Season Previews: 2016-17 Men's Basketball
by Mike Villamor, Assistant Commissioner/Communications
The nine men's basketball coaches talked to BigWest.org to preview the upcoming 2016-17 season. Today's previews focus on Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, CSUN, Long Beach State and UC Davis.
Next week, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara and Hawai‘i will be previewed.
CAL POLY SEEKS INTERNATIONAL FLAIR
Don’t be surprised if future Cal Poly basketball teams feature an influx of international players. Ideally, that’s what head coach Joe Callero would like to do. With that goal in mind, he hired Pawel Mrozik, a native of Poland with extensive recruiting ties to foreign countries. Mrozik took over the associate head coaching position vacated by Paul Fortier during the offseason.
Coincidentally, there is a Polish recruit on the 2016-17 roster. However, he’s not connected to Mrozik as the Mustang coaching staff landed him while they were conducting their coaching search.
And yet, 6-7 sophomore forward Kuba Niziol, from Wroclaw, Poland, is expected to provide a lift in areas that Callero emphasizes are keys to success – shooting and passing.
“It’s the kind of player we really think we need to continue to recruit, a more international looking player,” explained Callero. “If you look at the Olympics this year, and how teams were nearly able to beat the U.S. team, was with great court spacing, great ball movement, and great shooting ability.
“We’re going to continue to recruit athletes that we think are quick enough, strong enough, tall enough to play in the Big West, but they’ve got to be able to shoot and pass at a very high level now.”
The Mustangs lost four of their top five scorers from a year ago, but return some talent that Callero thinks will make them competitive. Sophomore Jaylen Shead is a push-the-ball point guard suited for Cal Poly’s newly installed up-tempo offense. Junior Josh Martin is blessed with immense athletic ability, and the Minnesota transfer improved drastically as last year went along. Another Division I transfer, Luke Meikle, is one of Martin’s best friends and the former Gonzaga Bulldog pushes him in practice.
He fared well at times in games last year, scoring 18 points against both UCLA and Saint Mary’s on the road.
With potential international mixes on the horizon, the Mustangs could literally be coming at opponents from all directions.
HEIGHTENED STATE OF GRIND
It won’t be difficult to notice them in an airport this winter, perhaps wearing the orange and blue warm-ups of the Cal State Fullerton Titans.
That’s what happens when a bunch of guys standing 6-9 or above are roaming the terminals of an airport in “Anywhere, U.S.A.”
For CSF head coach Dedrique Taylor, the influx of height in his program is a welcomed luxury. His previous teams have played small.
Smallish, to the point that the Titans have finished last twice and next-to-last once in blocked shots among Big West schools during Taylor’s three-year tenure.
But that’s all about to change. Darcy Malone, a 7-0 senior transfer from LSU joins 6-11 University of Albany transplant Richard Peters on the Titan roster. In addition, 6-10 junior Jhan Paul Mejia (Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College) and 6-9 junior Arkim Robertson (Western Oklahoma State College) provide depth.
“The immediate response is we actually look like a basketball team in the airport, and not a midget team,” Taylor mused.
The addition Taylor perhaps views with the most intrigue is Malone. With three years of experience at LSU spanning 63 games, Malone played with the top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Ben Simmons, last year. The Australia native also has valuable international playing experience. Malone is noted for his three-point shooting prowess.
Peters doesn’t quite have the range of Malone – it extends to about 17 feet – but gives the Titans a different look as a left-handed post player with skills on the block. Peters is also viewed as a strong voice in the locker room, one that matches his 270-pound frame.
“Not only do we have height, I think we have skill set and productivity,” Taylor said. “It’s one thing to have height, but it’s something different to have guys that are mobile, guys that can impact the game. They’re also athletic enough to finish at and above the rim.”
That could spell trouble for an opponent game planning to defend the Titans, which bring back two of the conference’s top guards.
Khalil Ahmad earned 2015-16 Big West Freshman of the Year accolades and broke the school’s single-season freshman scoring record by 60 points, finishing with 429. He ranked No. 7 in Big West scoring with 14.3 points per game, and that average jumped to 16.1 in conference games.
Tre’ Coggins came to the Titans via Air Force, and paid immediate dividends as he led the team and ranked fifth in the league in scoring (15.6 ppg). He also was one of the conference’s most potent three-point makers (75) and free throw shooters (.853, No. 3 Big West).
With the added size surrounding those two players, Taylor hopes to see the same kind of performance and productivity from his horses.
Ahmad, in particular, gets rave reviews from his coach.
