Big West looks to build upon recent success

The 2011 Final Four completed a transformation of sorts in the college basketball world.

With VCU knocking off traditional powerhouse Kansas and Butler doing the same against a similar Kentucky team to earn its second-straight trip to the NCAA Championship game, it became evident that the rise of the mid-major upon us.

The Big West Conference is in this mix, enjoying a profile that has heightened in recent seasons and doing its best to play a role, adding teams like Hawaii and next season, San Diego State, and garnering national attention with teams like Long Beach State.

Last season, The Beach become the darlings of college hoops with its nickname, its uniforms and its scrappy sharpshooting point guard Casper Ware, that led the 49ers to a pair of road wins over ranked Pitt and Xavier teams, and helped keep them close in strong showings against Kansas and North Carolina.

To Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson, these teams aren’t as daunting as history would have you believe. Every team wants to be in the same place come March, so why shouldn’t a Big West team be good enough to compete against the KUs and the UKs?

“I think the biggest thing you’re trying to do at Long Beach State is not be a mid-major,” Monson said. “The goal is always to get out of that circle of teams and go up a notch and be able to be at the same level as BCS schools, and in order to do that you have play BCS schools and you have to see how good they are. “

Monson has rebuilt a team from the ground up, turning a 6-25 team decimated by graduation and NCAA sanctions into a 25-9 NCAA Tournament team in five seasons.  The method to the Monson madness has been to play one of the most brutal non-conferences schedules year after year. This season is no different, with trips to Syracuse, Ohio State, Arizona and up the 405 to UCLA. With North Carolina paying a visit to the Pyramid to round out the non-conference schedule, Long Beach has the second-best strength of schedule rating, according to kenpom.com.

But last season’s 25-win team was the culmination of four seasons of hard work from a key group: seniors Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps. Those four accounted for nearly 70 percent of Long Beach’s points and even more rebounds and led their team to three-straight Big West Championship games.  

Planning on counting The Beach out this season? Not so fast.

“Just because we lost those guys doesn’t mean our goals aren’t the same,” Monson said. “(Our goals are) still to not be a mid-major, to be able to compete for an at-large bid, to be able to put ourselves on a national stage. “

Yet The Beach was still picked to win the Big West this season. A handful of high-profile Division I transfers are expected to mesh with All-Big West point guard Mike Caffey and senior forward James Ennis. While there are still questions and eligibility concerns over the controversial guard Keala King (Arizona State) and forward Tony Freeland (DePaul), former West Virginia forward Dan Jennings is being touted as the real deal at the post.

“He gives us something we haven’t had in the five years we’ve been here and that’s a true center,” Monson said. “Last year, we were able to trap and switch and really were very versatile defensively. And offensively, spread the court and five guys handle the ball and really do a lot of great things that we’re going to have to change this year because we have a true center.

“This gives us a different look and it’s got to be positive for us, not negative, in that, it also gives us a different look defensively in how we play ball screens with a true center. “

The defense is going to progress and its look will change as the 49ers find out the fates of Freeland and King, who will be eligible for the conference season if not sooner. The leadership of the team now falls to a trio of returners in Peter Pappageorge, Ennis and Caffey. Sophomore guard Caffey in particular has the biggest shoes to fill, those of Ware at the point on the court and in the locker room.

“I got to work on (being vocal) but it means a lot because I’ve only been here for a year and Cas, he’s taught me a lot,” Caffey said. “He taught me a lot, to be a leader and a floor general on the floor. Just take control of the whole team and just work with your guys and play hard every day. “

Long Beach rival Cal State Fullerton doesn’t have that problem. The Titans return their floor generals in guards Kwame Vaughn and D.J. Seeley. The redshirt seniors are expected to lead a team that was picked to finish second in the Big West this season. But after three seasons of watching Long Beach and UC Santa Barbara dominate the conference, Seeley and Vaughn are eager to finally capture the title that they have been chasing since transferring to Fullerton from Cal and San Francisco.

“They’ve been through it with us,” said interim head coach Andy Newman. “They came back last year, won 20 games, finished second to Long Beach, really wanted to beat them obviously, and get to the NCAA Tournament. We obviously fell short and I think the two of them, coming back, have got a little chip on their shoulder, they want to have some success and obviously they’re going to be very motivated to perform all year long. “

Newman, himself a first-year head coach after Bob Burton stepped down earlier this year, is going to lean on his two guards to run the floor and the locker room. And on the floor, the Titans are following a model that worked in the past using crafty guard play to pace the on the outside. Since winning it all in 2008 behind Josh Akognon’s 20-plus points per game, the Titans have continued to develop an up-tempo, high-scoring offensive style of play. Last season, Fullerton led the Big West with an average of nearly 80 points per game (78.0), a mark that was 12th in the NCAA. Seeley and Vaughn led the team in scoring and picked up more than their share of rebounds. Both have been tabbed preseason All-Big West after picking up the honors last season.   

