March 14-16 Honda Center (Anaheim, Calif.) | Bracket
Long Beach State enters the Big West tourney as its top seed and regular season champ for the third straight year, but the 49ers are far from the conference's hottest team, having dropped three of their last four. Heading into Anaheim on much stronger notes are Pacific, fresh off throttling Long Beach by 20 on Saturday for its fourth straight win; Cal Poly, winners of five straight and eight of their last nine; and UC Irvine, winners of six of seven. Given how adherent those four top seeds were to home-road splits (the host won all 12 of the round-robin games between them) and how clustered they are in overall metrics (KenPom has Pacific 125th, with the other three all between 142nd and 146th) this tournament should be wide open.
Key Matchup: No. 4 UC Irvine vs. No. 5 Hawaii
The home-and-home series between the Anteaters and Warriors was especially competitive, with Hawaii winning the first game by four and Irvine taking the rematch by six. The winner will get either eighth-seeded Cal State Fullerton or top-seeded Long Beach State; both swept the latter and split with the former.
Team to Watch: Long Beach State
As noted above, the 49ers certainly could have finished stronger -- even their lone win in their last four games was a one-point victory when UC Davis guard Ryan Howley's buzzer-beating three rimmed out -- but the regular season champions still have the league's premiere one-two punch in swingman James Ennis, the league's player of the year, and All-Big West first-teamer Mike Caffey. Long Beach reached the Big West finals the last two years as the tourney's top seed; can they turn it around for a third trip?
Hottest Storyline: Can Bob Thomason's farewell tour end in the Big Dance?
Ten months ago, not long after Pacific accepted an invitation to the West Coast Conference, Thomason announced that this season would be his last after 25 years at the Tigers' helm. Regardless of this tournament's outcome, he will retire with a strong list of accomplishments -- five league championships, at least four NCAA tournament appearances, first-round wins in 2004 and '05, the 2001 NBA draft's No. 1 pick in Michael Olowokandi, the most wins in Big West history -- but leading his alma mater to one last tourney a year after losing 19 games would be quite a way to say goodbye.
The Pick: PacificSentimentality aside, Thomason's Tigers combine strong outside shooting (38.0% as a team, 33rd in the country) with what has been the Big West's most efficient defense in conference play. With no clear favorite, that makes them as good a choice as any.