2016-2017 Big West Preview

22 Aug

TEAM TO BEAT: The top half of the league lost a lot of talent (although most reloaded nicely), while the bottom half has seemingly gotten stronger in the offseason, which means the league should see some parity 1-9. That said, Long Beach State has the most talent in the league, as Dan Monson has done his typical job of quickly stockpiling highly regarded transfers, but additionally has some high level incoming freshmen. The Beach lose Nick Faust (and Travis Hammonds), but the backcourt and wings are overflowing with talent. Justin Bibbins returns as the league’s best PG with his combination of exceptional court vision, speed, penetration off the dribble, and perimeter shooting. He’s the real deal, as he led the Big West in true shooting %, three point %, and FT rate (where he converted at 86%), was 2nd in eFG%, and 5th in assist rate. The talent around him in the backcourt is outstanding as well, and it includes multiple ball handlers like former LMU relentless penetrator (and ridiculous dunker at 6’2) Evan Payne, SO Noah Blackwell (who should have a bigger role than spot shooter this year), and two touted freshmen in Jordan Griffin, a pure scorer, and Cristian Jackson, a PG in the mold of Bibbins. The wing talent is high as well, especially if Roschon Prince plays up to expectations. Prince draws a ton of contact and can be a matchup nightmare at both the 3 and 4. When he’s healthy and playing with confidence, Prince has the highest talent ceiling on the team. Gabe Levin also returns as another foul drawing machine alongside Prince, and an outstanding offensive rebounder and rim protector, and FR Javonntie Jackson could have an immediate role because of his length and athleticism defensively. His shooting ability is a bit suspect, an aspect both Prince and Levin lack as well, and Monson needs someone to at least partially replace that production left behind by Faust and Hammonds. The frontcourt returns the raw but serviceable Temi Yussuf from injury, but SO Mason Riggins and RS FR LaRond Williams should see the bulk of minutes in the paint. Last year’s Beach squad played faster than any other Monson team, and I expect that to continue with the plethora of ball handlers and athleticism in the backcourt led by Bibbins, but with Williams joining the frontcourt, the rebounding and back end of the zone should be much improved as well, meaning the Beach should be at the top of the Big West standings this year. Monson has a typical Monson schedule lined up for OOC play, so the Niners are going to be tested early. If the freshmen wings buy in early defensively, this Beach team appears to be the clear class of the league.

IF NOT THEM THEN: UC Irvine loses a lot from the most decorated Eater class of all time with 5 seniors gone, including Alex Young and of course 7’6 Mamadou Ndiaye, but Russell Turner has reloaded around a core of Luke Nelson and Jaron Martin in the backcourt, who can both handle the ball and shoot from outside. That said, it might not be fair to pencil in Martin as a starter just yet when you consider the backcourt talent Turner has coming in this year (by the way, Michael Wilder is turning into an outstanding recruiter). Redshirt FR Max Hazzard brings exceptional quickness to the table as a PG, Eyassu Worku could be a dazzling scorer and start immediately, Darrian Traylor brings versatility and an outstanding penetration game at the 2/3, and Turner has two more guard/wings to spare with Evan Leonard and Justin Wertner. Leonard is a likely redshirt candidate, while Wertner is a rangy, 6’5 wing who just completed his Mormon mission, but if eligible would be the wing shooter Turner desperately needs (fellow FR John Edgar should help in this aspect as well). If Wertner is eligible, the Eater wing corps would be rivaled only by LBSU in terms of athleticism, as he would be joining rising 6’5 SO Brandon Smith, who arguably has the highest upside on a roster loaded with talent, and Traylor. The frontcourt sustains some huge losses (no pun intended), but with another rising SO in Jonathan Galloway at the 4 and the addition of Tommy Rutherford, a high energy, athletic 6’8 4 with blue collar scrappiness, the Eaters should be just fine. Plus the 7’2 Ioannis Dimakopoulos returns as well, which always helps. The Eaters are smaller, but way more athletic at 2/3/4, which could make Turner’s 3-2 zone a nightmare, but also gives him more flexibility on that end.

CONTENDERS: After years of speculation, academic impropriety, and ineligibility, it finally seems as though Reggie Theus has the roster he always envisioned having at CSUN, which means he has the depth and flexibility to play the up tempo, pressure heavy brand he prefers, something you saw in the second half of the season last year with the Dors. In fact, CSUN led the Big West with a 21.6% defensive TO rate, and generated 73 possessions per game, the fastest in the league. That’s saying something when you play in the same conference as Hawaii. The problem was that CSUN was horrifically inefficient shooting the ball, as they were sub 30% from 3 in league play. They also couldn’t rebound at all. Theus has potentially addressed both of those areas with some major conference transfers. Theus’ son, Reggie Jr, comes over from South Carolina, as does Darin Johnson from Washington. At 6’6, both should make an immediate impact in the league on the wing. Johnson struggled with his shot in Pac12 play, but Theus is hoping less pressure and more opportunities will revive his perimeter game. Theus and Johnson will join returnees Micheal Warren and Jerron Wilbut on the wings, who both thrived in transition, but struggled from the perimeter. Warren is a relentless penetrator, and Wilbut should have more high percentage looks with better talent around him. The ball handling situation at PG is solid with three veterans of Theus’ offense returning, led by former UNLV guard Kendall Smith, Aaron Parks, and Jason Richardson. The porous frontcourt gets a major lift with the eligibility of Si Sun, Rock Lubin (formerly of UConn), and Dylan Johns (formerly of Texas A&M). They’ll join returnees Zac Douglas and burgeoning SO talent Tav Dawson to give Theus something he’s rarely had at CSUN…depth. Assuming everyone stays healthy and eligible, the Dors should make a big move up the Big West standings this year. [UPDATE: Zac Douglas has indeed elected to transfer, after Theus had seemingly changed his mind.]

