Big West Men's Basketball Tournament Anything But Automatic
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Big West Men's Basketball Tournament Central
Randy Youngman is a former page 2 columnist with the Orange County Register
ANAHEIM – Conventional wisdom is that this week’s Big West Men’s Basketball Tournament is over before it starts, a fait accompli, a foregone conclusion for Dan Monson’s top-seeded Long Beach State 49ers.
Repeat after me: It’s over.
After all, the 49ers ran away from the competition to repeat as Big West regular-season champions, stretching their conference winning streak to 23 games over two seasons before finishing with a 15-1 league mark.
Senior point guard Casper Ware also repeated as BWC Player of the Year, Monson repeated as BWC Coach of the Year, and senior guard Larry Anderson earned first-team All-Big West honors for the third consecutive season while earning BWC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
So it seems almost automatic that the Beach will win the postseason tournament at Honda Center to clinch the Big West’s automatic NCAA berth. Right?
To borrow one of Lee Corso’s favorite phrases: Not so fast, my friends.
Upon closer inspection, the 49ers might be vulnerable to an upset this weekend. Here are two reasons: 1. They lost their regular-season finale against conference runner-up Cal State Fullerton, 77-74, on Saturday at Titan Gym, and 2. Monson lists Anderson as doubtful to play this week after spraining a right-knee ligament in the second half of the Fullerton game.
That’s why Monson is taking nothing for granted this week, especially after losing the Big West title game to UC Santa Barbara in 2010 and 2011 – another repeat of sorts.
“This tournament is like a game of H-O-R-S-E; we’ve beaten everybody (in the conference) and got an “e” out there, but we’ve got to prove it again and win three more times,” Monson said. “Injuries and losses are a part of college basketball, and we’re dealing with it.”
As the 49ers are preparing for their opening-round game against No. 8 seed UC Davis without Anderson on Thursday night (6 p.m., Big West TV), this is Monson’s approach: “Larry is going to play in the NCAA Tournament; we’ve just got to get him there. “
Some college basketball cognoscenti believe the 49ers (22-8 overall, with an RPI power rating of 35th nationally) would have a chance to earn an at-large NCAA berth even if they don’t win the Big West Tournament, because they played what arguably was the nation’s most difficult non-conference schedule.
LBSU upset then-No.9 Pittsburgh in November and lost by only six points at then-No. 4 North Carolina in December. The Niners also held their own in in a 77-73 overtime loss at San Diego State, an 88-80 loss at Kansas and an 81-79 loss at Creighton.
Asked if he believes his team deserves an at-large berth, Monson said, “I think Saturday (at Fullerton) hurt us in that regard, but it’s not out of the realm (of possibility). . . . Our job is not to be positioning for an at-large bid; our job is to go win this tournament. We can’t worry about that (at-large berths). We don’t have any control over that. We do have control over the automatic bid, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Then there’s the possibility that losing the regular-season finale will motivate the 49ers. Cal State Fullerton’s Bob Burton subscribes to that theory even after his team pulled the upset Saturday.
“It might have been good for them in this tournament, because there’s no doubt when they’re healthy they’re the best team; they proved that all year,” Burton said earlier this week. “Now they’ll probably have more fire.”
Monson wasn’t buying that psychological spin.
“I never thought any loss was good,” he said. “I know the rationale on that. It does expose things, and there’s a silver lining to it. But we did not play well enough to win that game. It’s disappointing.”
For what it’s worth, Long Beach State is the 12th Big West team to finish the regular season with one loss or fewer since the conference tournament began in 1976. The first five also won the tournament; five of the last seven did not: 18-0 UNLV in 1991-92 (ineligible for conference tournament); 15-1 Long Beach State in 1999-2000; 15-1 UC Irvine in 2000-01; 17-1 Utah State in 2003-04; and 18-0 Pacific in 2004-05.
It would behoove Long Beach State not to pay attention to conventional wisdom.
OC rivalry: Cal State Fullerton (21-8, 12-4 in Big West play), the No. 2 tournament seed, takes on Orange County rival UC Irvine (11-19, 6-10), the No. 7 seed, in Thursday’s second game (approximately 2:30 p.m., BigWest.TV). If it is anything like their two regular-season meetings, it should be highly competitive, high-scoring and an entertaining 3-point shooting clinic.
