Like life, like the stock market, like your grades in high school, college basketball is cyclical. The ebb and flow is so well-orchestrated. In hindsight, you wonder why you couldn’t have predicted the ups and downs.
One year after the Atlantic 10 got six teams in the tournament, one of the conference’s best players (Briante Weber of VCU) tore a ligament in his knee and is done for the season. The league would be hard-pressed to get three teams in the NCAA Tournament. Those bids have to go somewhere.
Enter the Big West.
This March will be the 25 year anniversary of the then-Big West UNLV Runnin’ Rebels winning the NCAA Championship by defeating Duke.
Fast forward to the last decade.
The Big West Conference has not enjoyed a team winning a tournament game since 2005. Eighth-seeded Pacific beat Pittsburgh round one and 14-seed Utah State made the tournament after a conference championship. Neither program is in the Big West after conference realignment.
Pacific got beat by Boston College in 2006 then bolted to the West Coast Conference.
In 2007 UC Davis joined the conference. That year, twelve-seeded Long Beach State was embarrassed 121-86 by Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament.
Cal State Nothridge got clobbered by Memphis in a 15-2 pairing in 2009. Cal Full State Fullerton didn’t do much better in 2008 to Wisconsin in a 14-3 matchup.
In 2010, UC Santa Barbara lost to Evan Turner’s Ohio State team. In 2011, UC Santa Barbara lost by 28 points to Florida. The Gators moved on to the Elite 8.
In 2012, Long Beach State was a vogue pick to upset 5-seed New Mexico. Casper Ware’s 49ers did not strike gold against future pros Tony Snell and Alex Kirk. New Mexico lost to Louisville, which would lose to the eventual champion Kentucky Wildcats
In 2013, Pacific was beat by 29 against Miami in the 15-2 seed game. Pacific is no longer in the Big West. Miami made it to the Sweet 16.
In 2014, Cal Poly got demolished by Wichita State. Cal Poly was a 7 seed in its own conference tournament, sneaking into the NCAA tournament with a 14-20 overall record. Sure, they earned it by winning their league championship. But the Shockers were accustomed to playing that season with a target on their back and would not spoil their undefeated campaign with that 16-1 matchup.
But today I see a well-matured conference after a decade of these spankings.
UC Davis is fourth overall in the nation in field goal percentage. Corey Hawkins (son of former NBA All Star Hershey Hawkins) is a senior sharpshooter and 7th overall in the nation in scoring average.
UC Irvine won six straight to finish January. It also beat fellow-bubble tournament team Green Bay in a non-conference championship game in Las Vegas.
You could say Long Beach State has underperformed as it finishes January with a .500 record. Mike Caffey is 58th in the nation in scoring average. Tyler Lamb is a player with a higher ceiling than what he has played up to. And coach Dan Monson maybe getting too comfortable, after reports of his profiting from lopsided out-of-conference scheduling. If he’s reading this, he’d probably think “damned if you do, damned if you don’t (schedule tough out-of-conference).” However, the reality is that a coach cannot comfortably preside over .500 record in this 2015 age when he’s been in the position since 2007. Long Beach State could win its conference tournament, and be a very dangerous team playing with momentum as a 15 seed. (End 49ers rant).
Hawaii is interesting. They are the Big West version of Arkansas or VCU. They don’t want to play half-court offense because they’d rather confuse you in the full court. They have one of the nation’s worst analytics when it comes to assists. But the Rainbow Warriors have their “share” of quality wins. Hawaii has beat Pittsburgh, Colorado and Nebraska this season. They took the Wichita State Shockers to overtime. This is currently the fourth place team in the Big West Conference. Stefan Jankovic, a Missouri transfer with Wally Szczerbiak-type skills is just now starting to find his voice in the NCAA concerto.
UC Santa Barbara has a sleeping giant in Alan Williams. The 6’8″ 265 lbs. senior came into the Gauchos season with a reputation as an NBA prospect and one of the nation’s leading rebounders. He has struggled with injury this season. When healthy, his Gauchos only lost by 10 points to the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse. That’s more than K-State and Iowa State can say this season. Stay with me, UCSB is currently in 5th place in the Big West.
UC Riverside is where I feel the falloff finally happens. Although, Jaylen Bland has hit 67 3-pointers in 21 games. As us New York lottery players would say, “hey, you never know.”
I’m telling you now (February 4th). This traditionally awesome baseball conference could throw a wicked curve ball into your bracket come March.