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Last season Bob Burton's Cal State Fullerton Titans took more than their fair share of lumps on the way to an 11-20 record. Fullerton was unable to recover from a 4-11 non-conference record, and the fact that they were able to go 7-9 in Big West play despite a seven-man rotation was likely an achieve unto itself. While the Titans took their lumps in games however, they could take solace in the fact that three very talented transfers were awaiting their chance to take the floor. Those three first-year players, combined with returnees who have accepted their augmented roles, are a bid reason why Burton's Titans are two wins away from a 20-win campaign.
Kwame Vaughn, D.J. Seeley and Omondi Amoke all arrived from Division I programs within the state, with Vaughn showing up by way of San Francisco while both Seeley and Amoke began their college careers at Cal. They're now three of the top four scorers for the Titans, who have won five straight and eight of their last nine games to move to 18-7 overall and 9-3 in conference play. In spite of the seven-win turnaround to this point it really shouldn't be a surprise that the Titans are having success with transfers. It's been something that Coach Burton and his staff have been able to do for some time now.
"We're notorious for transfers," Burton said in a phone conversation last week. "It's a way to get top-rated players here as opposed to recruiting them out of high school."
Given the presence of the Pac-12 and Mountain West in southern California when it comes to recruiting, it's not a bad strategy at all provided the guys taken in are good for team chemistry. Fullerton's most recent NCAA tournament trip (2008) was led by Washington State transfer Josh Akognon and their entire lineup consisted of transfers, the lone team in that tournament able to make that claim. But once again such strides can't be made if all parties aren't on board, and the chemistry of this current group of Titans is a big reason why they've played so well.
"Our number one concern was chemistry, but it was really good that most of our returnees knew that we needed help," noted Burton. "It's been difficult at times but we're really together right now."
Seeley (16.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Vaughn (16.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.1 apg) are the leading scorers, and with regards to Vaughn's play the ninth-year head coach pointed to Fullerton's 73-66 loss at Cal State Bakersfield on November 26th as the turning point. In the middle game of Fullerton's three-game losing streak Vaughn scored a team-best 17 points but didn't tally a single assist, and for a player being used in a point guard role something had to give. And it isn't very often that the head coach will step up and admit that he needed to change his approach, as Burton did with Vaughn.
"At first we moved him to the two but after Fullerton we just let him settle in and play," said Burton of his scoring point guard. Since that game Vaughn has gone without an assist in just one game and he's averaging 5.2 helpers per contest over the last five. His best game was a 37-point, six-assist effort in the Titans' 99-86 win over UCSB on February 4th, a contest that did wonders for a program given the national TV audience and a sold-out Titan Gym.
While Seeley's been free to go to work on the perimeter as the Titans' primary scoring option, Amoke's been the anchor in the frontcourt for Fullerton. The 6'7" senior is averaging 12.2 points and a team-best 8.7 rebounds per game on the season, and he's got a 23-point, 17-rebound performance to his credit as well (94-84 win over UC Irvine). Amoke's had help inside as well, as one-time USF Bull Orane Chin has been a quiet, steady force with averages of 10.0 points and 4.9 rebounds per game and Sedric Martin's been able to earn more minutes in recent games.
There's another returnee who certainly merits mention on the perimeter in sophomore Isiah Umipig, who averaged 7.4 points and 1.2 assists per game in 20.4 minutes of action as a freshman. Umipig has increased both his scoring (13.6) and assist (2.4) numbers playing alongside Vaughn, and there's no doubt that his experiences as a freshman have helped improve his game as a sophomore. Having Vaughn allows Umipig to continue to mature as a player, with the goal being that he's ready for more point guard responsibilities next season.
"He'll eventually be a point guard," said Burton of Umipig, who scored 25 points in the win over UCSB. "He just needs to keep maturing and get better at getting to the basket."It's clear that Long Beach State, who is currently undefeated in Big West play (13-0), is the class of the conference heading into the stretch run and Coach Burton even said that in his view UCSB remains the second-best team in the Big West (they did win the first meeting in Santa Barbara). But thanks to their productive transfers and all parties (newcomers and returnees alike) being willing and able to coexist, it would be wise to keep an eye on Cal State Fullerton down the stretch. There's enough talent at Coach Burton's disposal for this season to go from being good to special.