Monday , Nov , 08 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Big West Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Big West Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Brian Mason, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: The 2003-04 season in the Big West Conference was top heavy with a
pair of outstanding schools battling for an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
It was not surprising that Utah State was one of those clubs, but it was
almost unbelievable that Pacific was the other major power of the Big West.
The Tigers were predicted by many to finish near the middle of the conference
standings, but they proved everyone wrong by tying Utah State for the best
league mark at 17-1. Pacific, which finished 25-8 overall (school record), was
able to win the Big West Conference Tournament and registered a first-round
upset of Providence (66-58) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament,
before getting ousted by Kansas (78-63) in the second round of the NCAA St.
Louis Region. The Aggies, who went 25-4 overall last year, should be motivated
to get back into the NCAA Tournament and recapture their conference crown. UC-
Santa Barbara was supposed to be the team that challenged Utah State last
year, but injuries and suspensions left them only 10-8 in league play and
16-12 overall. The Gauchos should return to the top of the standings this year
with four returning starters, but don’t be surprised if Cal State Northridge
also makes a run at the Aggies and the Tigers. The Matadors upset the Aggies
in the conference tourney and nearly pulled off a major coup by coming within
three points of beating Pacific in the championship game. UC-Irvine, Long
Beach State, Idaho and Cal State-Fullerton could also find themselves
battling near the top of the conference standings, but like the rest of the
Big West they will probably be looking up at the Big Three of Pacific, Utah
State and CS-Northridge.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Utah State

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Utah State; 2. Pacific; 3. Cal State-Northridge;
4. UC-Santa Barbara; 5. UC-Irvine; 6. Idaho; 7. Long Beach State; 8. Cal Poly;
9. UC-Riverside; 10. Cal State Fullerton

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

UTAH STATE – Head coach Stew Morrill has guided the Aggies to an impressive
143-46 record in his six years at the helm, but losing out on a chance to get
back to the NCAA Tournament last season has to eat at the talented coach and
his players. Fortunately for Morrill, he returns a good portion of last year’s
squad, including forward Nate Harris who ranked second on the team with 11.7
ppg and 6.1 rpg. Harris also led the Big West in field goal percentage (.677)
and is a consensus all-conference first team selection. Spencer Nelson should
also be one of the top players for this squad, having posted 11.5 ppg and a
squad-best 7.8 rpg in 2003-04. Forward Jason Williams averaged just 6.7 ppg
and 2.4 rpg last season, but his production should skyrocket with Cardell
Butler (14 ppg) having moved on. Williams has the ability to score from the
paint and is also a solid shooter from behind the arc (.352). The only area of
weakness for the Aggies seems to be in the backcourt, where they will have
inexperience and a lack of scoring output. That being said, Marques Crane has
excelled in the offseason and could quickly become the team’s most reliable
guard with his ability to drive to the basket and create offensive
opportunities.

PACIFIC – The Tigers went just 12-16 overall and 7-11 in conference play two
years ago, but they regrouped in 2003-04 and won a school-record 25 games.
Pacific then became the talk of the NCAA Tournament after knocking off
Providence and nearly taking out Kansas in the following round. The reason for
the Tigers’ success was one of the best frontcourts in the conference, led by
forward Christian Maraker and center Guillaume Yango. Maraker returns as the
team’s leading scorer from a season ago, averaging 12.6 ppg on 48.3 percent
shooting from the floor. The talented junior forward also led the Tigers last
year with 5.9 rpg and his 24 steals ranked second on the squad. However, the
key to the 2004-05 season for Pacific will fall on the broad shoulders of
Paris-born Yango. A preseason selection to win the Conference Player of the
Year Award, Yango averaged 10.8 ppg and 5.8 ppg last year. He left his stamp
for things to come at the end of last season, combining to score 40 points and
grab 14 rebounds in the Tigers’ two NCAA Tournament games. Yango and Maraker
will be complemented by forward Tyler Newton (7.3 ppg) and senior guard Jasko
Korajkic, who scored 4.8 ppg last year and should pose matchup problems for
opponents with his height (6-7).

