Big West Top 10 Countdown: No. 8

We're still a few months away before the games actually begin but Big West fan J. Kline gives us his early predictions of what's in store for the 2003-04 basketball season.

#8 UC Riverside
Predicted Record: 8-10

Instant Success: Just add Vili Morton? It's not that simple. Other than Nate "The Great" Carter and sharp-shooting Ted Bell, the Highlander roster needed upgrades at every position. Adding 4 new players, plus Morton, John Masi has, for the first time, a team that resembles a complete D-1 squad. UC Riverside has enough talent to be very competitive on a nightly basis, but inexperience and meager depth will keep them just under the hump this year.

Morton and Carter will be the best one-two punch in the Big West Conference. Defensive POY in 2001-02, Morton led the league in blocks, rebounds, and (nearly) FG%, as a true sophomore. Now he's back, stronger than before, after redshirting in 2002-03. This could be a monster year for Mr. Morton. And just how good is Nate Carter? It's rare that a true frosh is both so productive and efficient, especially when he's the defense's main target. At the SF position, Carter provided 25% of UCR's points, 19% of offensive rebs, and (most impressive) 29% of FT attempts. Together, Morton and Carter will have a wealth of put-backs and FT attempts, plus convert a high FG%.

Ted Bell is a dangerous shooter (tied for league-best 43% 3-pters) who became the second offensive option. This year he'll be the third option. Bell's back-up may be Rickey Porter, who had a year to forget due to injury and academic trouble. Or it could be true frosh Larry Cunningham, but with a glut of upper-classmen guards, bet on LC to RS. At PG, Kevin Butler started and played most of the minutes, but was increasingly pressured by back-up Mark Peters. Neither player is the answer, which is why Masi has already declared that JC transfer Brett Ost will compete for the position. "Neo" Ost may be the savior for a team that tied LB for worst assist/to ratio.

2003-04 Big West Projections
No. 10 Long Beach State
No. 9 Cal State Northridge
No. 8 UC Riverside

The front-court is very thin beyond Morton and Carter. Rebounding PF Aaron Hands is the one departing player that will be missed. JC transfer David Jobe is a banger with a rep for drawing charges. The other JC transfer, Matt Benson, is a wing that will probably back-up Carter. Center Klaus Schille is a project that may not contribute much. And there's Jeff Mailhot, who might contribute if healthy, but he's suffered through a discouraging history of knee injuries.

With two star players, this will be a fun team that can compete with anybody. They will be the most improved team in a competitive conference.