2012-2013 BIG WEST PREVIEW
Hawai’i says ‘aloha’ to what should be a wide-open race
By Raphielle Johnson
Changes abound in the Big West this season, and not just from an on-court personnel standpoint either. Hawai’i makes its return to the Big West after spending some two decades in leagues such as the WAC and Mountain West, with football (now in the Mountain West) being the reason why. But even with the Warriors joining the conference, the bigger addition won’t happen until a year from now when San Diego State (and Boise State) arrives. The question for the 2012-13 season: how many teams can work their way into the title race with both Long Beach State and UCSB losing key players from outstanding squads?
Dan Monson’s 49ers once again have a brutal non-conference slate to navigate, and they’ll need to do so without key players such as Casper Ware, Eugene Phelps, Larry Anderson and T.J. Robinson. UCSB doesn’t have the same caliber of non-conference schedule but when considering the fact that both Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally have graduated there will likely be an adjustment period for them as well. The end result won’t be either of these two falling by the wayside so much as a more wide-open Big West race. So how will it all shake out? We shall see.
1. Long Beach State
2011-12: 25-9 (Big West); lost to New Mexico in the NCAA tournament Round of 64
Losses of note: G Casper Ware (17.4 ppg, 3.4 apg), G Eugene Phelps (9.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg), G Larry Anderson (13.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg), F T.J. Robinson (12.0 ppg, 10.2 rpg)
Dan Monson has the unenviable task of having to account for the departure of four of top five scorers from last season’s conference championship squad, most notably Big West Player of the Year Casper Ware. But the combination of a few important returnees and transfers talented enough to make a major splash should allow for the 49ers to at least contend for (if not defend) the Big West title.
Senior wing James Ennis averaged 10.0 points per game last season but was valued more for his athleticism and ability on the defensive end of the floor. He’ll have more opportunities to flourish offensively this season, which should make him a Big West POY candidate if successful. Sophomore guard Michael Caffey, who was the team’s 6th man last year, will be asked to raise his production as well and the Riverside native is definitely capable of doing so. As for the newcomers, they’re the ones that the 49ers will look to when it comes to picking up the majority of the production lost from last season’s team.
DePaul transfer Tony Freeland and West Virginia transfer Dan Jennings have the strength needed to thrive in the Big West, with the latter working to get into far superior physical condition than he was at any point in his time in Morgantown. And junior college transfer Kris Gulley, who redshirted last season, is an athletic wing who will have chances to make plays all over the floor.
Arizona State transfer Keala King will be eligible at the end of the semester, and he’s explosive enough to give the 49ers the third perimeter scorer they’ll need. Long Beach State once again has a brutal non-conference schedule but it will prepare them for conference play. Adding King to the fold mid-year will make the 49ers every bit the threat to repeat as champions.
2. Cal State Fullerton
2011-12: 21-10 (12-4); lost to Loyola Marymount 88-79 in first round of the CIT
Losses of note: G Isiah Umipig (13.5 ppg), F Omondi Amoke (10.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg), F Orane Chin (10.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
It was an offseason of transition for the Titans, who rode transfers Amoke, Kwame Vaughn and D.J. Seeley to a 12-4 record in conference play. Amoke and Orane Chin finished up their collegiate careers last season while promising guard Isiah Umipig transferred, and head coach Bob Burton stepped down at the end of May. The reins have been handed over to Andy Newman, who spent ten years on the Fullerton staff before being named interim head coach. But luckily for him the Titans return their top two scorers from last season.
Seeley averaged a team-best 17.3 points per game (5.5 rpg as well), and his versatility allowed for the Titans to put him in a variety of positions last season. That won’t change, especially with the loss of their leading rebounder (Amoke) and their leader in three-pointers made (Umipig; 80 3PM). He’ll be joined by Vaughn, who averaged 15.6 points per game while leading the team in assists (3.7). According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers Seeley and Vaughn were the Titans’ most involved players offensively, which should help with the process of addressing their personnel losses.