CAL STATE-NORTHRIDGE – Bobby Braswell’s team proved to be one of the more
pleasant surprises in the Big West last year despite going only 7-11 in league
play. The Matadors were outstanding in the conference tourney and have the
luxury of returning all five starters from last year’s squad. Guard Ian Boylan
is the most important of the five, having taken home the conference tournament
MVP honors last year. Boylan led the Matadors in 2003-04 with 14.5 ppg on 37.8
percent shooting from behind the arc and was also the squad’s most
accomplished passer, dishing out a team-best 3.4 apg. Davin White and Joseph
Frazier also return to the backcourt for CS-Northridge, having averaged 12.7
and 12.2 ppg respectively. The frontcourt will have one of the top emerging
forwards in the league with Eto Onyenegecha. A surprisingly athletic big man,
Onyenegecha missed seven games last season for the Matadors but came on strong
late with his 13 ppg and 6.0 rpg. Braswell and CS-Nortridge could once again
fall to the middle of the pack in the conference standings if injuries hit
them hard, but if they remain healthy the Big West crown could be there for
the taking.

UC-SANTA BARBARA – After finishing atop the Big West standings with a record
of 14-4 two seasons ago, the Gauchos went just 10-8 in conference play and a
disappointing 16-12 last season. Fortunately for coach Bob Williams this
year’s squad has experience and qualified scorers. Leading that group will be
Casey Cook, who averaged 9.9 ppg and 4.6 rpg last year. Cook should be one of
the best forwards in the league, but he still has not proven to be dominant in
the low paint. Cameron Goettsche led the Gauchos in rebounding last year with
5.5 rpg, but he only ranked third on the squad with his 8.0 ppg. Goettsche
will complement a talented backcourt that is led by Joe See, who made a team-
high 44 three-pointers last year and averaged 7.1 ppg. See will be pushed by
Chrismen Oliver for playing time if he cannot learn to become a better
distributor of the ball (1.7 apg). Oliver is a much better passer than See,
but he does not have the scoring touch that See has.

UC-IRVINE – The Anteaters had a second place Big West finish in 2002-03 and
went 20-9 overall, which gave hope that UC-Irvine would be contesting for the
league crown last season. However, the Anteaters were largely the biggest
disappointment of the conference, finishing tied second-to-last in the league
with a record of just 6-12. Coach Pat Douglass has to do an excellent job this
season of turning things back around in Irvine, as fans were not happy that
the Anteaters failed to make the Big West Tournament for the first time since
1999. Guard Jeff Gloger is the player that Douglass will turn to often this
season to bring a winning attitude back to UC-Irvine, as he ranked fourth on
the team last year in scoring (9.1 ppg) and second in rebounding (6.3 rpg).
The loss of both Adam Parada (12.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Stanislav Zuzak (10.8
ppg) from this lineup is huge, as the Anteaters have little experience at key
positions and will have to rely on juco transfers and underclassmen to carry
them this year.

IDAHO – The Vandals battled through injuries last season and managed to come
away with a 9-9 Big West mark. Although Idaho won just five games outside of
conference action, coach Leonard Perry has his squad ready to make the jump to
the Western Athletic Conference next season. Tanoris Shepard should be the on-
the-court leader for the Vandals, having scored 8.0 ppg last season, despite
shooting just 34.5 percent from the field. However, David Radlovic could be
the key to the Vandals’ success, as he needs to take a jump to the next level
after starting just 12 games last year and averaging only 2.4 ppg. Radlovic is
a 6-9 center who has the ability to be a force in the paint if he actually
exerts himself. If Radlovic stumbles this season, it will be a long year for
Perry and the Vandals, as they have little depth in their frontcourt.

