2020-21 Big West Conference Season Preview

Expanded conference features plenty of star power

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The Big West Conference is going to look a little bit different than the past couple of seasons. This year, the conference will add two new teams in Cal State Bakersfield and UC San Diego, expanding the conference from nine teams to 11.

In previous years, the top eight teams got into the postseason conference tournament so it remains to be seen if and how the Big West intends to accommodate the new teams in terms of tournament seeding.

In any case, the conference is talented across the board with upperclassmen looking to take on increased roles, some transfers that should have immediate impacts provided they’re eligible to play right away, and some freshmen who could play a big role from the get-go.

Each team will be listed in this preview in order of last season’s finish with the two new teams at the end.

1 UC Davis

The past two years, UC Davis has finished at the top of the Big West. They were the conference’s representative in the NCAA Tournament in 2019, and last season the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Big West Tournament before they had a chance to play.

The Aggies are going to look a bit different this season. They’ve lost three key seniors in Katie Toole, Nina Bessolo, and Sophia Song, all of whom have signed professional contracts overseas. But there are some returners as well as some newcomers who could help keep the Aggies afloat during the season.

Returning to the team is senior forward Cierra Hall. Hall has been one of the best defensive players in the conference the past several years. She was the last season’s Big West Defensive Player of the Year. She’s also been a strong force on the glass and one of the Big West’s best offensive rebounders.

She can score too and most likely will take a bigger role in the offense this upcoming season. Hall is a stretch four who can score around the basket but can also step out and shoot from distance as her 37.5 percent shooting from three-point range last season shows.

Another key returner will be senior guard Mackenzie Trpcic. Trpcic was a transfer from Albany who played in her first full season with the Aggies last year as the starting point guard. She was easily one of the best playmakers and facilitators in the Big West last season and she shot 36.8 percent from the three-point line. She’s an unselfish, steady player who can run an offense and makes the right reads.

UC Davis will also look to a few sophomores to make their mark on the court and expand and their freshmen seasons. Guard Evanne Turner was one of the best three-point shooters in the conference last year at 43.6 percent. She’s a tough wing and efficient scorer with a solid midrange jumpshot. Campbell Gray was one of the Aggies key contributors off the bench and a solid playmaker.

Perhaps the biggest addition though will be a player that was already on the roster last season.

Center Kenedy Lily redshirted last season but is ready to go. She was a dominant inside presence in high school and some of that should carry over to the college game. She has imposing size and is very skilled in the post. She’ll probably begin coming off the bench though behind senior Sage Stobbart who gave the Aggies strong minutes as the starting center last season.

2 UC Santa Barbara

Since Bonnie Henrickson took over as head coach for the Gauchos, the team has improved every season. This past year, they finished with the conference’s second overall seed but had their postseason cut short due to the Coronavirus pandemic.   

The Gauchos have also lost a pair of key seniors in Coco Miller and Tal Sahar. But thankfully for them, they should have enough talent on the roster to make another strong run in the conference.

Helping lead the way is senior guard Danae Miller. Miller is a versatile player who can play either guard spot, but is a strong point guard. She knows when to score and when to get her teammates involved and is a strong leader on the court. She can get hot offensively in a hurry and is tough to guard when she does.

Miller will have someone to look for down low in sophomore center Ila Lane. Lane was the Big West Freshman of the Year and made an immediate impact in the post. She put up a double-double with 15.3 points per game and 13.0 rebounds while shooting 57.6 percent from the field. She led the nation in rebounding and is a handful in the paint.

The Gauchos will also get some reinforcements in the paint with center Natalia Bruening who sat out last season with an injury. Bruening is a defensive anchor in the paint and a double-double threat. Should she start, she and Lane will form one of the best frontcourts in the conference.

UCSB also gets the return of guard Bri Anugwom who also sat out last year because of injury. Anugwom was a transfer from West Los Angeles Community College who has only played in one season so far for the Gauchos. She’s an explosive scorer who was a starter back in the 2018-19 season.

The Gauchos should also get improvement from sophomore guard Johnni Gonzalez. As a freshman, Gonzalez rotated between the starting lineup and the bench and was a pleasant surprise. She looked comfortable at times as a playmaking guard who kept the ball moving offensively.