In regards to their newcomers, one question to be asked is whether or not Northeastern transfer Alex Harris is capable of handling the point guard duties on occasion. If Harris, who averaged 6.4 points and 2.1 assists as a freshman, can then it gives Newman the option of sliding Vaughn over to the two in order to look for scoring chances off the ball. Inside big man John Underwood didn’t see much playing time last season but that’s likely to change, and Salt Lake City CC transfer Marquis Horne will also factor into the front court rotation. Fullerton also adds TCU transfer Sammy Yeager on the wing and versatile guard Jared Brandon. If the newcomers are able to help out two of the Big West’s best players (Seeley and Vaughn) don’t be surprised if Newman has a successful debut as head coach.
2011-12: 11-19 (6-10)
Losses of note: none
It’s the last hurrah for the Tigers on two fronts this season. First there’s the fact that this is their final season in the Big West as they’ll jump to the WCC in 2013. But more importantly this is the final season for head coach Bob Thomason, who has led the program for 25 years and won five Big West Coach of the Year awards. And with every key contributor from last season’s team back in Stockton the Tigers have a shot at sending Thomason out with an NCAA tournament berth. But that can only happen if Pacific improves offensively, as their 62.7 points per game ranked seventh in the conference last season (8th in field goal percentage).
Lorenzo McCloud ran the show last season, leading the team in both scoring (11.2 ppg) and assists (3.5 apg), and he’ll handle those chores again in 2012-13. He’ll be joined on the perimeter by seniors Markus Duran (7.0 ppg) and Colin Beatty (4.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg), both of whom are coming off of their first season at Pacific. The front court will be anchored by Travis Fulton and Ross Rivera, with Rivera averaging 11.1 points per game last year despite starting just three games. Pacific took an offseason trip to Europe and they were better offensively than they were at any point last season. If they can continue on that path the Tigers are capable of being a factor in the Big West race. Whether or not they get the job done however remains to be seen.
2011-12: 16-16 (6-8 WAC)
Losses of note: G Zane Johnson (14.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg), F Joston Thomas (13.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg), G Jeremiah Ostrowski (7.0 apg, 4.1 ppg), G Shaquille Stokes (8.1 ppg), F Trevor Wiseman (6.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
It’s a year of transition for Gib Arnold and his program, which moves back to the Big West after spending 33 years in the WAC. The Warriors have eight newcomers and three other players who redshirted last season to get acclimated, and the year got off to a rough start with the loss of All-WAC center Vander Joaquim. Joaquim, who should be one of the candidates for Big West Player of the Year, tore his MCL and could be out up to six weeks. While that won’t cut into the meat of Hawai’i's schedule it does hurt from a chemistry standpoint.
Joaquim (14.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg) led the Warriors in scoring and rebounding last season, and no returnee besides him played more than 20 minutes per contest. Senior forward Hauns Brereton (7.7 ppg) was that man, averaging 19.5 mpg with 15 starts. Luckily for Hawai’i they add an experienced (at another school) forward in Christian Standhardinger, and 7-footer Davis Rozitis will need to show that he’s ready for more than just nine minutes per contest. But for the issues that Hawai’i could have inside with Joaquim out, they’ve got problems on the perimeter as well.
Losing Johnson and Ostrowski was expected but to have Stokes, who was the future at the point for the Warriors, transfer to Hofstra put Arnold in a tough spot. So who takes over at the point? Utah transfer Jace Tavita should factor into matters at the two but there’s a good chance that the Warriors will go with a newcomer to handle the point guard duties. Indian Hills CC transfer Brandon Spearman was a highly touted player out of Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, and Hawai’i also has freshmen Manroop Clair and Drybe Enos. 6-8 Croat Ozren Pavlovic is a scorer who will enjoy opportunities to give Hawai’i a boost from the start. With a healthy Joaquim this is a team that can contend for the Big West title. But the questions at the point and the number of newcomers they’re relying on could prohibit Hawai’i from winning the Big West.
2011-12: 20-11 (12-4); lost 86-83 to Idaho in the first round of the CIT
Losses of note: G Orlando Johnson (19.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.7 apg), G James Nunnally (16.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.8 apg), F Jaime Serna (9.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
Bob Williams loses three starters from last season’s team and boy are they big losses. Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally were one of the best tandems in the western United State for the last couple of years and forward Jaime Serna was a valuable contributor who tended to be overlooked by folks outside of the Big West. But even without those three players the Gauchos are capable of at the very least finishing in the top half of the league standings. One reason why: sophomore center Alan Williams. Williams played just 17 minutes per game but still managed to lead the Gauchos with 6.5 rebounds per contest, and his 6.9 ppg should increase with additional scoring opportunities.
