Page 2 from the #BWT: The March to Madness
EXPECTATIONS HIGH FOR AGGIE PROGRAMS
by Jill Painter Lopez
UC Davis basketball is at it again, sweeping awards, accolades, regular season conference championships and the No. 1 seed in the Big West Tournament for both the men’s and women’s teams.
The biggest test is to see if they can they sweep the Big West Conference Tournament titles.
The Aggies enter this week’s conference tournament on different paths from one season ago. Last year, the UC Davis men won the conference tournament and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. The Aggies would like to repeat, even with a much different team. They lost star Chima Moneke to suspension in February but have thrived with guard TJ Shorts II, a junior college transfer from Saddleback, this season.
The women’s team was upset in the semifinals last year and will try to avenge that loss.
Coach Jim Les earned his second Big West men’s coach of the year award on Monday, and Shorts won the conference’s player of the year and best newcomer of the year awards. Shorts has been a pleasant surprise in every way possible for UC Davis.
“We knew we had a special young man who had special and unique talents,” Les said of Shorts. “It’s special because of how hard of a worker he is. The competitiveness he has, and he has unbelievable character ... On the floor, we knew right away he was talented. He plays in such alternate speeds and makes himself so hard to guard. He proves day in and day out to play bigger than his stature. He’s 5-9 and a buck 50, dripping wet. He can take hits and finish. He comes up with 50-50 rebounds in traffic. All those things stood out.”
Jennifer Gross, who won the women's coach of the year honors for the second consecutive year, has tried to help her veteran Aggies team - which starts four seniors and one junior - focus on enjoying the journey of the season, rather than using last year’s semifinals loss as a constant theme of motivation and pressure.
The time is now with four senior starters, but Gross didn’t want them paralyzed by that.
“It’s been a great source of motivation since last spring,” Gross said. “I think at the start of this year we tried to alleviate that pressure, especially for our seniors, who worked so hard and built this moment up all year long. The focus was one game at a time and enjoying the journey and process. The Big West championship is the culmination of all that ... Our goal was to try to put ourselves in the best position in March and let the rest take care of itself.”
CAL POLY WOMEN SIDELINED BY FLU VIRUS
The women’s basketball team was in Hawai’i on Saturday and clinched the No. 2 seed with a 67-61 win. However, a stomach virus hit many players and coaches hard, so much so that coach Faith Mimnaugh wasn’t able to return to California until Monday. She was on her flight during the Big West coaches conference call, so associate head coach Kari Duperron took over interview duties. Now, the most important task is for players to get better by Friday. The Mustangs have a bye until the semifinals. Duperron was one of a few lucky ones who didn’t catch the virus.
“The extra day of rest is extremely helpful,” Duperron said. “We were planning to take (Monday) off (anyway) due to travel. Having Wednesday off so everyone can get healthy (is helpful). We want to make sure we’re at our best physically. Right now, one of the biggest things is to get these kids healthy and feeling good.”
POSTSEASON EXPERIENCE NICE BONUS FOR UCSB
UC Santa Barbara’s Leland King II - named to a first-team all-Big West selection on Monday - was a graduate transfer to the Gauchos this season, and he’s made a world of difference. He’s the Big West’s leading rebounder with 10.5 rebounds per game and averaged 15.9 points, too. He played at Brown and then Nevada last year - an NCAA Tournament team that won the Mountain West Conference tournament. He played in the NCAA Tournament and learned how a team successfully navigates winning a conference tournament. That leadership is a plus for the Gauchos, who made the biggest turnaround in the country from a team that won six games last year to 22 this season - a 16-win difference.
The No. 2 seed Gauchos hope to keep that turnaround going and King’s experience can only help his teammates.
“He’s the only one on our team, player-wise, that’s been to and won a conference championship and gone to the NCAA Tournament,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “Leland is coaching the guys on that, so it’s valuable to have a double-double machine and his experience is huge in that way.”
FLUKER WINNING MVP AGAIN NO FLUKE
CSUN's Channon Fluker won her second consecutive player of the year award, a testament to her continued dominance. She’s averaging 18.9 points per game, third in the Big West, and her 2.7 blocks per game leads the conference. The fifth-seeded Matadors are hoping they can create some magic with Fluker and Co. in the Big West Tournament.
