2011-12 top scorer: Phil Martin
(UC Riverside), 19.5 ppg
Top returning rebounder: T.J. Robinson (Long Beach State), 10.8 rpg
2013 Tournament: March 14-16 - Anaheim, Calif.
Casper Ware, Larry Anderson, T.J. Robinson are all gone from Long Beach State. That's a trio of first-team all-league guys that graduated from a program that went 29-3 in conference play over the past two seasons. That should open up the league race, right?
Probably, but 49ers coach Dan Monson could make a legitimate case that this year's group -- which is built around holdovers James Ennis and Mike Caffey and a few transfers -- could be more talented than the one that went to the NCAA tournament last season. Monson admits chemistry will be critical, but he's added Dan Jennings (West Virginia), Tony Freeland (DePaul) and Keala King (Arizona State) -- and that means Long Beach remains the team to beat in the Big West.
Cal State Fullerton finished second in the league last season and the Titans bring back two of the elite players in Player of the Year candidate D.J. Seeley and Kwame Vaughn. Seeley, a transfer from Cal, averaged 17.3 points and 5.5 boards and was also among the league leaders in field goal percentage, steals and 3-point FG percentage. The question mark at Cal State Fullerton is on the bench, where interim coach Andy Newman replaces Bob Burton -- who was forced out this past offseason.
Russell Turner has done a nice job at UC Irvine and while the Anteaters may not challenge for the league crown yet, they should be a lock to finish in the top half of the conference. Turner didn't have a single senior on his roster a year ago and he brings back all five starters -- including seniors Michael Wilder and Daman Starring. It'll be interesting to see how Pacific fares in its final season in the Big West -- and also Bob Thomason's finale before retirement. The Tigers, who will move to the West Coast Conference in 2013-14, also return all five starters. Cal Poly has made strides since Joe Callero took over, but the Mustangs lost three starters and will need junior Chris Eversley to become an all-league player.
Hawaii makes its debut in the league after coming from the WAC, and the Rainbows have a stud in senior Vander Joaquim. UC Santa Barbara likely will take a dip after losing stud Orlando Johnson, and UC Riverside should take some lumps with a roster that includes six freshmen and two sophomores. UC Davis could make a jump with junior Josh Ritchart, but Jim Les needs a healthy Ryan Sypkens -- who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. Cal State Northridge is back eligible for the postseason after being banned last year due to low academic scores, but Bobby Braswell's squad is still a year or two away from being a factor in the league race again.
While it's a new cast at the Pyramid, Long Beach State is still the cream of the crop -- and the team to beat -- in the Big West.
Blue highlight denotes preseason player of the year
Numbers to know
25: How many seasons Pacific coach Bob Thomason has been at the helm. He became the league's all-time wininingest coach last season with 414 career victories.
22: Long Beach State has won 22 consecutive games at The Pyramid. The 49ers were 12-0 last season at home and hasn't lost at the Pyramid since Nov. 27, 2010 to Loyola Marymount.
36: Former UC Santa Barbara star Orlando Johnson was selected 36th overall in June's NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers.
"I'm not sold on Long Beach. Remember, the team that Dan Monson won with had chemistry. They developed it. This group has just been thrown together -- and I'm not sure he can manage these guys. The transfers all had problems and while it could work out on their second stops, I'm skeptical. I think someone else is going to win the league." - Anonymous Big West coach