The Cal Poly women’s basketball team will get the chance to put a challenging nonconference schedule in its rear view mirror when the Mustangs open Big West Conference play this week.
Leading off the conference slate is a visit from UC Santa Barbara in the first edition of the Blue-Green Rivalry at 7 p.m. Thursday inside Mott Athletics Center. Cal Poly also will host a resurgent CSUN team at 4 p.m. Saturday in a rematch of last year’s first-round pairing at the Big West Tournament.
The Mustangs (4-8) have lost four consecutive games — three of them on the road — and will look to regroup on their home court, where they’ve posted a .718 winning percentage since 2008. Meanwhile, the Gauchos (5-8) have won three of their last four and bring some momentum into the conference opener.
Balance has been Cal Poly’s strength offensively through the first 12 games of the season.
Senior forward Hannah Gilbert is averaging 13.6 points on 50.7-percent shooting, to go with 6.8 rebounds in more than 28 minutes per contest. Junior guards Dynn and Lynn Leaupepe are both averaging 13.3 points, with Lynn Leaupepe pulling down a team-high 7.9 rebounds — the second-highest total in the Big West behind CSUN’s Channon Fluker (11.3).
UC Santa Barbara leans on forward Drew Edelman, a fourth-year junior transfer from USC who has made a big statistical jump this season. The 6-foot-4 Edelman is averaging 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds, compared with 1.5 points and 1.8 rebounds during her sophomore year with the Trojans.
Cal Poly head coach Faith Mimnaugh said before the season began she believes the Mustangs could finish higher than the seventh-place finish predicted in the preseason by conference coaches.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the rest of the Big West as conference play opens Thursday night:
UC Davis (9-4)
Dynamic sophomore Morgan Bertsch returns as one of the top players to watch in the conference this winter. The 6-4 forward is second in the Big West in scoring (17.2 points per game) and third in field goal percentage (52.9) for an Aggies team that scores more than 72 points per game. Junior Dani Nafekh leads the conference in 3-point shooting, having made 46.6 percent of her attempts this season.
Long Beach State (9-6)
The 49ers were voted the preseason conference favorite by the coaches and media for a reason. They return all five starters from last year’s second-place team, including first-team all-conference senior guard Raven Benton, perhaps the most talented player in the Big West. Benton’s playing time has been limited by knee soreness early in the year, but head coach Jody Wynn expects her to be available as conference play heats up.
Few teams in the Big West successfully kept Channon Fluker in check last season. The Big West Freshman of the Year — and the first freshman to earn first-team all-conference honors in 14 years — has been equally impressive as a sophomore, averaging 16.4 points, a conference-best 11.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per contest. With one senior on the roster, the Matadors again will be one of the youngest teams in the conference.
UC Riverside (6-7)
Life after Brittany Crain has been challenging for the Highlanders. Crain graduated last spring as UC Riverside’s all-time leading scorer and tallied the fourth-most points in Big West history. With Crain leading the way, UC Riverside went 16-0 against conference opponents and became the first Big West team since 2002 to go undefeated. This year, senior forward Réjane Vérin will carry the bulk of the load offensively, and she’s averaging 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
UC Santa Barbara (5-8)
Head coach Bonnie Henrickson guided the Gauchos to a major turnaround last year in her first season, to the tune of a 10-win improvement. With five starters returning, UC Santa Barbara could push to finish in the upper half of the Big West standings. Rebounding was the Gauchos’ biggest short coming during nonconference play, and fourth-year junior Drew Edelman (9.2 points, 6.6 rebounds) will be expected on keep UC Santa Barbara competitive on the glass.
A difficult nonconference schedule may have gotten the better of the defending Big West Tournament champions. The Rainbow Warriors took on Pac-12 schools USC, UCLA and Oregon, as well as Nevada, Boise State and Mississippi State over the last two months. It’s tough to predict where Hawaii will end up come March. Do-everything senior Destiny King graduated, and two-time Big West Sixth Player of the Year Megan Huff transferred to Utah during the offseason.
Cal State Fullerton (3-10)
One year removed from posting a 1-15 record in conference play, the Titans a have new-look roster that head coach Daron Park believes will be competitive in the Big West. It starts with a pair of junior transfers in Iman Lathan (Nevada) and Jordan Jackson (Central Florida). Lathan is averaging a conference-best 17.7 points per game, while Jackson is contributing 8.2 points as a high-volume perimeter shooter. Cal State Fullerton ended a six-game losing streak with a win against NAIA opponent Antelope Valley on Dec. 31.
UC Irvine (2-12)
Former Long Beach State standout Tamara Inoue became the Anteaters’ ninth head coach in program history during the offseason. She inherited a roster with five seniors, including ex-Arizona transfer Shereen Sutherland, who leads UC Irvine with 12.4 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest. However, little has gone right for the Anteaters this season. They’re 1-6 at Bren Events Center and 1-5 on the road, with two six-game losing streaks to their credit.