Fullerton won both games: 92-84 at UCI’s Bren Center on Jan. 21 and 100-94 at Titan Gym on Feb. 9. It was raining rainbow jumpers in both contests, not surprising considering that CSF averages a league-leading 8.7 treys a game and UCI 7.7 a game.
“Neither one of us had any idea how to stop the other,” Burton said, laughing.
“Both were high-scoring games. I’d like to play them better defensively, but they are an outstanding offensive team – good in every area,” said second-year UCI coach Russ Turner.
The Titans boast three of the league’s top 10 scorers: junior guard D. J. Seeley (17.0 ppg, third), junior guard Kwame Vaughn (15.6 ppg, sixth) and sophomore guard Isiah Umipig (13.9 ppg, ninth). But Turner didn’t hesitate when asked which player concerned him the most, pointing out that Seeley was 10 for 10 from 3-point range in the two CSF-UCI games.
“That may be an NCAA record,” Turner said. “I don’t know if that’s ever been done before, and I’m not going to check.”
Burton said he wasn’t aware of that stat, but now he knows what to do.
“Just throw it to him (Seeley) and get out of the gym, leave him alone and don’t screw him up,” Burton said jokingly.
The Titans are a hot team entering the tournament, winning eight of their past nine and 11 of 13, but Burton said there is no carry-over momentum.
“Nobody cares what you did before; it’s a new start, a whole new deal,” he said. “From my perspective, we’re feeling good about winning the (Long Beach State) game, but we have to be realistic about what we’re facing."
Three-peat for UCSB?: The third-seeded UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (18-9, 12-4) have a chance to become the first Big West team to win three consecutive conference tournament titles since Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in 1989-91.
The Gauchos won the tournament as the No. 1 seed in 2010 and repeated in 2011 when they became the first No. 5 seed in league history to win the title.
“Last year we were 8-8 (in the regular season), won our first game in the tournament against UOP and thought we were unbeatable,” UCSB coach Bob Williams recalled. “I don’t think we have a psychological advantage (as back-to-back defending champions), but we have great confidence.”
The Gauchos also have prolific senior scorers Orlando Johnson (20.0 ppg) and James Nunnally (15.9 ppg), the No. 1 and No. 4 all-time leading scorers in school history. Johnson, the 2010 BWC Player of the Year, made the All-BWC first team for the third consecutive year after winning the regular-season scoring title.
UCSB opens tournament play against Pacific (11-18, 6-10), the No. 6 seed, in Thursday’s first game (noon, Big West TV).
“We didn’t want to tangle with them this early,” said veteran Pacific coach Bob Thomason.
Déjà vu: The flip side of an expected CSF-UCI track meet is Thursday night’s late game between No. 4 seed Cal Poly (17-14, 8-8) and No. 5 seed UC Riverside (14-16, 7-9), a rematch of last year’s first-round tournament matchup won by UCR in overtime.
If form holds, it should be a defensive showdown, as were their regular-season meetings: a 60-53 Riverside home victory and a 54-52 Cal Poly home victory.
Cal Poly (60.6 points allowed) and UCR (62.9 points allowed) ranked 1-2 in the Big West in scoring defense. UCR also led the Big West in field-goal percentage defense and 3-point defense; Cal Poly is No. 1 in rebounding defense and No. 2 in 3-point defense.
“We’re defending pretty well,” said UCR coach Jim Wooldridge. “Both (regular-season) games went down to the wire. It should be a good matchup.”
Perspective: This time of year, every team in a tournament with an automatic bid has a chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament, and every coach has his own way of brainwashing his team into believing it can overcome the odds.
Cal Poly coach Joe Callero wins the Norman Vincent Peale Award for the power of positive thinking, after the Mustangs closed the regular season with back-to-back home victories against UC Davis and Pacific to get to .500 (8-8).
“We’re on a two-game winning streak, and we’re undefeated in March,” Callero said this week.
Well said. See, there can be method to this March madness.