I’m at the Honda Center for all three days this year, and will be updating as necessary between Big West and RushtheCourt responsibilities. For now, below is the season wrap-up and tournament preview I wrote for RTC. Here’s the link for the original posting of the story and the rest of my write-ups for them.
By and large, the Big West wound up largely like the preseason prognosticators predicted. Long Beach State dominated with their senior-laden team, winning 15 straight in conference play before Cal State Fullerton tripped them up. CSF was probably the biggest surprise and also most improved over the season, as coach Bob Burton pulled together his team of transfers and formed an offensive powerhouse. UCSB once again had a slightly disappointing conference season, while UC Irvine did better than predicted, tying for sixth when they were picked last overall. UC Riverside peaked early, upsetting a few teams early in the season, threatening to break into the top half of the conference. However, they faded down the stretch, and finished tied for sixth, about where they were picked. UC Davis, picked to finish seventh, had an abysmal season that was only slightly salvaged by a late season surge where they managed to upset both Pacific and CSF.
Ultimately, the top four and bottom five divide was very evident for the 2011-12 season. It will be one of the top four: Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, UCSB or Cal Poly, who will have a realistic chance at going dancing.
Co-Players Of The Year – Larry Anderson & Casper Ware: So technically there’s only supposed to be one POY, but this one was too hard to choose. Ware is still the go-to player on the best team in the conference, a guy that seemingly steps up in crunch time game after game. At the same time, his 16.9 PPG and 3.2 APG are both slight dips from last year’s numbers, when he also won POY. Picking up the slack was fellow 49er senior Anderson, who won defensive player of the year for good reason. When he was injured against Cal State Fullerton in the season finale, Titans guard DJ Seeley went off, carrying CSF to victory. Without either Anderson or Ware, I don’t think the 49ers go 15-1. Really, the same case could be made for TJ Robinson. It’s been a three-headed beast all year.
Coach of the Year: Dan Monson: Monson built and coached the 49er team that dominated the conference, and wins his second straight COY award.
All-Conference First Team:
- F Larry Anderson: Solid both on defense and on offense, Anderson locked down opposing team’s best offensive guard while shooting 49 percent from the field himself. He also improved his three-point shooting percentage from below 30 percent the last two years to 42 percent this year.
- F TJ Robinson: The big man who handled all the dirty work down low for Long Beach State, Robinson averaged a double-double for the third straight year. He is also now the all-time leading rebounder in Big West Conference history.
- G Casper Ware: 28 points against Pittsburgh. 26 against San Diego State. 29 versus North Carolina. 38 at Pacific. Ware made his name known around the country this year as the heart and soul of Long Beach State basketball.
- G: DJ Seeley: The former Cal Bear has definitely found a home in the Big West. Averaging 17 points per game, Seeley showed off a fine overall offensive game. Look out when Seeley is especially hot behind the three-point line. He shot 44.4 percent on the year behind the arc, including a perfect 10-10 in two games against cross-town rival UC Irvine.
- G Orlando Johnson: A worthy POY candidate due to how much defenses have to plan and focus on him in their game plan, Johnson still averaged 20 points on 45.5 percent shooting from the field. He is also the biggest NBA prospect the Big West has had in some time.
Game of the Year
It’s hard to say but, I have to go with Long Beach State’s loss to Cal State Fullerton, which was the final game in the regular season for both teams. After a poor offensive shooting start for both teams, the 49ers built up a seven point lead that Fullerton was able to recover from. In a game that featured 13 lead changes and an uncharacteristically cold Casper Ware, it was a knee injury for Larry Anderson that finally swung the momentum to Fullerton’s side for good. DJ Seeley caught fire toward the end of the game, scoring 27 points on 5-6 shooting from three-point land.
This game captured the best elements of the Big West. An undefeated Long Beach State team playing against an undefeated-in-conference-at-home CSF team with momentum going into the tourney on the line. CSF beating the best team in conference right after losing to the worst team, UC Davis. Freshman guard Mike Caffey of Long Beach State scoring 20 points in a sign of the future for the 49ers, and of course, CSF fans rushing the court.
- Long Beach State (22-8, 15-1) – A 15-1 conference season is nothing to be upset about, but the fact of the matter is that the 49ers’ loss to CSF effectively eliminated any chance Long Beach State had at an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. It’s impossible to deny how good this 49er team is capable of playing at times, or that they performed very respectably against a gamut of nationally ranked powerhouses, but unfortunately they seemed to come up just short in all of the big games that really mattered. Now that Larry Anderson is doubtful for the tournament and the 49er bench will be counted on more than they ever were during the season, a bid to the NCAA Tournament is at its most dubious point for the 49ers. If they do win the Big West Tournament, look for a possible 12 seed, the best seeding the Big West will have received since the 2007 49ers also earned a 12 seed. Once in the tournament and with Anderson back in the fold, Long Beach State has a chance to be a Cinderella, especially if they face a few young teams short on experience.
