Men's Basketball -
Men's Basketball

Jill Painter Lopez: March Madness Even Nuttier In Big West Tournament



Editor's Note: The head coaches from the eight participating men's and women's basketball teams entering Big West Tournament play this week met on their annual conference call with the media on Monday. The recurring theme among both groups is that in a tournament setting, anything can and will happen. Expect the unexpected.

by Jill Painter Lopez


What a season it has been for the top seed UC Irvine Anteaters, who finished 27-5 in the regular season and had a banner preseason schedule that included wins at Saint Mary’s and Texas A&M. UC Irvine has won 13 consecutive games.


Historically, the Big West doesn’t usually receive an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. The only surefire way to make the NCAA Tournament is by winning the Big West. But if the Anteaters were to make it to the tournament final and stumble, could they get that elusive at-large berth?


“First off, we accept that to make the NCAA Tournament we need to win the Big West Tournament,” coach Russell Turner said. “It’s a difficult question. It’s a hypothetical that doesn’t much impact us, I guess. We do have the best road record in the country, 13 wins is tied for the most road wins. And we have only two road losses and one was an overtime loss and whatever the formula is, that’s supposed to factor in favorably...


“I think it’s a shame that the powers that be at the NCAA have tilted the selection process toward the power five teams. The mid majors and the Cinderella stories are what make the tournament so special. I hope in time that will be emulated and alleviated. We know, like every team in the league, that we need to win the Big West Tournament.”


Turner was voted coach of the year after leading the Anteaters to their fourth regular season title in the last six years. The 27 wins is the second-most in school history.


There are countless accolades for this year’s team but winning the conference tournament is no given, even with the No. 1 seed. Still, the Anteaters have a loaded resume. UC Irvine is 15-1 in Big West play, 3-0 in overtime games and 8-0 in games decided by five points or less, proving it can succeed in the clutch.


Its resume seems perfect to win the conference tournament, as expected, but the Big West has had eight different winners the last eight seasons.


UC Irvine is 8-0 on the road in the Big West, the first team in 15 years to be able to run the table in the conference on the road. The last team to do it was Pacific, which won nine games (when conference play was an 18-game schedule) in 2004-05


The Anteaters were 13-2 on the road, with the only losses coming to Butler and Pacific.


Senior forward Jonathan Galloway was named First Team All-Big West and was named the defensive player of the year for the third consecutive time. He broke the school’s longtime rebounding record held by Dave Baker and is now at 944 career rebounds.


The UC Irvine defense ranks fifth nationally holding opponents to 38.0 percent from the field


UCI last made the NCAA Tournament in 2015. 



With CSUN’s success in the Big West Tournament under Jason Flowers, there probably aren’t many conference teams that want to draw the Matadors this time of year.


CSUN is 3-0 in championship games and is looking for its fourth tournament championship win in the last six years. Last year, CSUN had to win four games in five days last season to win the tournament, a remarkable feat. 


“For me as a coach, I don’t know there’s anything I draw on from that,” Flowers said. “As an assistant, I was on a staff in my first couple of years where we were co-champions of the conference and lost in the first round. I know what that’s like ... I’ve had a lot of different experiences as a coach. I think what’s more important is our kids experience from last year. You go through the process not knowing whom you’re going to play and there’s a quick turnaround and you have to make adjustments.

“More importantly than me, it’s more about the kids and their experiences and the confidence they will hopefully have going into those weeks knowing they’ve done it before, and that’s where the true confidence comes from doing something similar and knowing what you’re capable of and hopefully they’ll take that into this week.”


They’ll also take Channon Fluker, the senior who is playing in her final conference tournament, and Serafina Maulupe into the tournament for the No. 4-seed Matadors, along with a talented roster that includes Eliza Matthews, who was named to the all-Big West defensive team. Fluker is a four-time all-Big West selection and former two-time player of the year of the conference. Fluker won the defensive player of the year honors and Maulupe is a second-team all-conference selection. 



If history has a way of repeating itself, CSUN could become the ninth team in the last nine years to win the Big West Tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament.


Eight teams have won the tournament championship over the last eight years, giving true meaning to the word parity. CSUN is looking for its first conference tournament title since 2009


“To be honest, the statistic you mentioned, eight teams winning in eight years is one of the things that drew me to take the job,” first-year CSUN coach Mark Gottfried said. “I think in this league, everyone has a chance to prove you can play well for three days and a chance to play well in the NCAA Tournament. It’s my first year in the league, and I think the coaching is very undervalued. There are a lot of good coaches. There are quietly some good players and good wins outside the league. I think it’s a good league where everybody can make a run and that makes it fun for everybody. It makes it fun for the players. They know that stat too, as do the fans and everybody.” 


They also know CSUN hangs its hat on the dazzling freshman Lamine Diane, the freshman forward from Senegal who made history Monday to win player of the year, freshman of the year and newcomer of the year all in the same year.


Diane led the Big West in scoring (24.8 points per game), rebounds (11.1) and blocked shots (2.1), becoming just the second player in conference history to do so. Michael Olowokandi of Pacific also accomplished the trifecta in 1997-98 for former member Pacific.


Diane and sophomore guard Terrell Gomez (also named to the all-Big West first team) lead a young group, but anything is possible for the No. 7 seed Matadors.


“It’s something we’ve talked about all year. We refer to the NCAA Tournament as the greatest show on earth,” Gottfried said. “Like every team in America, you’ve got a chance to play in the greatest show on earth. We’re so young and inexperienced. I didn’t know what in the world would happen with this group but they responded well and have done a terrific job.”



