobbitt led one of the highest-scoring offenses in the conference and Aaron Valdes, who played well in the tournament last season was second in scoring. But the ‘Bows recently lost a key piece in Isaac Fleming, as the sophomore forward left the team in February.
Hawaii will play No. 8 Cal State Fullerton in the second game of the quarterfinal round.
No. 2 seed UC Irvine (24-8, 13-3)
While 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye continues to star for an Anteater squad that has only gotten better since nearly upsetting Louisville in the NCAA Tournament last season, the real star is the 2-3 defense.
“There’s no practicing that can equate to the challenges that Irvine presents with their monstrous 2-3 zone, 7-foot-6 in the middle, 6-foot-10 on the wing,” Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said. “We played them last week and you get reminded how long, quick and effective they are, so you know you have to speed up your release a little bit. That’s why they’ve been so successful, teams do have to adjust to get their shots off right away.”
One of the tallest teams in the country, they allowed the second-fewest amount of points per game and were third in rebounding.
“Our team is good when our size is used on defense,” head coach Russell Turner said. “In February I don’t think we were very good defensively. At one point we were playing at a dominant level defensively and that’s fallen off. Part of that is a credit to these coaches.”
The Anteaters are strong in all facets of the game, with guards Luke Nelson and Alex Young complementing the bigs with high-percentage shooting.
The ‘Eaters will open their repeat bid in the quarterfinals against No. 7 Cal Poly.
No. 3 seed Long Beach State (18-13, 12-4)
One of the most dangerous shooters in the conference has a strong and healthy supporting cast around him. Nick Faust, who is enjoying a revival year after transferring from Maryland, averaged 17.1 points per game this season and can do a little of everything on the floor, distributing when needed and shutting down the opponent’s best guard.
Sixth Man of the Year Travis Hammonds is an x-factor off the bench, bringing energy and physicality while point guard Justin Bibbins has a calming effect on the 49ers when he’s on the floor.
“Justin’s value is not in stats,” Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson said. “It’s in how he plays the game and how he orchestrates the offense and the defense.”
Gabe Levin was also named all-conference in his first season after transferring twice. He gives The Beach an inside presence and a workhorse on the glass, but rebounding has been a big weakness for Long Beach.
“Our rebounding has got to be better,” Monson said. “We’ve had pretty good chemistry, but you have to win different ways. You’re not going to win three games in a row by shooting the ball.”
The Beach will play the final game of Thursday’s quarterfinal round against No. 6 UC Riverside.
No. 4 seed UC Santa Barbara (17-12, 11-5)
The Gauchos boast the conference’s leading scorer in senior Michael Bryson (18 points per game). But the first-team All-Big West guard can do more than just score, as is evidenced by his 70 assists, and he’s part of a team that moves the ball better than many and he’s a talented overall player.
“It’s eye-popping when you look at his statistical numbers in our program,” Williams said. “Rebounding, shot blocking. He’s a been a great player for a long time, he makes it look easy at times because he’s so nonchalant, but boy is a great player.”
John Green returned from a knee injury and helped key the eight-game win streak that Santa Barbara went on to finish the season.
“When we played harder, concentrate defensively and share the ball better, we play better,” Williams said. “We’ve just reconfirmed those basic principles of the game.”
The winning streak might provide momentum but Williams doesn’t necessarily see that they have been doing anything different.
“The only thing I think it does is given us confidence that when we do certain things, we play better,” Williams said.
The Gauchos will play No. 5 UC Davis in the first game of the quarterfinal round.
No. 5 UC Davis (11-18, 6-10)
One of the most efficient offensive teams in the country a year ago isn’t going through a complete rebuild but did lose a few key players nonetheless. Still, they have a veteran core intact that will provide leadership during tournament play.
The Aggies bring a physical presence and have the ability to wear down opposition. They allow the fewest points per game (65.3) but they’ve had trouble scoring in recent weeks.
“For us, it starts with slowing down the offensive execution,” head coach Jim Les said. “It’s making sure that they’re taking uncontested shots.
