College basketball preview: Long Beach State looks to snag the Big West crown
The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Up next: the Big West
The 2015-16 Big West was extremely top heavy, with four teams going neck and neck throughout the season for the top spot, while the bottom five laid far below.
Hawaii, UC Irvine, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara all won between 11 and 13 conference games, setting up a compelling Big West tournament semifinals.
In that round, third-seeded Long Beach State took down UC Irvine in a close one, while No. 1 seed Hawaii had no issues with UC Santa Barbara. That set up a tremendous championship game in which Hawaii coughed up a 12-point second-half lead before hanging on for dear life to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.
The Rainbow Warriors received a 13 seed into the Big Dance after a 28-5 season and were a popular upset pick against California in the first round. And Hawaii made those pickers willing to take a chance glad they did, knocking off the Golden Bears 77-66 behind a combined 52 points from Quincy Smith, Roderick Bobbitt and Stefan Jankovic.
The first tournament win in Hawaii’s program history got people buzzing about the possibility of going on to upset fifth-seeded Maryland and going to the Sweet 16. Alas, while it was just a one-point game at the half, Melo Trimble took over and helped the Terrapins pull away, ending the impressive season of the lone Big West representative.
The conference’s other 13-win team, meanwhile, had a nice postseason run of its own, albeit on a smaller stage. UC Irvine, after very nearly stunning Louisville in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament, ran through the CIT all the way to the championship game, where it eventually finished runner-up to Columbia.
Best player: PG Justin Bibbins, Long Beach State
Much of the Big West’s elite in 2015-16 have moved on, including Bobbitt and Jankovic from Hawaii, 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye from UC Irvine and Michael Bryson from UC Santa Barbara.
That left this selection a toss-up between Bibbins and UC Irvine senior Luke Nelson, but Bibbins stands out as just a little more impressive.
For all the advantages that Ndiaye had with his cartoonish frame, Bibbins has to make up for with pure heart and skill. That’s because he stands at just 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds.
That didn’t prevent the Carson, California, native from having a breakout sophomore season, as he put up per-game averages of 12.0 points, 5.0 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.1 steals. Combine that with an impressive 43.8 percent 3-point shooting mark and decent 2.0 turnovers in 31.1 minutes per game, and you’ve got yourself a dynamic player who has drawn comparisons to former LBSU standout Casper Ware.
It’s hard to see Bibbins being able to improve too much in his junior year, but the 49ers should be more than happy if he is able to come close to replicating last year. With former teammate and 2015-16 first-team All-Conference selection Nick Faust out of eligibility, defenses should be able to shift their focuses on Bibbins, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts.
Best team: Long Beach State 49ers
This conference could be the 49ers’ to win, with Hawaii not being postseason eligible on top of losing most of its top players. They will need a couple of players to step up, but they should have the talent to do it; thanks to a pool of talent from Loyola Marymount.
Two players who transferred from Loyola Marymount are due to make a big impact for Long Beach State this year. One is Gabe Levin, who should serve as a stretch four. The other is Evan Payne, the former leading scorer for the Lions who sat out last year due to the transfer.
Payne could be huge this year, putting his volume scoring ability to good use by playing off the ball while Bibbins takes point-guard duties. His presence could also be a big boost for Bibbins, much like Faust was last season.
Sleeper team: UC Davis Aggies
UC Davis was not part of the conference’s “Big Four” from a year ago, instead limping to a 6-10 conference record and just 11-19 overall.
However, that is just one year removed from a 2014-15 campaign in which the Aggies went 25-7 and 14-2 in conference play, winning the regular-season crown before being stunned in their first tournament game.
So while coach Jim Les can’t simply replace the contributions of All-American honorable mention Corey Hawkins from that season, he has still shown the ability to put together a team capable of winning a lot of games.
The Aggies bring back Brynton Lamar and Darius Graham, two players who averaged double-digit scoring last year, and ges a boost from sixth-year senior J.T. Adenrele, an undersized but aggressive forward who should be the team’s primary rebounder.
Freshman to watch: PG Eyassu Worku, UC Irvine
Worku is a pure point guard who should be able to make an impact immediately for the Anteaters. The 6-foot-2 California native possesses just about every trait a coach wants in his point guard, with a high basketball IQ, great handles and a smooth jump shot.
Guards Alex Young, Aaron Wright and Dominique Dunning have all moved on, giving Worku a real opportunity to run the show from Day 1.
Look for him to establish chemistry early on with Nelson, a traditional “chucker” who has no qualms about letting shots fly. If he is able to penetrate the defense and kick it back out to Nelson, he could see that connection lead to some nice assist numbers.