UCSB also figures to get significant contributions from senior forward Mira Schulman and junior forward Lauren Lee. Schulman is a stretch four who was one of the better three-point shooters on the team last year. Lee has also been a starter at times and is a pretty solid rebounder.

3 UC Irvine

Last season, the Anteaters finished with the third overall spot, giving them a bye to the second-round, but were upset by the eighth seeded Cal Poly Mustangs. This season, they’ll have to figure out how to withstand the loss of three key rotation players in Lauren Saiki, Brooke Bayman, and Yazzy Sa’dullah.

Replacing Saiki will be no easy task. She was one of the best point guards in the conference and finished her college career with the school’s all-time record for most assists in a season at 190. But head coach Tamara Inoue will have some options. One of the obvious candidates is redshirt-freshman Kayla Williams.

As a senior at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, CA, Williams was one of the best point guards in the Los Angeles area. She sat out last season due to an injury, but should be ready to go. She can get baskets in a hurry and knows how to find the balance between scoring and facilitating. Her game should translate well to the college level.

Another guard who will help replace the graduating seniors is Chloe Webb, another redshirt freshman. Webb actually saw action in 14 games last season before a season-ending injury. Webb is a big guard who can score and is solid on the glass. She’s also a strong ball-handler and defender.

The backcourt will also be strengthened with a trio of seniors in Alexus Seaton, Dani Guglielmo, and Haleigh Talbert. Seaton has improved every season of her college career and was a regular starter last year. She is a true shooting guard and good defender. Guglielmo is one of the better three-point shooters on the team. Talbert is another guard who can score, but can be an effective playmaker as well.

The frontcourt for the Anteaters starts with senior Tahlia Garza and sophomore Sophia Locandro. Garza does all the dirty work in the paint. She’s a strong defensive player and she’s one of the better rebounders in the conference. Locandro is a double-double threat who was an honorable mention to the all-conference team. She had an immediate impact as a freshman.

Also bolstering the frontcourt will be a pair of returning players in senior Joy Akaegbu-Cleveland and sophomore Melodie Kapinga. Akaegbu-Cleveland was one of the Anteaters most dependable reserves last year and is a strong rebounder who takes high-percentage shots. Kapinga played sparingly as a redshirt freshman, who will probably see increased playing time. She’s got good size and potential to be a solid rim protector and inside presence.

4 Hawaii

Under Laura Beeman, the Rainbow Wahine have consistently been one of the better teams in the Big West Conference. They were all set to face off against UC Santa Barbara in the conference tournament last year before it was cancelled amid the Coronavirus pandemic.

This year though, the Rainbow Wahine have suffered some major losses in terms of departing players. Gone are seniors Julissa Tago, Courtney Middap, and Savannah Reier. Senior Lauren Rewers transferred to Michigan State and junior Myrrah Joseph transferred to Long Beach State. All five were key rotation players last season.

The senior leadership will come from Amy Atwell, one of the deadliest three-point shooters in the Big West. She led the entire conference in three-point shooting, knocking them down at a 45 percent clip. She was named the conference Sixth Player of the Year, and will probably get her chance to start.

Another senior poised to play a big role is guard Jadynn Alexander. Alexander made several starts last season and was one of the best defensive players in the Big West. She’s a capable scoring guard and has steadily increased the number of three-point shots she attempts.

But the bulk of the team this season is going to be made up of underclassmen. Leading the way is sophomore point guard Nae Nae Calhoun who made an immediate impact last season as a freshman. She’s a real floor leader with great court vision and awareness. She can also be a strong scorer and good defender. She should get her chance to start at the point.

Fellow sophomore Kasey Neubert, who also had a solid freshman campaign, should figure to be in the mix for a starting spot in the frontcourt. Neubert takes high percentage shots and is a good rebounder too.

But there are six freshmen on the team, and if the Rainbow Wahine want to continue their run as one of the conference’s better teams, a couple of them are going to need produce right away. Hailing from Las Vegas is a pair of guards, Daejah Phillips and Teionni McDaniel, who were teammates at Centennial High School.