And Wiiliams won’t be the only contributor from last year’s 20-win team that will have added chances to make an impact, as point guards T.J. Taylor and Nate Garth return as well. The two combined for an assist-to-turnover ratio above 2.0 (132 assists to 63 turnovers), with Taylor starting 14 games and Garth nine. And the perimeter rotation will be bolstered by a redshirt freshman (John Green; played just one game before breaking his foot) and a true freshman (6-0 guard Dalante Dunkin). As for their interior reserves, outside of junior Keegan Hornbuckle the Gauchos will be young, but 6-10 freshman Sam Beeler is a player who could be one of the Big West’s best freshmen.
Offensively the Gauchos were the Big West’s most efficient team last season, but that doesn’t come as a surprise given the presence of Johnson and Nunnally. But with those two gone who steps up? The return of Green should help matters on the perimeter, and Williams’ presence inside will make UCSB a formidable squad in the paint. There are some major question marks, but UCSB has some talent as well. Williams’ group won’t be too far off the pace this season.
6. UC Irvine
2011-12: 12-20 (6-10)
Losses of note: none
The good news for Russell Turner is that the top six scorers from last year’s team all return. The bad news is that those players didn’t have a great deal of success in 2011-12, dropping 20 games including seven of their last ten. The Anteaters looked to be one of the bigger surprises in the Big West after a win at UC Davis on February 2, but Irvine dropped four in a row and ended up finishing tied for sixth. However an upset of Cal State Fullerton in the Big West quarters may have given a glimpse at what this team may be capable of in 2012-13.
Leading scorers Michael Wilder (11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 apg) and Daman Starring (11.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.1 apg) are also the Anteaters’ most versatile players, with Wilder earning second team All-Big West honors. Joining them on the perimeter is junior guard Chris McNealy, who averaged more than ten points per contest last year. In total all five starters return, with guard Derick Flowers and center Adam Folker completing the lineup. Forward/center Will Davis II averaged 7.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game off the bench, giving the Anteaters a solid six-man core to take into this season.
One player to watch this season is redshirt freshman guard Aaron Wright, who played in just nine games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Wright is a bit of a stat-sheet stuffer, but while he isn’t as prolific in that regard as Wilder his return will definitely help Irvine. It will be interesting to see what he can provide in a full season of play. UC Irvine adds three freshmen (6-7 Ege Mala has a chance to contribute) to the program and 6-10 redshirt sophomore John Ryan adds size inside after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules (Fresno State). Picking the Anteaters to finish here could turn out to be low come March, and it wouldn’t be a shocker if that turned out to be the case.
7. Cal State Northridge
2011-12: 7-21 (3-13)
Losses of note: F Michael Lizarraga (4.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), G Vinnie McGhee (8.2 ppg, 3.4 apg), G Aqeel Quinn (6.8 ppg)
Last season was a rough one for the Matadors, as eight players started at least 10 games with none of them starting all 28 games. Four of those players return this season, most notably junior guard Josh Greene and redshirt sophomore wing Stephan Hicks, who combined to average 27.5 points per game in 2011-12. Hicks led Northridge in both scoring and rebounding last season, and with sophomore forward Stephen Maxwell the Matadors could have one of the better forward tandems in the conference. The one benefit of last season’s search for answers: a number of players received opportunities that could help them in 2012-13.
In conference games the Matadors were a middle of the pack team in regards to offensive efficiency, but they were brutal on the other end. According to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers Northridge finished with a defensive efficiency of 113.3 in league games, and their opponents’ effective field goal percentage (55.8%) was the worst in the conference by nearly four percentage points. Pretty obvious what the Matadors will need to do if they’re to improve their win total from a season ago. Northridge also has five freshmen on the roster, including guard Landon Drew and forward/center Tre Hale-Edmerson. Clearly there will be chances to compete given the lack of success last season, but things are setting up for Northridge to be a factor in the Big West in 2013-14 instead of this season.