“We somehow continue to get really good guards,” Newman said. “And we always have. I think the evolution of basketball and just where it’s going, I think guard play is becoming more dominant. As you watch these NBA teams with a four-out, one-in style and more spread out, that will all trickle down. “

This season, the interior game was supposed to get a boost from center John Underwood. But Underwood went down in the preseason with an injury and his status is in doubt for the rest of the season. Louisiana-Monroe transfer Steven McClellan could give the Titans the banger they desperately need but his eligibility, along with that of Northern Arizona transfer James Douglas, is uncertain. “John Underwood has been up and down, I don’t know where he’ll be, he’s a question mark for us. ” Newman said. “We’re waiting on a couple of NCAA petitions…. We should find out next week if they go through or not. If they do, those should really help us. If they don’t we’ll be really shorthanded. “

In his first season, Newman is still getting used to the learning curve. He will sit the Titans’ first two games out after being suspended for minor secondary NCAA recruiting violations. Newman has said that Seeley and Vaughn, his captains, exemplify outstanding leadership qualities and are strong when facing adversity. Facing Stanford and Nevada, two teams Newman feels will make the NCAA Tournament this season, the duo will be relied on even more.

Newman isn’t the only one facing a steep learning curve. UC Santa Barbara, back-to-back conference champions in 2010 and 2011, is learning everything all over again as they return just a single senior and add nine freshmen to the mix this season. While Nate Garth will be called upon as a veteran presence, this is only the guard’s second season with the Gauchos, having transferred from New Mexico. Current Indiana Pacer Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally will be replaced by sophomore T.J. Taylor and junior Keegan Hornbuckle.

No one knows better what UCSB head coach Bob Williams is going through than UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner. Last season, Turner’s second as the Anteaters’ head coach, seven freshmen made up the bulk of a senior-less roster making UC Irvine one of the youngest teams in the country.

The Anteaters lost six-straight games to open the season, and the growing pains weren’t alleviated much as conference play started. But by the end of the season, the team grew together and some developed and acclimated to Division I play at a much faster rate than expected. Michael Wilder was moved back to his natural small forward position and played well enough to earn his first all-conference nod.

The Anteaters impressed at the Big West Tournament and were able to add a key piece in redshirt sophomore John Ryan, a 6-10 sophomore transfer from Fresno State, picked up 7-0 center Conor Clifford from nearby Huntington Beach and got Aaron Wright back from a knee injury.  

“I’ve told some of them that they were given a little too much as freshmen because we didn’t have a choice but to play most of them a lot of minutes,” Turner said. “And now our team is much different, we’re deeper at every position. Those guys whose talent I believe in and whose development is really strong are going to have to fight to play this year.

“And that’s good. That’s a sign that our program is getting stronger. “

The added depth this season hasn’t gone unnoticed, as UCI was picked to finish third in the Big West. The depth has also breathed new life and brought more excitement and competition to the team.

“We got beat up last year in the beginning and that forced us to improve,” Turner said. “I’m hoping the talent level and competition this year will force us to improve.”

“I don’t think we’re really going to surprise any teams this year,” Wilder said. “But I think we’re in prime position to do a lot of damage. Guys have more of an edge to them this year.”

In the mix to do some damage is also Hawaii and even Pacific, who did receive one first-place vote in the preseason Big West media poll. The Big West as a brand has grown and continued to grow, now finding itself poised to become one of the top mid-major conferences.

“The whole terrain is changing,” Newman said. “Guys are going to be looking at this conference in a much different light, not so much as a one-bid league where you schedule them if you want some wins. Guys are going to think twice about that because the Big West Conference is up-and-coming. “

Players to Watch
Vander Joaquim (Hawai’i): A 6-foot-10 true center is as durable as he is sound on both ends of the floor. A possible NBA prospect, Joakim could create matchup issues on the inside for teams thin at the interior.

Chris Patton (UC Riverside): Patton, an Australian forward, is making his third Division I stop after seeing time at Idaho and Kansas. Disruptive length and a strong scoring ability will make the Highlanders better inside.

Stephan Hicks (CS Northridge): The swingman was third in the Big West with 7.1 rebounds per game last season and is the youngest player named to the All-Big West preseason list.

Dyland Royer (Cal Poly): The senior guard led the Big West with a 46.5 clip from behind the arc last season.