Phillips has good size for a guard and she can use that her advantage. Her frame is perfectly suited for the college level. She’s a scorer when she needs to be, and she’s a very good rebounding guard. McDaniel is capable of playing both guard positions and is comfortable with the ball in her hands generating offense.

The frontcourt should also see some help from forward Nnenna Orji. A Southern California product, Orji has the potential to be a very good defensive player, especially on the interior. She can also get out in transition and move without the ball. She has the tools to be an effective post player.

5 Long Beach State

It’s been five years since Long Beach State had a winning record when they went 23-11 and made it to the NCAAW Tournament. But last season was the best regular season they’ve had since then, finishing 13-17 and 8-8 in conference play. It’s a testament to head coach Jeff Cammon as he took over the program following that NCAAW appearance, and has steadily been working to build it back up.

This season, he’ll be without last year’s leading scorer, Shanaijah Davison, who transferred to Dixie State. But he will have junior point guard Justina King who is one of the best floor leaders in the entire conference. When she was a freshman, King stepped right into the starting lineup running the offense. As a sophomore, she continued her development, working on her offensive game and also being named to the conference’s all-defensive team.

Long Beach will also see the return of forward Naomi Hunt. Hunt redshirted last season, but before that, she was on pace to be a major impact player. She was named to the All-Freshman team in 2017-18 and followed that up with an appearance on the all-conference second team in 2018-19. She’s a versatile player who can play both inside and out. She can step out and shoot from three-point range and she can bang around in the paint and snatch rebounds.

The team will also get some help from junior Kianna Hamilton-Fisher who missed all but four games last season due to injury. Prior to that, she split time as a starter and coming off the bench as a freshman. A shooting guard with good size who has a knack for scoring and can do a little bit of everything on the court.

Rounding out a strong group of juniors is guard Ma’Qhi Berry, forward Jasmine Hardy, and forward Lauren Green. Berry moved into the starting lineup last season and is an excellent defensive player. She was a big reason why Long Beach was one of the better defensive teams in the conference. Hardy is a reliable frontcourt player who can also lockdown defensively and has an improving outside shot. Green is an interior force who crashes the boards and protects the rim with her shot blocking.

But a couple of new additions to give the team more reasons to be excited about. Provided that she is able to play right away, forward Myrrah Joseph who transferred from Hawaii is a very skilled low post player who has improving range to her shooting ability. And freshman guard Savannah Tucker is an explosive scorer who is comfortable with the ball in her hands. She could make a strong impact right away.

6 Cal State Fullerton

The Titans had a semi-decent season last year, making it to the second round of the Big West Tournament before falling to Hawaii. If they want to improve on last season’s finish, they’ll have to do so without last year’s leading scorer, Raina Perez who transferred to North Carolina State.

Luckily for them, they have strong group of returning player with some intriguing newcomers. With Perez gone, look for senior wing Taylor Turney to take on more of the scoring load. She showed last season that she’s capable of being a primary offensive focal point as well as someone who can make plays with the ball in her hands and act as a facilitator.

The Titans will also see a big impact from senior wing Carolyn Gill. Gill is the epitome of an energy/glue type player. She is an absolute workhorse on the glass and can lock up defensively. She’s not afraid to do the dirty work in and around the paint. She’s a capable scorer too.

The backcourt should be strengthened by the improvement of one of last year’s freshmen, Anniken Frey, and sophomore Clarissa Rodarte. Frey is a point guard saw action right away. Rodarte hasn’t played much the past two seasons, but look for her to carve out more of a role this season.

The Titans also feature a very good frontcourt rotation. Junior center Janette Mensah should play an increased role. Mensah became a regular in the rotation last season after playing sparingly as a freshman. She’s a big body in the paint who can finish around the rim.

They’ll also get a huge boost in the return of Joy Krupa who missed most of last season due to injury. Krupa is a very good defensive player and one of the best rebounders in the entire conference.

Rounding out the frontcourt for the Titans is junior Amiee Book is looking to expand her game to be one of the best stretch-bigs in the conference. She’s already a sniper from three-point range at 38.4 percent for her college career. Where she’s improved upon is being more of an inside presence who contributes on the glass.