Bob Williams loses Michael Bryson and John Green from a UCSB team that rattled off 7 straight Big West wins to close the regular season, but he has arguably his most talented recruiting class coming into Santa Barbara. The big additions are wings Christian Terrell and Clifton Powell, and interior powerhouse Jalen Canty. Williams loves to utilize long, versatile wings at the top of his zone (which produced the league’s best defense last year), so if Terrell and Powell prove they can pick up his defense quickly, they’ll see immediate minutes in Bryson and Green’s void. They’ll be joined in the backcourt by a solid veteran nucleus of PG Eric Childress and sharp shooter Gabe Vincent. Vincent connected on 40% of his threes in BW play and is an outstanding rebounder for a 2, while Childress led the league with a 31% assist rate, and was a highly efficient perimeter scorer when he had to be. Unfortunately, it appears touted PG of the future Grant Troutt’s playing career is likely over after a devastating hip injury. A suspect frontcourt is really aided by the addition of the JUCO Canty. Max Kupchak and Jarriesse Blackmon are unproven offensively, but should have more opportunities as sophomores this year. Alex Hart returns as the team’s most effective rim protector at the base of Williams’ zone, while massive Tyler Jackson and Ami Lakoju both offer intrigue if they can develop their rawness. If the young wings can offer up similarish production to Bryson on both ends, there’s no reason to think the dean of Big West coaches won’t have the Gauchos contending for a league title again. Williams potentially has an even better class coming in next year, headlined by Ohio State transfer Mickey Mitchell and Marcus Shaver, so the future is bright in Santa Barbara, not that there’s ever much to complain about there.

SLEEPERS: Eran Ganot certainly exceeded expectations in his first year at Hawaii, as the Bows won the Big West regular season and tournament, and knocked off Cal in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This looks like a rebuild year mixed in with a little bit of reload though, especially with Hawaii ineligible for postseason play. Ganot loses all 5 starters from last year, with Janks, Bobbitt, Valdes, and Smith graduating, but then Fleming left the team and Mike Thomas, the fifth starter from last year, broke his wrist in the offseason and will take a medical redshirt. The good news is that Ganot did reload quickly, especially in the backcourt with FR PG Drew Buggs (who likely won’t be 100% recovered from knee surgery when the season begins), athletic 6’3 FR guard Leland Green who could start immediately at the 2, and former prized UTSA recruit Larry Lewis Jr, who can provide some three point shooting and is a plus perimeter defender. Ganot will rely on SO Sheriff Drammeh making a big leap this year from bench mob star to go to scorer as well. Ganot also has 6’6 Noah Allen hopping across the Pacific from UCLA as a grad transfer. With more minutes, Allen could be among the best wings in the league. The frontcourt figures to be a disaster without Thomas though, as former Auburn stretch 4 Jack Purchase and JUCO transfer Gibson Johnson are essentially the only options. Ganot did add Israeli Ido Flaisher late as a space/minutes eater in the paint. The backcourt is young and talented, but the frontcourt is thin and figures to be severely lacking defensively.

Dennis Cutts has assembled his most talented roster at UC Riverside since he took over for Jim Wooldridge in the 2013-14 season, and it’s mostly thanks to keeping local PG Dikymbe Martin in town. Martin should be able to wrest the starting PG job away from Malik Thames, who can move off the ball and be more of a shooter/slasher, where he showed promise last year. Former Arizona State slasher Chance Murray will also factor in heavily at the 2. Cutts also returns Secean Johnson on the wing, another major slasher who lives at the FT line. Johnson was a dreadful 9-40 from 3 in Big West play however, and with Jaylen Bland gone, the Highlanders really lack a perimeter shooter. Wings Murray, Johnson, and Gentrey Thomas are more or less the same player. Cutts could really use a major breakthrough from SO Eric Rwawhire, the highly touted Canadian wing who rarely saw the floor last year. The frontcourt should be reliable if unspectacular with Alex Larsson and Menno Dijkstra returning at the 5, but JUCO transfer Brandon Rosser should immediately factor in at the 4. He’s efficient around the rim and has a solid midrange game. Think Taylor Johns with more refinement in the paint. If UCR can get some perimeter shooting from someone, they could surprise some teams and leapfrog to a winning Big West season.

