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Ready or not, it’s tourney time

The Big West Conference Championship Tournament will be taking the phrase “with little to no fanfare” to an entirely different level this week.

Conference officials announced on Tuesday that fans and non-essential personnel will not be allowed into the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., to view any games this week. The historic move was described as a “precaution for preventing the spread of COVID-19 virus.”

Fan presence and feelings aside, the games will go on. The action begins on Thursday with four quarterfinal games.

Here is a look at the four matchups (times are Pacific Time):

Quarterfinal 1, 12:00 p.m.
No. 2 CSUN (15-17 overall, 10-6 Big West) vs. No. 7 Cal State Fullerton (11-20 overall, 6-10 Big West)

The Matadors closed the regular season with four consecutive victories to take over the No. 2 seed. The Titans closed the regular season by losing four of their last five games. However, that one win – over Long Beach State, got them seeded at No. 7 instead of No. 8.

CSUN features the two most dynamic offensive players in the conference in 6-7 sophomore forward Lamine Diane and 5-8 junior guard Terrell Gomez. Diane, the two-time conference player of the year, is averaging league-bests of 25.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Adding to his dominance, he contributes 2.8 assists, 2.0 blocked shots and 1.7 steals per game. Gomez, a two-time First Team All-Big West selection, is averaging 19.8 points per game. He leads the Big West and ranks fifth in the nation with 111 3-pointers, and ranks first in the nation for free throw percentage at .948.

Fullerton can counter with several scoring options of its own. Senior forward Jackson Rowe (15.6 points, 7.3 rebounds per game) and senior guard Brandon Kamga (15.5 points, 4.4 rebounds) were Second Team All-Big West selections. Senior point guard Austen Awosika is averaging 13.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Sophomore guard Wayne Arnold is averaging 8.8 points per game and leads the team with 53 3-pointers.

The teams split the regular-season series, with each team winning at home.

Does experience matter? Of the eight players in CSUN’s normal rotation, two are juniors, five are sophomores, and one is a freshman. Of the eight players in Fullerton’s normal rotation, four are seniors, one is a junior, one is a sophomore and two are freshmen.

Quarterfinal 2, 2:30 p.m.
No. 3 UC Santa Barbara (21-10 overall, 10-6 Big West) vs. No. 6 UC Riverside (17-15 overall, 7-9 Big West)

The Gauchos started the Big West regular season with a 2-4 record, including two losses to CSUN. Those losses cost UCSB the No. 2 seed, but the Gauchos still managed to finish strong. The Highlanders are one win away from setting a new school record for most victories in a season since becoming a NCAA Division I program in 2001.

UCSB enters the tournament with a question mark, as star guard Max Heidegger sat out the last two games of the regular season with an ankle injury. He still managed to earn First Team All-Big West Conference honors, and is averaging 16.0 points and 3.2 assists per game.

The Gauchos have other offensive weapons, led by 6-9 sophomore forward Amadou Sow, who is averaging 14.1 points and 7.0 rebounds per game and was a Second Team All-Big West selection. Junior guard JaQuori McLaughlin is averaging 13.4 points, 4.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. Senior forward Matt Freeman is contributing 9.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, and leads the team with 49 3-pointers.

The Highlanders relied on two general aspects during the regular season – defense and 3-point shooting. They led the Big West in points allowed (60.6 per game), although they also ranked last in points scored (64.3 per game). Arinze Chidom, a 6-9 junior forward, is the only UCR player averaging double-figure points at 12.2 per game. However, the Highlanders have multiple shooting threats, and six different players made at least 20 3-pointers this season. They also have 7-1 sophomore center Callum McRae, who is averaging 9.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.

UCSB swept the regular-season series, although both games were close (final scores of 65-63 and 65-60).

For what it’s worth, UCR’s last win in a Big West Conference tournament game was in 2011. The Highlanders are 0-7 in tournament games since 2012.

Quarterfinal 3, 6:00 p.m.
No. 1 UC Irvine (21-11 overall, 13-3 Big West) vs. No. 8 Long Beach State (11-21 overall, 6-10 Big West)

The Anteaters have become the benchmark for the Big West. UCI has advanced to the championship game of the Big West Tournament five times in the last seven years, including championship wins in 2015 and 2019.

What’s more, the Anteaters are 31-4 against Big West teams since the start of the 2018-19 season. It is interesting to note, however, that Long Beach State is the only conference team to own two wins over UCI in the last two seasons. The 49ers upset the Anteaters, 63-56, on January 22, but then posted a 4-7 record in their final 11 games of the regular season to drop to the No. 8 seed.

UCI used a team approach this season, with nine players sharing the bulk of the minutes and points. Collin Welp, a 6-9 junior forward, leads the team in scoring at 13.0 points per game, and is also grabbing 5.9 rebounds per game, but he is considered a “sixth man,” averaging only 23.3 minutes per game. Welp and teammate Evan Leonard were selected to the First Team All-Big West Conference. Leonard, a 6-1 senior guard, is averaging 12.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.

