Big West Preview

With the 2007-08 college basketball season tipping off tonight, it's time to take a look at some of the top teams in the Big West Conference. UC Santa Barbara tops the Big West Conference coaches' preseason poll while Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are not far behind.

Coming off a successful season, Cal State Fullerton brings back most of its impact players. CSUF narrowly missed being ranked in the Top 25 of the Preseason Mid-Major poll, but did receive 89 votes placing it No. 30 in the country.

The Titans find themselves as a legitimate contender this year after completing their second 20-win season in three years. Since Bobby Brown - the Titans' all-time top scorer and one of the most potent shooters in all of the conference - graduated this past year, the Titans have a lot of scoring to replace.

Scott Cutley, if healthy, is going to have an opportunity to fill the void of the number one option on offense. Returning impact players Marcus Crenshaw and Frank Robinson are going to be essential to their success if the fractured ankle of Cutley keeps him out longer than December. Junior college transfer Junior Russell and red shirt junior Josh Akognon will both be expected to contribute a lot this season.

Head Coach Bob Burton said depth was his team's strength this year, something they lacked in the past.

"I thought that's been our problem the last few years is these kids had to play so many minutes and we just didn't have the depth to come in with it," Burton said. "I think we have that now especially on the perimeter because we have two very good point guards."

Cutley's injury will pose as an obstacle for the Titans if he is unable to come back. Burton said they still are not sure whether Cutley will be out until mid-December or later.

"November fifth he'll go in for X-Rays. If it's healing then we're right on the right course," Burton said. "Worst case scenario is that [doctors] would go in and they put a screw in there to make sure that they stabilize it, and then he wouldn't play."

The UCSB Gauchos are coming into this season ranked No. 21 by the Preseason Mid-Major Poll. Returning senior Alex Harris, who averaged 21.1 points per game and won the Big West Conference scoring title, makes them an instant favorite to win the conference. He is also one of two returning 2006-07 All-Conference First Team players (the other being CSUF's Cutley).

Gauchos Head Coach Bob Williams said Harris can influence a game in multiple ways with his assists, scoring, posting up and getting to the free throw line.

"There's such a variety of ways he can affect the game. And his ability to do all those things is what I've challenged, the challenge to Al in terms of this year and his development," UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. "To make him the best player he can be helps make us the best team we can be."

Williams said Cal Poly SLO, Pacific, CSUF and UC Irvine are all legitimate title contenders, but declined to place his own team in any particular position when asked. But he did say he thought they should be mentioned.

"We legitimately should be one of the teams that people are worried, concerned with or think have a shot at winning this league," Williams said.

Cal Poly SLO is among the top teams in the conference as well because of the experience it gained from winning 10 of its last 12 games to end the season, and finishing No. 2 in the conference. The Mustangs also have key returning contributors, Dawin Whiten and Trae Clark, who are expected to lead the team this year in scoring.

The Mustang defense will once again be anchored by Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year Titus Shelton. Shelton led the team with 38 total blocked shots.

Cal Poly Head Coach Kevin Bromley said he wants to see more of an all-around game from Shelton this year.

"'I've put a little pressure on him, I want him to be not just the Defensive Player of the Year, but in rebounding. He's got to get more rebounds for us," Bromley said. "He's going to defend you now. He only knows one way to play the game. He's [over 6'7], he's 272 pounds of nothing but muscle and [has a] quick first step."

Other teams showing promise this year are UCI and University of the Pacific. Both teams are returning key starters and came off sub-par seasons.

UCI will be relying on Patrick Sanders, who led the Anteaters in scoring last year. They finished 15-18 last season, but with four returning starters, they are looking to improve that record with the help of experience.

Pacific is also returning many key players from last year's team. Anthony Brown is expected to lead the team as he ranked seventh in the conference in scoring last year. Junior guard Steffan Johnson and senior guard Solomon Horsechief will both be contributing to their point guard positions as they did last year.

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