8. Cal Poly
2011-12: 18-15 (8-8)
Losses of note: F David Hanson (11.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg), G Amaurys Fermin (9.8 ppg, 3.6 apg), F Will Taylor (9.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
Joe Callero’s Mustangs are coming off of one of the program’s most successful campaigns, but duplicating their 18-win output of a season ago will be difficult with three starters moving on. Forward David Hanson was a second team All-Big West selection, and while guard Amaurys Fermin and forward Will Taylor didn’t merit all-conference selections they were key cogs in the attack as well. Their departures mean more work for seniors Dylan Royer and Drake U’u, both of whom will be a part of the Mustangs’ perimeter rotation. Joining them will be juniors Jamal Johnson, Kyle Odister and Maliik Love.
Cal Poly will also receive a boost in the form of redshirt senior guard Chris O’Brien, who started 26 games as a junior (2010-11) before having to sit out last season. Like Johnson and Love, O’Brien is a capable option at the point who values the basketball. As a team last season the Mustangs were one of the best in the conference when it came to taking care of the basketball, and that’s something Callero’s bunch will need to do in 2012-13 if they want to prove this prediction wrong. But if there’s one thing that sticks out it’s just how much the Mustangs lost in the front court.
Junior Chris Eversley (8.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is their most experienced front court returnee, and redshirt freshman Joel Awich is one player they’ll look to for solid production. Cal Poly welcomes five newcomers into the program with all of them being front court players, and therein lies the problem for the Mustangs this season. With more experience inside Cal Poly has enough on the perimeter to make an argument for a spot closer to the middle of the standings if not a little higher. But the unknown is what places them down in this spot.
9. UC Davis
2011-12: 5-26 (3-13)
Losses of note: F Eddie Miller (10.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg), F Harrison DuPont (9.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
To say that last season was a tough one for Jim Les in his first year at UC Davis would be an understatement. But with forward Josh Ritchart and guard Tyler Les back, not to mention Ryan Sypkens returning from a knee injury that ended his season after just four games, the Aggies are capable of improving their win total from a season ago. Losing Sypkens was essentially the death knell for UC Davis, as he averaged 14.5 points per game in the four contests he was able to play. Getting him back gives UC Davis a needed perimeter scorer to go along with Ritchart, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding.
Joining Les and Sypkens on the perimeter will be Arizona State transfer Corey Hawkins, and senior forward Ryan Howley returns after playing in just 18 games last season due to injury. Howley was effective inside when healthy, averaging 6.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest in those 18 games. He’ll be joined by sophomore Clint Bozner, who was a Top 100 recruit out of LA Trade Tech according to JucoRecruiting.com.
The question for the Aggies is a simple one: will they be able to score consistently? UC Davis was the worst offensive team in the Big West last season, but the return of Sypkens and the addition of Hawkins should help in that regard. If UC Davis can become more efficient on both ends of the floor they can reach double figures in the wins department, but to ask them to fight for a spot in the middle of the standings may be a bit too much to require right now.
10. UC Riverside
2011-12: 14-17 (7-9)
Losses of note: G Phil Martin (17.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg), G Kareem Nitoto (8.2 ppg), F Kevin Bradshaw (5.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg), F Elliott Berry (5.6 ppg), F B.J. Shearry (4.1 rpg)
Not only does Jim Wooldridge have to account for the loss of a first team All-Big West player in Martin but he’s got quite a few key contributors from last season’s team to replace. Luckily for the Highlanders senior guard Robert Smith, who averaged 8.8 points per game last season, returns and will likely be the focal point of what Riverside looks to do offensively. Smith was also their leader in assists, something that could serve Riverside well given how inexperienced their other pieces will be. The next leading returnee is sophomore guard Daymond Cowiah, who averaged a paltry 3.1 points per game in 2011-12.
But other than those two much of what Riverside is able to do this season will rest on the shoulders of a number of players with limited or no college experience. The Highlanders have a five-member freshman class arriving on campus, with forwards Josh Fox and Taylor Johns (who were also high school teammates) being two of the more notable additions who need to produce.
Riverside also adds one of the better junior college forwards on the west coast in 6-8 Aussie Chris Patton, who averaged a double-double as a sophomore. It would be one thing if Martin, who Riverside relied so heavily upon, was their lone departure. But with so many other contributors having left, this is setting up to be a tough season for Coach Wooldridge and his program.
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