Eyassu Worku, a 6-2 senior guard, is averaging 12.3 points and 4.0 assists per game, and is tied with Leonard for the team lead in 3-pointers (49 each). Senior forward Tommy Rutherford is averaging 10.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, and leads the Big West with a .685 field goal percentage.

The Beach was inconsistent this season, partly due to its youth. The 49ers normally start two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, and the top two reserves are juniors. Their leading scorer is Chance Hunter, a 6-6 guard averaging 13.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game.

The 49ers also have the Big West Defensive Player of the Year in 6-9 freshman Joshua Morgan. He is averaging 8.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, and leads the Big West with 80 blocked shots (no other player in the league had more than 45). Morgan had more blocked shots by himself than four other Big West teams.

It is worth noting that the Big West Conference Championship Tournament has been held every year since 1976. In those 44 previous years, the No. 1 seed has been upset in the quarterfinal round only twice, and the last time it happened was 1995.

Quarterfinal 4, 8:30 p.m.
No. 4 Hawai’i (17-13 overall, 8-8 Big West) vs. No. 5 UC Davis (14-18 overall, 8-8 Big West)

This will be the third chapter of a trilogy that has already created two memorable games. The Rainbow Warriors beat the Aggies twice during the regular season, both times on 3-point shots in the closing seconds. Both times, Hawai’i rallied from significant deficits in the second half – 13 points down in the final five minutes at Davis, Calif., and nine points down in the final five minutes in Honolulu.

UCD was in second place just three weeks ago, but closed the season with three losses in its final four games. The Aggies are a guard-oriented team that likes to shoot 3-pointers.

Senior guard Joe Mooney leads the team in scoring at 13.1 points per game, and ranks second on the team with 66 3-pointers. He has been playing a reserve role late in the season, but still ranks third on the team with 25.9 minutes per game.

Ezra Manjon, a 5-11 guard, won the Big West Conference Freshman of the Year award. He is averaging 12.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. In the two previous games against Hawai’i, he averaged 20.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game.

Senior guard Stefan Gonzalez is averaging 10.5 points per game, and ranks third in the Big West with 83 3-pointers. He also ranks among the national leaders for 3-point percentage at .477. UCD’s main post player is Matt Neufeld, a 6-11 senior who is contributing 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. The team’s leading rebounder is 6-4 freshman guard Elijah Pepper, who is averaging 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

The Warriors will counter with their own variety of options, led by senior guard Eddie Stansberry. He is averaging 15.9 points per game, and ranks second in the Big West with 90 3-pointers. He was a First Team All-Big West Conference selection, and also hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the first meeting with UCD this season.

Samuta Avea, a 6-6 junior forward, is averaging 10.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. He ranks second on the team with 39 3-pointers, including the game-winner in the second game against UCD this season. Junior point guard Drew Buggs leads the conference in assists at 5.4 per game, and is also contributing 9.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

Senior forward Zigmars Raimo, who was named the conference’s Best Hustle co-Player of the year, is averaging 9.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Freshman guard Justin Webster is averaging 8.8 points per game and ranks third on the team with 38 3-pointers.

It is interesting to note that this is Hawai’i’s eighth season in the Big West, and the Rainbow Warriors have been seeded into the 4 vs. 5 quarterfinal in six of those eight years. Hawai’i is 1-4 in previous years as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed.

3 Comments

  1. I’ve been a UH basketball fan since the 90’s, and usually every year I feel like UH has a chance to win the conference tourney. This year, however, is probably the most daunting that I can remember. Sure, it’s been an exciting season. I love this team, their heart, their determination. Their pure grit, never giving up. They’re a talented bunch, but I have the lowest expectation for this tourney, probably than I ever had. They’re a very hot/cold team. Eddie is fearless but streaky. Avea still coming back from injury. Raimo plays with 110% passion but that’s not always the best thing. Buggs be dropping dimes then suddenly have a couple of head scratching moments. Webster has an exciting, promising future but currently still struggles w/freshman moments. I’m also optimistic for Hemsley and Da Silva but I don’t think they’re quite ready for the big stage just yet.

    This team has loads of talent but lacks consistency, which is key when you’re trying to win 3 games in 3 days. Maybe the lack of a ‘home crowd’ will help, but who knows. Hopefully they at least make it interesting! Let’s GO BOWS!

  2. @LetsGoBows, Couldn’t have said it better myself. Can’t wait for tomorrow!

  3. Yep no consistency for sure. But anything can happen in tournaments. This team has the potential, they just need to be on their A game. No room for dumb turnovers. If they take care of the ball and play solid D I feel we can definitely beat uc Davis.

    Go Bows!!

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