- Cal State Fullerton (21-8, 12-4) – The Titans showed what they are capable of when they upset Long Beach State on Senior Night at Titan Gym, ruining Long Beach’s perfect conference season. On the other hand, CSF showed an embarrassing ability to play down to their competition in a loss to lowly UC Davis. That being said, I could see the Titans going all the way to the Big Dance or losing in the first round and winding up in the CIT or CBI. All told, Coach Bob Burton did a good job pulling things together late in the season for this group – even if they never played any tough non-conference opponents. If CSF gets upset early, it’ll be all too symbolic of their inconsistent play all season long.
- UC Santa Barbara (18-9, 12-4) – With all the talk about Long Beach State and CSF, UCSB has somehow managed to avoid the “favorite” label despite being two-time defending champs of the Big West Tournament. Coach Bob Williams has an experienced team that is built for the three-games-in-three-days tournament. They ended the regular season on a strong note, winning three straight, including an emphatic 37-point smashing of UC Davis. Before you dismiss the legitimacy of the Aggies, remember that they were just coming off of a win against CSF. It’s a Wild West tournament and anything can happen; Orlando Johnson, James Nunnally and Jaime Serna would like nothing better than a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, an appearance in the CBI or CIT is possible. If all goes to crap this weekend, UCSB can blame it on the season-long lack of an effective point guard to facilitate the offense.
- Cal Poly (17-14, 8-8) – After an alarming mid-season slump that carried on a little too long, the Mustangs have seemingly righted the ship in March, beating both UC Davis and Pacific in convincing fashion to end the season. Look for Coach Joe Callero to go back to what has worked for the Mustangs—a grind-it-out, slow-it-down pace that keeps the Mustangs in most every game. Although I can see the Mustangs pulling out a win or two in the Tournament, they simply don’t have enough offensive firepower to win the whole thing. This has been the problem since day one.
- UC Riverside (14-16, 7-9) – The emergence of Phil Martin and the addition of Robert Smith breathed life into this team when things looked grim, but ultimately a combination of bad luck and injuries caused the Highlanders to slide into Big West irrelevance. Losing eight of their last 11 Big West games means that any sort of run in the Big West Tournament would be a remarkable change of fortune. Next year’s team needs a more complete team effort night in and night out, as well as a few more complimentary players capable of making an impact every now and then.
- Pacific (11-18, 6-10) – It appears that the magic pixie dust oach Bob Thomason sprinkled on his Tigers team has just about worn off. The less talented but gritty Tigers ended the season on a three-game free fall, with the worst loss coming in a humiliating 67-38 loss to Cal Poly. With so many defections the previous year, Thomason did his best to field a competitive team, but an offense-by-committee approach with no clear go-to scorer or guy who could put the team on his back can only go so far.
- UC Irvine (11-19, 6-10) – UCI put up a good fight until the end in just about every game they played, but the season will ultimately go down as a forgettable young team building experience for the future. UCI never did get down playing two strong halves consistently, and they didn’t have the horses to come back from large deficits. Even worse, the Anteaters appeared to lose their defensive identity and intensity as the season wore on. Next year, with no seniors leaving and a couple more big men bolstering the squad, fans will be expecting a much better result.
- Cal State Northridge (7-21, 3-13) – The Matadors finished their season on a disappointing four game slide that included a two-point loss against UCR and an OT loss at UC Irvine where a last second tip-in attempt by the Matadors very nearly fell in instead of out. Coach Bobby Braswell deserves credit for keeping his team in battle-mode all season long, but my guess is that he is relieved to finally be able to look toward next season. Expect a big improvement from CSN next year, when their postseason ban is lifted and their young squad benefits from a year under everyone’s belt.
- UC Davis (5-25, 3-13) – Jim Les showed his coaching chops late in the season when he rallied an abysmal Aggies team into a few late season conference wins. The latest and greatest of these was a 78-75 shocking upset over Cal State Fullerton. Although the Aggies were subsequently crushed twice to end the season, their late season improvement proves that there is hope in years to come. Sophomores Tyler Les and Josh Ritchart are a decent start, and a slew of transfers figure to aid Davis’ chances next year.