By Jesse Kramer
The Big West will be very fun to watch this season with a lot of talented teams and players. Long Beach State, which has been at the top of the conference for three straight seasons, will once again be the favorite, but UC Irvine and Hawaii will pose formidable obstacles in the way of another conference title.
1. Long Beach State
Long Beach State returns two starters in Mike Caffey and Dan Jennings, but the 49ers will be reloading with a bunch of high-quality transfers.
Junior college transfers A.J. Spencer and David Samuels should crack the starting lineup. Spencer, a 6’3″ guard, averaged 15 points at Hutchinson Community College. Samuels, a 6’7″ forward, averaged 15.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks at Collin County Community College.
In December, UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb will also become eligible. In 2011-12, Lamb averaged nine points, 2.8 assists, and 1.7 steals for the Bruins in addition to draining 43 three-pointers.
Junior college transfers Christian Griggs-Williams and McKay LaSalle should also be in the rotation. Griggs-Williams averaged 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds last season, and LaSalle will give the 49ers a threat from deep as a 37.3% three-point shooter.
Despite the barrage of newcomers, Caffey and Jennings will still be the 49ers’ two best players. Caffey averaged 12 points and 3.8 assists last season, and Jennings contributed 8.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.
2. UC Irvine
UC Irvine is a mid-major on the rise. The Anteaters won 21 games last season, and they return three of their top five players.
Returning in the backcourt are Alex Young, Chris McNealy, and Travis Souza. Young had a terrific freshman season in 2012-13, averaging 9.2 points and 3.9 assists and earning Big West co-Rookie of the Year. McNealy, a senior, averaged 9.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and a pair of assists, and Souza added 3.5 points per game and shot 28-of-57 from beyond the arc (49.1%).
At forward, the Anteaters return Will Davis II and Mike Best. Davis, a junior, averaged 9.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game last season, making him the team’s top returner in all three categories.
UC Irvine also adds 7’6″ center Mamadou Ndiaye, who averaged 27 points, 14 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks as a high school senior.
Hawaii returns two of the conference’s best forwards in Christian Standhardinger and Isaac Fotu. Standhardinger, a former Nebraska transfer, made the All-Big West First Team with 15.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game. The Germany native had as many as 31 points in a single game.
Fotu, another foreigner from New Zealand, was named Big West co-Rookie of the Year with 10.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He also shot 62.3% fro the field.
The Warriors also return shooting guards Brandon Jawato and Brandon Spearman. Jawato had an impressive freshman season off the bench with 5.9 points per game and a 41.3% three-point shooting percentage. Spearman averaged 9.6 points.
At point guard, Hawaii will start San Jose State transfer Keith Shamburger. Two seasons ago, Shamburger started in the same role for the Spartans and averaged 13.1 points and 5.2 assists.
4. Cal Poly
Following a 18-14 season, Cal Poly returns eight of its top 10 players. Leading the way is forward Chris Eversley, who averaged 15.4 points, seven rebounds, and two assists last season. The Chicago native posted seven double-doubles and is projected to make the all-conference first team this spring.
The Mustangs also return Brian Bennett, who averaged 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in the frontcourt.
At guard, the Mustangs return Jamal Johnson (4.4 ppg, 3.8 apg), Kyle Odister (6.5 ppg, 37.0 3P%), and Reese Morgan (5.9 ppg).
5. Cal State Northridge
In the wake of the coaching change from Bobby Braswell to Reggie Theus, many players left Cal State Northridge’s program. However, the Matadors still return four starters, including a three potential all-conference players.
The three stars returning for the Matadors are Stephan Hicks, Stephen Maxwell, and Josh Greene. Hicks and Maxwell combined for 30.3 points, 15.3 rebounds, and three steals last season while Greene recorded 14.5 points, 3.7 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. He also shot 63-of-164 on three-pointers (38.4%).
The Matadors also return forwards Trevone Williams (5.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and Tre Hale-Edmerson (4.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg).
At guard, sophomore Landon Drew, who averaged 5.8 points and 3.8 assists as a freshman, will join Greene.
6. UC Davis
UC Davis returns Big West Player of the Year candidate Corey Hawkins along with three other starters from last year’s team. Hawkins, one of the best mid-major players in the country this season, averaged 20.3 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 steals, and he shot 40% on three-pointers.
He will be joined in the backcourt by Ryan Sypkens, Darius Graham, and Tyler Les. Sypkens was second on the team with 14.1 points per game, and he was one of the nation’s best three-point shooters at 46.1% (106-of-230). In 10 games last season, Graham looked sharp with 2.8 assists per game, and Les appeared in all 31 games and averaged 5.1 points on 44.6% three-point shooting.
At forward, the Aggies return J.T. Adenrele, Josh Ritchart, and Clint Bozner. Adenrele averaged 12.6 points on 56.4% field-goal shooting, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks while Richart averaged 7.8 points and drained 36 three-pointers. Bozner added two points in 7.9 minutes per game.
7. UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Barbara returns an all-conference player in Alan Williams, who averaged 17.1 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks last season.
In addition, they bring back Kyle Boswell, Taran Brown, Michael Bryson, and T.J. Taylor. Boswell averaged 13 points and shot 41.9% from beyond the arc last season, and Taylor led the team with 4.1 assists per game and had a 2.27 assist to turnover ratio.
8. Cal State Fullerton
Fullerton returns three key players in Alex Harris (10.5 ppg, 2.5 apg), Jared Brandon (6.9 ppg), and James Johnson (6.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg), and it will add a handful of transfers.
Most notable are San Francisco transfer Michael Williams and Louisiana-Monroe transfer Steve McClellan. Williams averaged 14.7 points and shot 39.2% as a sophomore for the Dons, and McClellan averaged 7.9 points and 6.2 rebounds at Louisiana-Monroe.
9. UC Riverside
UC Riverside, which finished 6-25 last season, returns three starters, including senior forward Chris Patton. Patton was the Highlanders’ best player last season with 13.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
The Highlanders also add two solid transfers in Nick Gruninger and Colin Gruber. Gruninger averaged 12.9 points and 5.1 assists at Snow College last season while Gruber posted 18.1 points and seven rebounds per game at Cabrillo Community College.
Big West Player of the Year
Corey Hawkins, UC Davis
Big West Defensive Player of the Year
Will Davis, UC Irvine
Big West Freshman of the Year
Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine
Big West All-Conference Team
Mike Caffey, Long Beach State
Corey Hawkins, UC Davis
Christian Standhardinger, Hawaii
Chris Eversley, Cal Poly
Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara
*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.