The playoffs are here! The UC Riverside men’s basketball team will get another shot at winning its first ever conference title as UCR heads to the Honda Center for the Big West Tournament. Last year, this team went all the way to the semifinals and came close to defeating the 49ers, but the team ultimately fell short as Long Beach handed the Highlanders a heart-breaking defeat.

Things have sure changed in one year. Granted, it’s still mostly the same team we had in 2011, but there are a few improvements.

Phil Martin is now the team’s unquestionable leader. He’s the leading scorer in the Big West and he’s capable of going for 30 points on any given night. Last year, Martin was mostly the second option in this team, but with Javon Borum gone, Martin is free to dominate on any given night. If he plays as well as he has been the last two months, it’s going to be hard to bet against the Highlanders.

What else has changed? The point guard position is now dominated by three great guards. Robert Smith is a great pick-up and he’s been one the team’s most reliable players. Daymond Cowlah and Harrison Gaines have both shown excellent decision-making skills.

The biggest concern will be the big men. UCR has solid defensive players down in the post, but they lack the offensive power they need to go against powerhouse teams like Long Beach and Fullerton.

So where will they finish?

I think if the guards execute the offense well and create shots for themselves and the big men, UCR can make it all the way to the conference finals. Unfortunately, I don’t see anyone beating Long Beach. I know UCR has come close in the past, but the 49ers are too good to deny or bet against.

Still, if UCR ends its season in the conference finals, there will be a lot to look forward to. It will be a small but significant achievement. If it happens, it will mean that UCR is finally ready to compete in the NCAA Tournament; it will mean that UCR’s basketball program will finally be relevant across the nation, and it will mean that the championship is likely to come in the near future.