“We’ve got a player that can go get a basket anytime we need him to,” Taylor said. “He’s an athletic, big, strong guard that I think the Big West Conference is relatively known for, and he’s kind of fit into that make and mold of hopefully the next guy to be a marquee player in this conference.”
But perhaps he’ll slide underneath the radar with all of those skyscrapers looming on the horizon.
FINALLY A FULL CUPBOARD
Anyone who has encountered a mostly empty refrigerator or aimlessly searched barren shelves looking for the right combo of foodstuffs to concoct a meal, knows what it’s like to make do without a plethora of ingredients.
Eventually, a trip to the grocery store is needed in order to restock the supplies.
Welcome to the world of fourth-year CSUN head coach Reggie Theus.
In each of his first three seasons, guess the number of scholarship players he had at his disposal?
Claim a prize if the guess was eight, seven and six. That’s right.
Consider this year’s roster then the equivalent of Theus winning a shopping spree at his favorite supermarket.
“It’s my first year with an actual full team,” said Theus. “They believe in themselves, and they believe what we’re doing is positive. They’re excited about the possibilities. Now we just have to pull them all together.”
For starters, Theus returns his top five scorers, including All-Big West Second Team selection Kendall Smith. The guard averaged 15.3 points in 21 games, which would rank him No. 6 in Big West scoring if not for lacking the requisite number of games to qualify in the category.
Both Aaron Parks (13.3 ppg) and Micheal Warren (12.7) also averaged in double figures in adding more strength to the backcourt. Juniors Tavrion Dawson and Jerron Wilbut played significant minutes last year, both of which nearly averaged in double figures.
And then there are the four Division I transfers who Theus believes will impact the program prominently.
One of those players is his son, Reggie Jr., who played two seasons at South Carolina. The dynamic between father and son isn’t complicated because of their strong relationship.
“The biggest problem I see for him is accepting the hard coaching,” said the elder Theus. “I’m very straightforward. If you do your job, you’ll play.”
Then he paused.
“If you don’t, I may be getting a divorce,” he laughed.
The other three high profile transfers include Rakim Lubin (Connecticut), Darin Johnson (Washington) and Dylan Johns (Texas A&M).
Johns will get a chance to play against his former team in the opening game of the Wooden Classic on Thanksgiving Day.
The biggest boon that Theus sees in those additions is the heightened expectation levels.
“They’ve seen what it takes to compete at a higher level,” said Theus. “But they also bring a certain amount of swag to the team because they were all highly recruited kids coming out of high school. I like the fact that they all have a chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove at this point, and I like that combination of adversity.”
Of course, with heightened expectations comes added pressure.
Theus embraces a style that preaches full court, up-tempo play. Players are required to play hard for all 94 feet. A full roster allows Theus to substitute freely to maintain the pace he wishes to impose on Matador opponents.
The previous three squads under Theus played hard, but they got tired, and especially at the end of games.
What can Theus do with a fully stocked shelf of ingredients?
“I look at this season as really my first year to judge my program,” he said. “I feel that it is time we have to have a great season. We have to have a breakout season. If everybody does their job, we have enough talent and depth to be really special.”
HIGH EXPECTATIONS AT THE BEACH
Long Beach State is seeking its first Big West regular season title since the 2012-13 season.
This might be the year that Dan Monson returns his squad to the proverbial conference mountaintop.
Now in his 10th year at LBSU, Monson has piled up 155 victories to tie for No. 12 on the all-time conference list.
The accumulation of victories has occurred amidst an assemblage of one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, a brutal test that consistently takes Monson’s troops to places that are home to hallowed basketball programs.
This year’s gauntlet takes the Beach to Wichita State, North Carolina, Louisville, UCLA, Washington, Kansas and Texas. Twelve of their 16 non-conference games are away from the friendly confines of the Walter Pyramid.
But whereas going into the 2015-16 season, when Monson faced the challenge of replacing all five starters, the outlook is much brighter.
“I expect us to be better early,” Monson said. “I expect us to go on the road and not be awestruck and get overwhelmed, but stay together. It’s going to be super challenging but this team needs that. They need to go on the road and compete, not just play in those games but you’ve got to go have some success.”
Familiarity of playing in those types of environments certainly helps the cause. Returning starters Justin Bibbins, Gabe Levin, Mason Riggins and Roschon Prince experienced the challenges of playing at UCLA, Oregon, Arizona and Duke last season.
Bibbins, a 5-8 junior, appears to be developing into a point guard with similar abilities to another Monson recruit who made a huge jump between freshman and sophomore seasons, and ended up as a two-time Big West Player of the Year.
The similarly diminutive Casper Ware went on to compete in the NBA and finished his LBSU career as the all-time assist leader and No. 3 scorer.