“I’m happy for her to be recognized,” CSUN coach Jason Flowers said. “It’s one thing to come out of the blue, so to speak. It’s another thing for people to know you’re coming. But again, at the end of this deal, hopefully we get her and the rest of the team to understand that it’s not about individual awards but about helping your team be successful. Hopefully, she and her teammates are willing to do the things that, whether or not they show up on the stat sheet, help us get where we’re trying to go.”
WHEN YOU BEAT EVERY TEAM IN THE BIG WEST, AND ALSO LOSE TO EVERY TEAM IN THE BIG WEST...
In perhaps the most interesting statistic in conference play this season, the Hawai’i men’s team has beaten every team and lost to every team. The Rainbow Warriors have gone 1-1 against the likes of every team from top seed UC Davis to No. 8 seed UC Riverside. “That’s something that speaks to the depth of our league,” Hawai’i coach Eran Ganot said. “I have great respect for this league and the coaches in our league ... It’s a battle night in and night out.”
LUCKY NO. 7?
The Cal Poly men’s team is the No. 7 seed in the Big West Tournament for the fifth consecutive season. It’s uncanny. The Mustangs won the Big West Tournament in 2014 as the No. 7 seed, but it’s a difficult task, starting with the conference’s second-best team in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
“As we’ve learned in the past, seven is not an unlucky number,” Mustangs coach Joe Callero said. “We’re a team and program and community that believes you can win as a 7. But it also means you’ve lost too many games and need to have better winning habits.”
13 NOT SO UNLUCKY
The Long Beach State women’s basketball team lost 13 consecutive games during the season but overcame a grim stretch to earn the tournament’s No. 7 seed under first-year coach Jeff Cammon. The 49ers head into March Madness having won five straight games and six of their last eight.
“It’s a credit to our young ladies,” Cammon said. “They bought into the culture we were instilling. It wasn’t about wins and losses. We knew we would struggle, but we didn’t know we’d lose 13 in a row. We have such a young team and have so many kids that had to perform to be successful. We were hoping the learning curve would be faster ... They brought energy and focused on the big picture as opposed to hanging on every bad loss or every bad thing that happened to us. We were in a lot of games. It was a matter of us growing up and turning that corner.”
CAN HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF?
Russell Turner and UC Irvine hope so. The No. 3 seed Anteaters had a chance to win the Big West Conference regular season championship on Saturday in Irvine, but Davis pulled off a 90-84 win in double overtime and with it, the conference title. Turner isn’t fretting over that missed opportunity.
“I’m pleased with this group’s improvement,” Turner said. “I really enjoyed coaching this team. It was a heartbreaking loss Saturday but it was a great college basketball game. I give credit to Davis winning the championship and the way they won it, but our team also played well and we can carry some momentum from that and hopefully be a little edgy coming off that defeat. The last time we won this tournament (in 2015), we came off a loss to Davis (in the last regular season game) and won the tournament as the 3 seed.”
HONESTY IS BEST POLICY
UC Riverside women’s coach John Margaritis is interesting, insightful and honest. His Highlanders went 9-21 this season but played a particularly tough non-conference schedule that included three Pac-12 schools - UCLA, USC and Stanford. It’s an admirable way to prepare a team for conference and the postseason tournament. But No. 6 UCR - which clinched a postseason tournament berth for the fourth consecutive season - lost its last game of the season to No. 7 Long Beach State, 70-58. They’ll play each other again Tuesday for the right to move on to the quarterfinals.
“We played them five days ago, and they beat us convincingly,” Margaritis said of Long Beach State. “Now I have to go to practice and convince our team that we can beat them.”
TITANS PLAYING LIKE TITANS
When Cal State Fullerton is going well, the Titans are really going well. They beat top seed UC Davis twice this season. But Cal State Fullerton (17-11, 10-6) also had puzzling losses to some of the Big West’s lower-ranked teams.
“It’s a matter of what this group of guys wants to do,” CSUF coach Dedrique Taylor said. “When we focus and play hard and we’re prepared to do the things that are necessary to win, we’re a good ball club. When we don’t do those things, we’re not a very good ballclub. This group of guys does what it takes and buys in and is committed to doing those things it’s exciting. You can anticipate and expect that every team will be at their best and do what they do at a high level.”
The Big West Tournament gets underway on Tuesday at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Gym with the women’s first round games – No. 5 CSUN vs. No. 8 Hawai‘i at 6:00 p.m. and No. 6 UC Riverside vs. No. 7 Long Beach State at 8:30 p.m. Both games will be available live on ESPN3 and WatchESPN.