Men’s Basketball Conference Preview

The 2005-2006 Men’s Basketball schedule is about to begin. A preview of the Big West Conference, in which UC Irvine competes, offers a glance at what should be a wide open race for the conference championship.

Preseason media poll: predicted finish 6th
The selection of senior guards Ross Schraeder and Aaron Fitzgerald to the 2005-2006 Preseason All-Conference Team should bode well for the Anteaters, which finished 5th in the Big West with a 16-13 record overall, losing in the quarterfinals of last year’s Big West Tournament to Cal State Northridge after defeating Idaho in the first round. Schraeder’s .439 three-point perecentage was second in the Big West last year and 11th in the country. Fitzgerald, whose 5.24 assists per game led the league, will become even more important with the absence of senior guard/forward Jeff Gloger. Gloger’s torn ACL in his right knee leaves him questionable for the season. The Anteaters expect more contribution from sophomore forward Darren Fells this year. Last season, Fells started 16 games and had an average of 5.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. UCI aims to improve upon their fifth-place finish with better rebounding and sounder defense, but this might be difficult given UCI’s apparent lack of big men.

Preseason media poll: 1st
Fullerton’s third-place finish in the Big West should be surpassed this season with the return of several key players from the 2004-2005 squad. Their 21-11 overall record was enough to garner a spot in the National Invitation Tournament, in which they reached the second round before losing to Georgetown. Senior forward Jamaal Brown and senior guard Jermaine Harper should be among this year’s team leaders. Brown’s 7.6 rebounds per game and .496 field goal percentage were tops on the team. Even more promising is the return of junior guard Bobby Brown. He led the team in scoring average, assists per game, steals per game and free throw percentage. If he duplicates those numbers again this year, he could be the leading candidate for Big West Player of the Year.

Preseason media poll: 2nd
Pacific went undefeated in Big West play last season, were ranked in the Top-25 Division 1 teams and went on to the NCAA Tournament after finishing with a spectacular overall record of 27-4. They reached the second round of the tournament but lost to No.1 seeded Washington. However, many key players from last year’s squad are gone, leaving only one returning starter. Senior forward Christian Maraker averaged 13.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and should contend for Big West Player of the Year honors. He led the team in virtually all categories. The Tigers boast nine new faces, which includes the addition of redshirt freshman forward Anthony Brown. Expectations remain high for Pacific, despite having a relatively inexperienced team this year. If they remain healthy throughout the season, they should be one of the top contenders for the Big West title.

Preseason media poll: tied for 3rd
2004-05 saw Cal State Northridge produce a winning season, going 18-13 overall and finishing in a third-place tie with Cal State Fullerton in the Big West. They suffer the loss of Ian Boylan, an All-Big West First Team selection who was fifth in the league in scoring. However, two standout sophomores who were selected to the Big West All-Freshman Team last year return for the Matadors. Guard Jonathan Heard averaged 8.4 points per game, while forward Calvin Chitwood led the team with a .529 field goal percentage. In the previous two years, the Matadors were knocked from the conference tournament with narrow losses to Pacific. Despite these losses, the Matadors will still do well. One of the new faces on the squad is junior guard and former UC Irvine standout Mike Efevberha, who brings with him 11.1 points per game. He returns to UCI as a Matador on Friday, Jan. 13.

Preaseason media poll: tied 3rd
Last year’s losing season was Santa Barbara’s first in several years, after winning the Big West Conference tourney and playing in the NCAA tournament three years ago. The injury-riddled Gauchos had an 11-18 record overall, leaving them tied for sixth in the Big West. Despite the disappointing season, they could be serious contenders for the Big West title this year, given that they remain healthy. Senior Josh Davis should once again be a top scoring option for Santa Barbara. Davis averaged 10.1 points per game and racked up 42 steals. The Gauchos also hope to keep senior forward Cameron Goettche injury-free. In 18 games, he averaged 7.3 points and 6.6 rebounds. Santa Barbara expects more consistency from sophomore guard Alex Harris, a selection to the Big West All-Freshman Team last year.

Preseason media poll: 5th
The 49ers hope to have a winning season for the first time in five years. They won seven of their final eight regular season games last year to finish with a 10-20 overall record. This year’s squad teems with experience, with five of its top seven scorers returning. Senior guard Jibril Hodges led Long Beach with 12.7 points per game, whose excellent shooting will likely draw double teams and leave other players open. Hodges is followed by senior forward Shawn Hawkins, who averaged 11.2 points. Junior center Onye Ibekwe is back, along with his team-leading 6.3 rebounds per game. Head Coach Larry Reynolds brings in a recruiting class that has junior college transfers, such as junior guard Kejuan Johnson, who should provide some more depth to Long Beach State.

Preseason media poll: 7th
Last season marked the end of John Masi’s 26-year tenure as UC Riverside’s Men’s Basketball head coach. Replacing him is David Spencer, who inherits a team that had a poor outing last season, finishing with an record of 9-19. Spencer hopes the combination of a new up-tempo style and a stiffening defense reminiscent of LMU’s teams from decades past will produce more scoring from one of the smaller teams in the Big West. Sophomore guard Larry Cunningham could prove to be the Highlanders’ biggest offensive threat this season. Last year, he averaged 10.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.

Preseason media poll: 8th
Last season, the Mustangs finished last in the Big West with a 5-22 overall record. They hope to improve that this year with the help of sophomore guard Dawin Whiten, who was selected to the Big West All-Freshman Team. Whiten averaged 11.4 points per game last season, including a career-high 29 points in one game.
Junior forward Joe Henry has to step up and provide rebounding for the Mustangs, whose minus three average rebounding margin last season was second-to-last in the conference. Cal Poly hopes that junior guard/forward Derek Stockalper will take on a leadership role on a squad which has 11 new faces. Gabe Stephenson, a senior forward transfer from Cornell, should also give the Mustangs some much-needed offense.