The top-seeded Aggies (23-6, 15-1) are the class of the Big West once again, having wrapped up their third consecutive regular season title. The Aggies, winners of 14 consecutive games, have a total of just five conference losses over the last three seasons.


UC Davis boasts coach of the year Jennifer Gross and Morgan Bertsch, the Big West’s player of the year (the first such distinction in UC Davis women’s basketball history), leading the way. The forward Bertsch is averaging a Big West-leading 23.4 points per game, which is also sixth in the NCAA, and 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.


But UC Davis hasn’t won the conference tournament during this dominant run the last few years and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it. The school’s lone NCAA Tournament appearance came in 2011.


“We understand this year’s team is different from last year and is different from the team the year before,” Gross said. “This team, all year long, everyone has been focused on just improving every single day building habits. For us to get to this point, I feel we’ve grown so much. We still have four days left to keep improving. That’s our mentality for this week. We don’t know who we’ll play yet but our focus is on our habits and continuing to get better and being as prepared as possible.”



Coach Joe Pasternack has UC Santa Barbara back to its usual winning ways. He led the Gauchos to a 21-9 regular season, giving the school consecutive 20-plus winning seasons for the first time since 1988-89 and 1989-90 when it won 21 games in each of those seasons.


The Gauchos roll with guard Max Heidegger, who missed 11 games due to injury, including a stretch of nine consecutive games. UC Santa Barbara has done a fine job playing well in his absence and thriving when he came back to the lineup.


He made a game winning 3-pointer with 3.8 seconds left for a thrilling 76-74 win at CSUN on Thursday and became the 29th player in school history to surpass the 1,000-point milestone in his career. He helped propel the Gauchos to the second seed for the Big West Tournament. A conference tournament championship would be UCSB’s first since 2011.


Forward Amadou Sow was named a second-team all-Big West selection and guard Armond Davis an honorable mention selection.


UCSB has to play No. 7 seed CSUN twice in one week after beating them last week. They’ve won both matchups and will try to beat the Matadors for the third time this season. They’ll also have to figure out how to slow down Lamine Diane, the Big West player of the year.


“I tell you what, if you can find someone that knows the answer, I’m ready to listen,” Pasternack said. “I don’t have an answer ... I think he’s an NBA player right now.



Cal State Fullerton perhaps appreciates playing in the Big West Tournament more than most schools since this is the women’s first appearance in the postseason tournament in three years.


The No. 6 seed Titans (15-15, 6-10) haven’t been there and done that. They’re much improved from one year ago, when they were 8-21 with just three conference wins. They don’t have recent March Madness success, but they can take a cue from the men’s team, which won the Big West Tournament and advanced to the NCAA Tournament last year.


“It was amazing, actually,” Fullerton coach Jeff Harada said. “Some of our players mentioned in a (recent) meeting how some of the men’s players talked to them about this being a brand new season and anything can happen. They took some of our players under their wing and told them how they did it. It was nice to see it.


“We have a great relationship with the men’s team. Seeing what they were able to do last year and what Northridge did as a 5 seed to win it all last year, that’s the beauty of the conference tournament. Anyone can win. You’ve just got to get there. Especially after being picked to finish last to start the season, I think they took that personally. This means a lot to us.”


Freshman Aimee Book was named the best sixth player in the conference and also was named to the all-freshman team, while Daeja Smith was named to the all-Big West first team. 



The Rainbow Wahine (14-15) finished 10-6 in the Big West and is perhaps the surprise of the conference, earning the second seed. Last year, Hawaii finished 12-18 overall and just 5-11 in conference.


Hawai‘i has much to hang its hat on this year, including being the only team in the Big West to beat regular season champion UC Davis. 

“They’re a tremendous team, and they execute their stuff,” UH coach Laura Beeman said. “They have a prolific scorer (Morgan Bertsch) on an amazing team. When you can get them on an off night or a good night and you can look back on that and say we’re the only team in the conference to beat them, but it’s bigger than that. We’ve beaten everyone in conference at least once. We look at all opponents equally.”


Senior guard Tia Kanoa made the All-Big West Second Team and freshman forward Myrrah Joseph made the all-freshman team.


Hawai‘i has won three consecutive games heading into the tournament, which followed a loss to UC Davis.


Hawai‘i, along with UC Davis, has a double bye to the semifinals.



The No. 8 seed UC Riverside Highlanders have the unenviable chore of playing top seed UC Irvine in the first round of the conference tournament. Someone has to do it.


When asked about it, first-year coach David Patrick said: “Look, the daunting task is that they defend the paint so well. They’re top five in the country in defending the paint. Irvine makes it very hard to score in the paint. One area is that we shoot the 3 well, and when we’re shooting it well, that’s been a positive for us. If we can get in the paint and try to make a few 3s in a tough environment, it could get us going...the other part is trying to defend them without fouling.”


Junior guard Dikymbe Martin leads the Highlanders (10-22, 4-12). He earned All-Big West honorable mention recognition on the Big West honor roll.


UC Riverside is heading into the conference tournament on the heels of a 71-70 win at UC Davis.

Last year, UC Riverside took UC Irvine to the wire before losing in the first round of the tournament.

And then there’s that streak the Big West has of eight teams in eight years winning the tournament, meaning the Highlanders could be the ninth team in nine years to win.


“We’ll take it one game at a time,” Patrick said. “As a new coach in the league and observing from afar, it’s something I looked at before I took the job. There’s parity in the league. It’s not one team winning it every year like some of the other conferences out west. That said, Irvine has been the most dominant team in the league this year. If you can get past that first game, anything is possible.


“If we can get through there, then we’re pretty even with the other teams. We would have to play well, but we’ve proven we can compete with the other six teams in the tournament.”