The Dagger - NCAAB

Our conference preview series continues with the Big West. Here's a look at the projected standings, three must-see games and the conference's three most intriguing storylines entering the new season.

Can UC Santa Barbara repeat? 

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the meaning of UC Santa Barbara's slogan for the upcoming basketball season. "This year, trouble comes in pairs" celebrates the return of guard Orlando Johnson and forward James Nunnally, the lethal all-conference duo that led the Gauchos to a Big West title and an NCAA tournament berth last season. 

Johnson averaged a conference-best 18.0 points per game last season, good enough to earn the LMU transfer the Big West's player of the year award as a sophomore. Nunnally chipped in 14.7 points per game, hit 45.5 percent of his three-pointers and led UCSB in rebounding at 5.6 per game despite standing just 6-foot-5.

In the five years since Utah State left for the WAC and Pacific began its descent toward the middle of the league, the Big West has not produced a repeat regular season or tournament champion. With every significant contributor back from last season's 20-win team, anything less would be a disappointment for UCSB.

Which Long Beach State will we see?

The biggest question facing Long Beach State entering the new season is which version of the 49ers will show up.

Will it be the high-flying team that upset UCLA and Utah State in the preseason and then nearly upended UCSB in the Big West tournament title game? Or will it be the band of underachievers that entered conference play as Big West favorites but endured a prolonged outside shooting slump and staggered to an 8-8 finish?  

About the only certainty with the 49ers is that they're the only Big West team with the talent to challenge UCSB this season. Forward T.J. Robinson averaged a double-double last season, point guard Casper Ware led the conference in assists and steals and former first-team all-conference wing Larry Anderson is healthy again after regressing during an injury-plagued sophomore season. 

Will Maxime Chupin be eligible at UC Irvine?

It's probably unrealistic to expect UC Irvine to contend for the Big West title in coach Russell Turner's first season, but the presence of French import Maxime Chupin could accelerate the pace of the Anteaters' rebuilding process.

A 6-foot-8 forward from France who played for French power Cholet last season, Chupin averaged 12.5 points and seven rebounds a game and shot 45 percent from behind the three-point arc. New rules allow him to be eligible even though he played alongside pros, but the NCAA is reviewing whether the 21-year-old prospect received compensation.

If Chupin is eligible to play for UC Irvine, it would give the Anteaters perhaps the best frontline in the conference. Already returning for his junior season is forward Eric Wise, who earned second-team all-league honors last year after averaging 16.3 points, 6.5 boards and 3.0 assists.

More Conference Previews:

ACC: It's banner or bust this season for Duke, Five ACC storylines to watch, ESPN's Jay Bilas scouts the ACC, 15 must-see ACC games, Q&A with Wake Forest freshman Carson Desrosiers

America East: Will Boston University's recruiting pay off?

Atlantic Sun: Expect a three-way battle at the top

Atlantic 10: How Xavier basketball rose from humble origins, Five A-10 storylines to watch, Ex-Richmond star Greg Beckwith scouts the A-10, 15 must-see A-10 games, Q&A with Dayton freshman Juwan Staten

Big East: Villanova hopes to redeem itself for last year's poor finish, Five Big East storylines to watch, Ex-West Virginia star Mike Gansey forecasts the Big East, 15 must-see Big East games, Q&A with Syracuse's Kris Joseph

Big Sky: It's completely wide open at the top

Big West: UC Santa Barbara takes aim at second straight title

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