Senior forward Josh Fox and junior guard Darius Graham were both named all-conference. Fox is the Aggies’ leading rebounder and scorer. Fox shoots .515 from the field and leads his team in more ways than one.
“He sets a tone every day in practice and on game days. He’s a great young man with great character,” Les said. “Darius is the engine that makes us go. He’s a guy that every day, as a coach, I feel blessed because he brings great energy, effort work and work ethic. He’s coachable and he’s been a great asset to this basketball program.”
No. 6 UC Riverside (14-18, 5-11)
Head coach Dennis Cutts thought he was on the verge of something special with the Highlanders this season but they fell a little short of expectations. Cutts dismissed Taylor Johns, a former all-conference forward, last month.
Johns was a big body who could do a lot of things. He was most known for his explosive dunks in previous editions of the Big West tournament. But Cutts said they’ve made adjustments, like moving Secean Johnson to the four spot, that has helped them spread the floor more.
It’s already caught the attention of their opposition.
“With so many things in life, you need adversity to get better,” Monson said. “It was kind a of two-headed team and now it’s a five-headed team. Everybody has stepped up and they’re a lot more of a dangerous team.”
Cutts said the Highlanders aren’t about to pack it in and give up. All is not lost without Johns and he’s encouraged by how the team has rebounded without him and what’s yet to come for the UC Riverside program as a whole.
“Could we have made a few more jumps this year? That’s hard to say but we’ve definitely stabilized some things,” Cutts said. “We haven’t stepped back. We’ve got to find a way to move forward and make that next push in this conference.”
No. 7 Cal Poly (10-19, 4-12)
The Mustangs know that anything can happen as a seven seed. Two years ago, they made their magical run up to the second round of the NCAA Tournament from this very same seed. But this is the third straight year Cal Poly has started the conference tournament in the seventh spot and Callero is far from satisfied with the lack of progress the team has made since winning it all.
“It’s not where i want to be or where they want to be,” Callero said. “Three years in a row at the seven seed means we’re not getting it done where we could or where we should.”
As always, the Mustangs run the same frustrating half-court system, but the difference is that they’re scoring more this season while they’ve struggled defensively.
“Defending inside, on the perimeter and rebounding - we’ve been unable to get all three going together,” Callero said. “If we put all three things together - defending and rebounding and offense - in one tournament, than we’ll be able to get back to the (NCAA) Tournament.”
David Nwaba is the key to the Mustangs. The senior, who played a big role in their Big West tournament win two years ago, can defend as well as bring an inside presence on the other end of the floor.
“He’s been much more consistent in all aspects of his game,” Callero said. “His overall offensive efficiency has improved and he’s improved in other areas, like rebounding and playmaking.”
However, going up against the biggest inside presence of them all in the first game - Ndiaye - is no easy task. He’s gone up against a set of blue foam arms in practice in an effort to emulate the size and stature of Ndiaye but practice only does so much.
“You’re not going to have a lot of inside action against (UC Irvine), so you better shoot well from the perimeter,” Callero said. “That’s a venue where, fortunately, we’ve been able to shoot relatively well.”
No. 8 Cal State Fullerton (10-19, 3-13)
The Titans and their guard-oriented offense started the season winning seven of their first eight games, including six in a row, but sputtered to the end by losing seven of their final eight.
Khalil Ahmad earned Big West Freshman of the Year honors and guard Tre’ Coggins was an honorable mention all-conference. Ahmad broke Bobby Brown’s single-season freshman record for points with 424 this season and averages 14.6 per game. He brings size and strength at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, but he also brings remarkable maturity for a freshman.
“He caught us off guard when he showed up on campus with just his size and his sheer physical talent,” head coach Dedrique Taylor said. “When we had some injuries and different things, he was thrust into the limelight and I think you have to credit him and his high school coach and where he came from for being able to be productive and stay in the moment, allowing us to win some games with him on the floor.”
Against the ‘Bows, Taylor said taking care of the basketball and limiting turnovers is key.
“Against Hawai'i, you cannot turn the ball over against them,” Taylor said. “They are lethal in transition. They fuel everything they do off of turning you over and creating chaos with their defense.”