LONG BEACH STATE – The 49ers improved one game in their overall record last
season (6-21) from their 5-22 mark in 2002-03, but they would remain a dismal
4-14 in conference play for the second straight year, which left them at the
bottom of the Big West standings. However, there is hope this season with
coach Larry Reynolds’ team even though it only returns one starter from a year
ago. Jibril Hodges, who is the son of former NBA guard Craig Hodges, has a
chance to be one of the most talented shooting guards in the conference with
another year of seasoning under Reynolds. Unfortunately for Reynolds and the
49ers, Kevin Roberts is no longer on the team and his 15.7 ppg and 6.4 rpg
will be sorely missed. Anthony Coleman has a chance to replace Roberts’
production, but he must prove that he is fully healed from a stress fracture
that forced him to miss all but two games last season. A talented guard trio
including Keion Kindred, Louis Darby and Kevin Houston will also help, with
all three having the ability to score from the outside and play tough defense.

CAL-POLY – The Mustangs were able to post early wins against Pac-10 squads USC
and California last year, but that was the extent of the excitement in San
Luis Obispo. Cal Poly went a dismal 6-12 in league play and won only 11 of its
27 games all season. Things are only going to get worse for Kevin Bromley’s
squad, as it lost its top two leading scorers and rebounders from a year ago
in Varnie Dennis (18.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Shane Schilling (16.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg).
However, Bromley has to be pleased that all-conference member Kameron Gray is
back to play point guard for the Mustangs. Gray ranked third on the team last
season with 13.1 ppg and proved to be a solid rebounder (4.0 rpg) and passer
(3.1 apg). Forward Nick Enzweiler is also back in the lineup for Cal Poly,
returning with his 8.4 ppg off of 39.8 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Center Phil Johnson redshirted last season and expectations are high that he
will become a quick contributor down low for the Mustangs.

UC-RIVERSIDE- The Highlanders finished last season tied for fifth in the
league standings, posting a conference mark of just 7-11. Although the record
was not impressive, Riverside did post some solid wins down the stretch and
coach John Masi had to believe his team was ready to take the next leap.
However, the offseason did not bring good news for Masi and the Highlanders,
as standout guard and the team’s thought-to-be leading returning scorer, Nate
Carter (15.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg), transferred to Oklahoma. Vili Morton now takes
over the reins as the team’s most gifted scoring option (12.2 ppg) as well as
its best rebounder (6.2 rpg). However, Morton will receive little help from
the rest of his teammates in both categories, as the team’s next highest
returning scorer is Rickey Porter (7.8 ppg). Porter was solid from three-point
range last year (.372), but he was far from reliable from the field (.389).
Brett Ost will likely join Porter in the backcourt, but did not impress in
limited duty last season, scoring just 1.5 ppg on 22.8 percent shooting from
the floor.

CAL STATE-FULLERTON – The Titans can only hope they will be able to duplicate
last year’s overall mark of 11-17. Coach Bob Burton will not have one of the
nation’s top centers back in the fold this season, as Pape Sow (first-team
All-Conference selection in 2003-04) and his 17.3 ppg and 9.7 rpg have moved
on to the NBA. Conference Freshman of the Year Bobby Brown remains for this
squad and should easily improve upon his 13.2 ppg and 40.2 percent shooting
from the floor. Brown should garner all-conference honors this year, having
shown that he can be a threat from long range (.402) and an excellent passer
(3.5 apg). The Titans should also get a boost from the return of Ralphy
Holmes, who was ruled ineligible last season. Holmes will probably not be back
with the team until December, but he was outstanding for the Titans in
2002-03, scoring 16.8 ppg and grabbing 6.0 rpg. However, the return of another
impressive scoring option does not truly help the problem that has plagued
this team over the past few seasons, which is a lack of defensive stopping
power. Last year, CS-Fullerton gave up 73.2 ppg to its opponents and it let
them shoot 46.3 percent from the floor and 38.4 percent from three-point land.