So maybe Bibbins has quite a ways to go before reaching that level. But there are plenty of reasons to get excited about his prospects.
He averaged 12.0 points in 33 games (32 starts), led the Big West in three-point field goal percentage (.438) and finished with the third-highest single-season assist total (164) in LBSU history.
Monson reflected on Bibbins’ sophomore campaign.
“Justin made strides confidence-wise,” he said. “He’s shooting the ball with great confidence. What makes him so dangerous is he shoots the ball so well from the perimeter so you can’t play off of him. You have to get up on him and then he goes around you.”
Bibbins should have plenty of weapons around him to distribute the ball. One of those weapons is Levin, who, according to Monson, needs improvement on the perimeter.
“Gabe Levin between his sophomore and junior year had a disappointing year shooting the ball and lost confidence,” Monson said of the Loyola Marymount transfer. “Instead of being a stretch “4” last year, he was kind of a shrink “4” and people started playing off of him. If he can stretch defenses from that position, it would really make a big impact on us trying to get the court spread for our guards.”
Still, Levin averaged 9.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting to go along with being one of squad’s top rebounders (5.9 rpg). He’s one reason the Beach is favored to win the Big West this year.
Another is the activation of Evan Payne following a redshirt season. Payne and Levin were LMU teammates in 2013-14 when they averaged a combined 26.6 points per game.
Payne, a 6-1 guard, is a potent scorer that also benefits from Bibbins being the primary ball handler. Monson hopes he impacts the team in a similar fashion to Nick Faust, a Maryland transfer who earned first team all-conference accolades in his one season with the Beach.
“We’re hopeful Evan can give us what Nick Faust gave us last year, and that’s that explosive scorer from the wing,” he said. “He can score in a lot of different ways. He’s smaller than Nick, but he’s explosive like Nick. When he gets in the lane, he puts a lot of foul pressure on people.”
Up front, Monson would like to see an expanded role for 6-8, 255-pound sophomore forward Mason Riggins. He’s also hopeful that Temidayo Yussuf, another sophomore forward who is listed at 6-7, 250 pounds, stays healthy after missing all but one game last year with an injury.
“If Temidayo Yussuf stays healthy – he was our starting center two years ago – he gives us a physical presence like Mason Riggins does,” said Monson. “Only he’s not athletic but more skilled. He can face up to 15 feet.”
What Monson has is a variety of options, and what looks like one of the deepest, if not the deepest, rosters in the Big West.
Whether that translates to a conference championship remains to be seen.
LES WANTS MORE FROM GRAHAM
UC Davis benefitted from a summer foreign tour to Costa Rica that allowed the team to build togetherness and fortify its culture. Through 10 training camp practices to prepare for the tour, and the three games they played in Costa Rica, head coach Jim Les came away feeling pretty good about two of his seniors in Darius Graham and J.T. Adenrele.
Graham, who averaged 33.3 minutes played per game last year, tops among all Big West returners, got a distinctive opportunity in the Central American country. He ran some of the timeouts during the games, taking on the role of Coach Les.
It made sense. After all, this is the fifth year Graham has competed under Les. Graham is like an extension of the coach because he knows exactly what Les wants on the floor.
“He’s my quarterback,” Les said. “He and I think alike. He also everyday provides an example of what a UC Davis student-athlete should look like, from an academic standpoint; from an ambassador standpoint in the community and then from a coaching standpoint what we want on the floor.”
Graham’s leadership will be needed on a team that struggled last year, following a 2014-15 campaign that resulted in a Big West regular season championship and NIT berth.
But assistance will need to come in other forms too. J.T. Adenrele is a sixth-year senior who has missed two full seasons at UC Davis due to injury. He also benefitted from the Costa Rica trip, given a chance to shake off some of the rust and get reacquainted with game-like situations. Adenrele is a tireless rebounder and able shot blocker who gives the Aggies a much needed presence down low that helps balance out the losses of Josh Fox and Neal Monson – two of the league’s top rebounders last year.
“His last game he had 20 and 11 in Costa Rica,” said Les. “That momentum has carried on with his aggressive, dominant play. He’s a guy, for us to compete for a Big West championship; he has to be a prominent part of our basketball team night in and night out.”
Both players grew up in the Sacramento region and get the chance to participate in the first collegiate basketball game at the Golden 1 Center, the new home of the Sacramento Kings. The Aggies play their regional rival Sacramento State on Nov. 21.
“I think it’s huge for them,” said Les. “I’m just excited that the Kings would invite us into their new home, to have that type of venue to be able to showcase our great university and our program.”
by Mike Villamor, Big West Assistant Commissioner For Communications