#4 Cal State Fullerton
Predicted Record: 10-8
When Cal State Fullerton limped into conference play last season, they were using an 8-man rotation. Of the eight players, six never donned a Titan jersey prior to 2002 and one was a former walk-on. With no player taller than 6'7" they managed to go 4-4 through the toughest stretch of their schedule, and in the process tied an NCAA record for consecutive OT wins. Not bad for what amounted to a pick-up team. But, when you're a pick-up team, it helps to have a playground legend. Star SG Ralphy Holmes leads CSF, which returns almost all key players. The biggest change is their new coach, Bob Burton, who inherits enough talent to post a winning record, as long as players stay healthy and eligible.
Holmes (like Varnie Dennis) was POY material, but only made 1st team. He was the leading scorer in BWC games, his 6 rpg led all SG, and he accounted for a heavy portion of CSF's offense during Pape Sow's suspension. He also played with an injured right shoulder. If the game comes down to a final shot, Holmes is the one you want to take it. His backcourt mate is PG Zakee Smith, a good ball-handler and offensive creator. Smith led the BWC in assists per game. Hes also a terrible shooter; dead last among all BWC regulars in points per game. Holmes and Smith are old friends. Yes, they're friends and (yes) they're old. Smith, a senior, will be 23 1/2 by BWC play; Holmes, a "junior," will be 24 1/2 by BWC play.
Smith's lack of shooting is offset by the league's best scoring post-up threat, senior C Pape Sow. Sow made 51% FG, plus had 6.4 FT att/game (league best). Sow corralled 8.8 rpg (also league best, but DNQ, only 18 games played). Sow (Senegalese national) has improved offensively at CSF, but not defensively. Despite tremendous size and athleticism, he's been one of the worst defensive centers in the conference (aside from rebounding). His back-up will likely be his cousin, Babacar Camara, with size similar to Sow, but not much else, making him a minor role player.
Senior SF Anthony Bolton is a good perimeter player and ball-handler, but not much of a rebounder. His rail-thin body and long arms make for an effective zone defender, though. He and senior guard, Derrick Andrew, were two unheralded reasons for CSF's success during their short-handed stint. Andrew is a good all-around player, and the main reserve guard, backing up both Holmes and Smith. The aggregate perimeter shooting ability of Andrew, Bolton, and Holmes should suffice to take some pressure off Sow. But, had Fedi Holm-Hadulla not left the team (knee problem), 3-pt shooting would have been a CSF strength, rather than merely sufficient.
Senior PF Bron Groomes is a decent role-player who should benefit from only having to play 4, with Sow and Camara at 5. New JC transfers Yaphett King and Hardy Asprilla should get some back-up duty at 3 and 4 (I have a hunch King will be a good find for CSF). At guard, there are several new faces, including JC scorer David Warsaw and freshmen Bobby Brown and walk-on Jason Pettaway. With such an overloaded roster (17 players) there are bound to be some cuts, some redshirts, and many players vying for garbage minutes.
The main group is set, and (you may have noticed) is comprised entirely of seniors, except Holmes, whos the eldest anyway. They are all 22+, except Andrew who'll be 21 come Nov. The age factor will be a plus, as will the experience gained from playing together for one season. They still have to adjust to Bob Burton, however.
Burton has already decreed 6 am workouts and the intention to speed up the game tempo. Up-tempo makes sense when you have a PG whos a much better creator than shooter and a center who can run. No matter the offensive strategy, CSF has to improve defensively. Last season, prior to Sow's suspension, even lesser teams were lighting them up. After Sow returned, they showed improvement, but still allowed opponnents 46% FG. The main line-up still only has about half of a season's experience playing with Sow. With a new coach, there will definitely be a learning curve and CSF should play their best basketball in the season's second half.