One name to watch though is freshman center Ashlee Lewis. A Southern California product, Lewis is a very skilled player in the paint. She has very good footwork and can finish strong over defenders. She has a college ready game. While the Titans have a deep frontcourt rotation, don’t be surprised to see her get some minutes here or there.

7 CSUN

The Matadors will look a little bit different at the helm this season. Longtime head coach Jeff Flowers stepped down in the offseason. Flowers was the most successful coach in school history having guided the program to multiple NCAAW Tournament appearances. But new head coach Lindsey Foster has been a long-time assistant under Flowers and should be up to the task of trying to get the Matadors back to prominence.

There’s no question that it’s going to be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Matadors. The team was hit hard with graduating seniors, losing starters in Hayley Tanabe, Lauren Shymkewicz and De’Jionae Calloway, and one of the conference’s best defensive players in Eliza Matthews.

But there’s some room for optimism with some of the player who will be suiting up this season. Sophomore guard Deja Williams is looking to build on a freshman season that saw her shuffle in and out of the starting lineup and being named to the Big West All-Freshman team. She’s a tough point guard who has worked hard on her jump shot. She brings great court awareness and leadership for a young player.

Junior Jordyn Jackson is also looking to continue her upward trajectory. She’s emerged as one of the better three-point shooters in the Big West and a solid scoring guard. She’s also a very unselfish player who knows how to keep the offense running.

The backcourt will also be bolstered by the debut of Brandy Huffhines. This will be her first appearance at CSUN as she redshirted last season due to an injury. She comes as a community college transfer at Sacramento City College where she was a strong scorer and playmaker. She looks to be to first guard off the bench for the Matadors.

The frontcourt will be led by senior forward Meghann Henderson. Henderson is a double-double threat and she is a versatile defensive player. She has the length and footspeed to cover wings, and she can also drop back and anchor the defense in the paint. She’ll be suited up alongside sophomore Olivia Smith, another rebounding and shot blocking presence. The two have all the makings of being one of the better defensive frontcourts in the conference.

The Matadors will also see the CSUN debut of forward Tess Amundsen who redshirted last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Amundsen can stretch the floor with her shooting and is a rather efficient scorer overall. The Matadors really need some three-point shooting and that’s exactly what she’ll bring.

8 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

The Mustangs should have a lot of reason for optimism this season. They squeaked in as the eighth and final team in the Big West tournament last year and were on the verge of making an impressive run to the tournament finals before it was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

This year, they’re bringing back essentially the same team without any major graduations or transfers. The Mustangs have one of the best inside/outside combinations in the conference with senior Sierra Campisano and sophomore Abbey Ellis.

Campisano is one of the most versatile players in the conference. She is very talented in the low post and can score in the paint. She can also put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble as well as shoot from the outside. Ellis was a great compliment to her, especially in the conference tournament. As a freshman, Ellis was one of the best point guards in the conference and was among the nation’s leaders in freshman scoring. She’s a solid floor general who has a ton of room to grow.

Aside from Ellis, the Mustangs backcourt rotation will consist of a few returning players. Senior guard Malia Holt was a regular starter last season and should probably earn the starting shooting guard spot. She’s a good rebounder for a guard and a solid defender.

The Mustangs also will probably want to see what they have in sophomore Maddie Vick. Vick redshirted her freshman year in 2018-19, and showed flashes of being a solid guard last season in her Cal Poly debut. She’s a good playmaker who could fit right in as the backup point guard to Ellis.

Senior wing Hannah Peterson should help round out the backcourt rotation along with senior guard Chantel Govan. Peterson was a key player last season and is a pretty solid threat from three-point range. Govan started the Mustangs two tournament games and is a pretty good defensive guard and shooter as well.

In the frontcourt, Campisano will be aided by a player making her Mustang debut in Hannah Scanlan. Scalan sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. She’s an efficient scorer and can help take some of the pressure off Campisano on the glass.

Cal Poly will also look to senior center Kirsty Brown. Brown was a regular in the rotation last season, but her playing time dwindled a bit in the conference tournament. She’s an interior presence who can also help on the glass. The Mustangs also will see the debut of Zoe Stachowski, a community college transfer. Stachowski is another good rebounder and inside player.

