The UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball teams have been on a collision course since the two teams first met in late December. Many expect they will meet again in the Big West Tournament title game Saturday night in Las Vegas with the winner getting the conference’s lone berth in the 68-team NCAA Tournament.
In December, UC Irvine (16-8 overall, 10-4 Big West) hosted the Gauchos and won 75-56 and 73-69. The sweep sparked the Anteaters to a quick 5-0 start in league play. UCSB, meanwhile, ran off a program-record 13 consecutive wins after meeting the Anteaters and finished the season 19-4 overall, the best winning percentage in school history, and a program-record 13-3 in league play.
The 10-team, five-day Big West tourney starts with a pair of first-round games on Tuesday. No. 8 seed Cal State Northridge (9-12, 5-9) faces No. 9 Long Beach State (5-11, 4-8) at 3 p.m. and No. 7 Cal State Fullerton (6-9, 5-7) squares off with No. 10 Cal Poly (3-19, 1-15) at 6 p.m.
Second-seeded UCI’s first game is Thursday at 5 p.m. against the Fullerton-Poly winner. Top-seeded UCSB will meet the CSUN-Long Beach winner on Thursday at 11 a.m., while third-seeded UC Riverside (13-7, 8-4) meets No. 6 Hawaii (8 p.m.) and No. 4 UC Davis meets No. 5 Cal State Bakersfield (2 p.m.) in Thursday’s other quarterfinals.
UCSB’s regular-season title is its first outright crown since 2003 and its first since sharing the 2010 title. For years a perennial force in the conference, that role was conceded to UCI over the past decade.
The Anteaters finished 10-4 in league play, a good record but not as good as recent seasons. Coach Russ Turner’s team had won five of the last seven regular-season titles and has played for the postseason title five times in eight years, with last season’s tourney canceled because of the pandemic.
“I like where we are,” Turner said. “The performance this season hasn’t been as consistent as I like, but that’s understandable with such a young team. We’ve beaten every team in the conference we’ve played, so we’re pretty confident.”
UCI has just two upperclassmen in senior center Brad Greene (9.6 points, 7.7 rebounds per game, 44 blocked shots), who was named the Big West Defensive Player of the Year on Monday, and junior forward Collin Welp (14.8, 7.7), who was a first-team all-conference selection.
The rest of the roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores. The entire backcourt rotation has been manned mostly by players in their first season of college basketball. Dawson Baker, a former standout at Capistrano Valley High, was named Big West Freshman of the Year (10.6 points) and DJ Davis (Riverside Poly) has improved as the season progressed, scoring nine points or more in five of his last eight games.
“There’s nothing about back-to-back games that helps a young team,” Turner said of the schedule change of playing Friday-Saturday two-game series in light of pandemic protocols. “We have a bunch of guys who are first-year players. It eliminates time to practice and learn between games.”
The upside is that Greene and Welp are veteran players who have had success in the conference’s three games/three days tourney format. The 2019 team won the title and then advanced to the NCAAs, where they upset Kansas State to win the school’s first-ever tourney game.
UCSB started preparing for this moment four seasons ago. After a 6-22 record in Bob Williams’ last season, Coach Joe Pasternack arrived and put the program’s focus on building via transfers.
Five of their six standouts came from other schools, including Big West Player of the Year JaQuori McLaughlin (15.6 ppg, 5.4 assists per game). He came via Oregon State. Others include graduate transfer senior Brandon Cyrus (DePaul), junior Miles Norris (Oregon), Sixth Man of the Year Ajare Sanni (Pacific) and senior Devearl Ramsey (Nevada).
Junior forward Amadou Sow (13 ppg, 7.5 rpg), who was a first-team honoree, came straight from high school.
“It doesn’t work to get any transfer, it has to be the right transfer with the right character,” Pasternack said. “We were fortunate to get guys who wanted a second chance in a good program.”
Pasternack said the team wasn’t ready for a team like UCI that early in the season, particularly on the road.
“I think UC Irvine had more prep time and had played a better schedule,” he said. “But from then on, we improved to where we’re the No. 2 team in defense and rebounding.”
UC Riverside enters the tourney as a serious contender, with wins this season against each of the two top seeds and a number of program milestones – the third winning season since the Highlanders joined the Big West and Division I; the 8-4 record the first winning conference season; and the No. 3 seed the school’s highest. The Highlanders are 2-11 all-time in Big West tourney play, both wins against Cal Poly.
UCR coach Mike Magpayo looks at UCI’s growth this decade as a formula the Highlanders can try to follow.
“We all come from the same coaching tree, and we all put the program together brick by brick,” he said.
The Highlanders have made great use of a connection to players from Australia and New Zealand by former coach David Patrick and have also tapped the transfer pipeline.
Senior Jock Perry (11.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is an Aussie transfer from St. Mary’s and junior Flynn Cameron (9.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg) is from New Zealand and played at DePaul. Senior Arinze Chidom (13.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) is a transfer from Washington State. Zyon Pullin (12.5 ppg, 5 rpg) is homegrown from Northern California.
“The inside joke is that we have more players from Down Under than we do Americans,” Magpayo said.
Three teams from the region play in first-round games on Tuesday looking for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Cal State Fullerton was hard hit by the pandemic and consistency has been a factor. Coach Dedrique Taylor said he will likely have seven or eight players available because of injuries.
“There are no magic words, we’ll rely on what we have asked all year, play hard and play together,” he said.
CSUN will start three freshmen and TJ Starks, the conference leader in scoring (21.6 ppg).
“We’ve gotten better as the year has gone on,” CSUN coach Mark Gottfried said. “The one trait we have is that when we play well, players other than TJ score.”
Long Beach State has had three pandemic pauses that Coach Dan Monson said led to almost 60 days in quarantine. Injuries and opt-outs affected the team early and second-leading scorer Michael Carter III was dismissed from the program before Saturday’s regular-season finale.
LBSU has lost four straight and has dropped six league games by 15 total points (three of them in overtime).
“We’re green,” Monson said. “We’re still figuring things out. We’ve had different players starting every week.”
2021 BIG WEST TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
Michelob ULTRA Arena, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas (all times PT)
No. 8 Cal State Northridge vs. No. 9 Long Beach State – 3 p.m. (ESPN3)
No. 7 Cal State Fullerton vs. No. 10 Cal Poly (SLO) – 6 p.m. (ESPN3)
No. 1 UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 8/No. 9 winner – 11 a.m. (ESPN3)
No. 4 UC Davis vs. No. 5 Cal State Bakersfield – 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
No. 2 UC Irvine vs. No. 7/No. 10 winner – 5 p.m. (ESPN3)
No. 3 UC Riverside vs. No. 6 Hawaii – 8 p.m. (ESPN3)
Semifinal No. 1 – 6 p.m. (ESPN3)
Semifinal No. 2 – 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Championship Game – 8:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
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