DEEPER SLEEPERS: Likely a make or break year for Dedrique Taylor at Cal State Fullerton, but there’s a good amount of talent in both the backcourt, and some of the off court drama (that also spilled over to the bench) has likely been cleared up with some departures. Let’s start with the frontcourt though, where the Titans were one of the worst 2PT% offenses in the country, and just dreadful defending the paint/protecting the rim in Big West play. Former Albany center Richard Peters could start immediately at the 5, as could late addition Darcy Malone, a 7 foot grad transfer from LSU.  JUCOs Arkim Robertson and JP Mejia should see immediate minutes at the 4. The entire frontcourt is essentially brand new, with FR Jackson Rowe and Davon Clare joining the transfers, but they can’t be any worse than last year’s unit. The backcourt is the clear strength of Taylor’s squad, especially if Lionheart Leslie is ready to take over full time at the point. Leslie was often forced to play out of position (especially in Taylor’s uninspired 1-3-1, where he somehow often ended up as the base) behind other more ball needy guards last year, but it’s clear Tre Coggins is better off the ball when utilized as the shooting component to rising SO Khalil Ahmad’s penetration (and to a lesser extent, fellow SO Kyle Allman). Taylor added a key piece to the Coggins/Ahmad/Leslie/Allman backcourt, as former Wisconsin wing Riley Dearring could be one of the toughest matchups at the 3 in the Big West this year, and gives Taylor a much needed lengthy three point threat. The Titans essentially were only consistently capable of scoring at the free throw line last year, and Dearring can certainly change that. It appears that Taylor also lost out on local three star PG Shacquille Dawkins, who is enrolled at NAIA Vanguard University. CSUF is essentially in the same boat as UCR, as they both need some transfers to bring some perimeter shooting to complement a set of slashers out of the backcourt, but the talent level is there to potentially pull off some surprises.

Cal Poly played about 7 possessions faster than they typically have under Joe Callero (still 275th slowest adjusted tempo nationally), yet they still turned the ball over at the 15th lowest rate in the country, another hallmark of Callero teams. That shouldn’t change with PG Jaylen Shead entering his SO year. Shead will quickly prove to be the most underrated PG in the league, and I expect a big jump this year in terms of his scoring ability. The Mustangs will be reliant on that jump too, as do everything wing David Nwaba and hyper athletic 3/4 Joel Awich have graduated. Ridge Shipley and Taylor Sutlive return in the backcourt as well, and those two steady perimeter shooters will be counted on to replace the deadeye shooting of Reese Morgan. Shipley’s also a capable ball handler beside Shead as well. Losing Nwaba and Awich also hurts Callero’s matchup zone defense (although it appeared to me in the games I watched that Callero actually used more man than I had seen in previous years), and Callero is going to reliant on a pair of JUCO wings, Josh Mishler and Kuba Niziol to contribute immediately. The frontcourt should be a relative strength this year, as Luke Meikle offers versatility and the ability to stretch defenses at the 4, while Josh Martin could turn into the best rebounder and rim protector in the league with his often unmatched athleticism. Callero will be happy to have Martin available for the entire year this season. Veteran Zach Gordon and the return of Aleks Abrams allows Callero to have plus frontcourt depth, and thus the luxury of mixing and matching his lineup in terms of defense for offense. I expect the Mustangs to get back on track defensively this year, as it would be pretty awful luck to see Big West opponents shoot an absurd 42% from 3 against them this year.

UC Davis returns a lot of perimeter firepower, which subsequently should allow Jim Les to return to his 4 out offense that was annually a top 50 3PTA rate team (of course having Corey Hawkins and Ryan Sypkens helps in that regard), until last year when only 41 teams in the country attempted threes with less frequency than the Aggies. With Darius Graham and Mr. Big Shot Silar Schneider returning in the backcourt along with Lawrence White and Brynton Lemar (who finally started to show some of the consistent offensive production that was anticipated when he arrived at UCD four years ago as one of Jim Les’ top rated recruits) on the wings. Graham and Schneider desperately need to reduce their TOs, which led to the Aggies having the highest TO rate in the league. Turnovers weren’t the only issue with the offense, as the Aggies were by far the worst 2PT% offense in the league, which coupled with the fact that they were shooting threes at an all time low rate for a Jim Les meant that they ended up being the Big West’s worst PPP offense at just .90 (for reference, the Aggies were farther behind CSUN, the league’s 2nd least efficient offense, than CSUN was behind UCI, the league’s most efficient offense). To help that lacking interior offense, Les has JT Adenrele coming back, but how much he can contribute after back to back lost knee surgeries remains to be seen. Highly anticipated big man Nolan Berry played just 9 games for Les last year, and subsequently left the program, and Josh Fox and Neal Monson both graduated. Essentially, Les has no option but to return to the prolific three point reliant offense of year’s past if the Aggies are going to avoid a bottom half league finish. Of the newcomers, I anticipate RS FR Joe Mooney and 6’6 wing Chima Moneke making the most immediate impact.

 

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

  1. LBSU
  2. UC Irvine
  3. UCSB
  4. CSUN
  5. UC Riverside
  6. Hawaii
  7. Cal Poly
  8. Cal State Fullerton
  9. UC Davis

 

 

 

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