9 UC Riverside

As the lone team who did not qualify for the Big West tournament last year, the Highlanders will look to get back on track behind new head coach Nicole Powell. They graduated two key seniors in Jannon Otto and Marina Ewodo and lost Tianna Eaton who transferred to Texas State.

But the Highlanders do have some returning talent who will look to improve on the team’s misfortunes last season. Redshirt junior forward Daphne Gnago will look to continue her upward climb. She’s a talented scorer who can score in a variety of ways. Senior guard Keilanei Cooper is a steady hand and tough player who was one of the team’s top scorers last season.

A good portion of the backcourt minutes should go to junior guard Lauryn Pointer and sophomore guard Jada Holland. Pointer is a tough guard who plays defense and was a key player in last year’s rotation. Holland is a transfer from Grand Canyon. Provided Holland is able to play right away, she brings strong court vision and awareness and solid defense.

Up front, junior Bryanna Brady should play a key role this year. Her minutes were kind of up and down last year, but with some of the team’s departures, she should be ready to go. She brings efficient offense and is a big body to deter opposing players as well as finish around the basket.

Sophomore Samantha Fries should also take on a larger role. As a freshman, she didn’t play all that much but her development will be key for the Highlanders. She can play either power forward or center and she’s a good interior defensive player.

10 Cal State Bakersfield

The Roadrunners are one of two new teams to be added to the Big West this season. They had a decent season last year, finishing 16-13 and 8-8 in the Western Athletic Conference. They lost Dalis Jones, one of the better point guards in the state of California, as well as her backcourt mate Kate Tokuhara who transferred to Wagner. Aside from that, they’ll be bringing back essentially the same team which should bode well for chemistry and continuity as they adjust to a new conference.

Redshirt junior Jayden Eggleston is back to lead the way. She was the Roadrunners leading scorer last season as a sophomore and looks to continue her development. She’s a solid wing who has a knack for rebounding.

Eggleston should be joined in the starting lineup with graduate transfer Andie Easley. Last season was Easley’s first with the Roadrunners after transferring from Eastern Washington. A shooting guard, she was one of the better three-point shooters on the team.

Junior forward Miracle Saxon should also reprise her role in the starting lineup. She’s a tough forward who was the team’s best rebounder. She can easily get close double digits in rebounding each game, and she’s a capable scorer if need be.

But the Roadrunners are going to need someone to step up though and replace what Jones and Tokuhara brought to the team at guard and on the wings. There are a couple of candidates who could conceivably step into those roles. One of whom is junior guard Ashely Austin. Austin was one of the team’s top reserves who get points in a hurry. They could also look to redshirt junior guard Jasmin Dixon who is more of a facilitator, but can also put up points.

The frontcourt will be manned by senior center Vanessa Austin. Austin is an effective low post player and double-double threat who was the Roadrunner’s top bench player. Should Austin move into the starting lineup, she’ll be backed up by junior center Makenzie Bond who is another traditional post player and is a strong rebounder.

11 UC San Diego

The final team in the Big West, this will be the Tritons’ first year competing in NCAAW Division 1. Head coach Heidi VanDerveer will bring back pretty much the same team that won the CCAA conference title.

Junior Julia Macabuhay will be one of the better all-around guards in the Big West. She’s a capable scorer, an effective playmaker, good three-point shooter, and solid defensive player. Senior guard Tyla Turner is also a very good all-around player who put up two triple-double’s last season. She has a knack for drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line.

Junior guard Brianna Claros is back as well. She was team co-captain last season and is an unselfish player who can make plays and is also an effective perimeter shooter. The Roadrunners will also welcome back junior wing Sydney Brown. Brown is a good defensive player and a high-percentage, efficient scorer.

One player to look out for is incoming freshman Parker Montgomery. The Los Angeles native is a scoring machine who is tough to guard in transition and she has a solid outside shot. She’s also a good playmaker and can balance the load between looking to score and looking to pass. It’s unclear if she’ll have a role at all as a freshman, but she does have a college ready game.