In their quest to be a basketball team for all seasons-preseason, regular season, and postseason-UCSB’s Gauchos have taken care of the first part. They were the most successful Big West team in non-conference competition (11 wins, 2 losses). Now they must stow away that record like a box of holiday ornaments.
The games that count begin tonight (Thursday, January 3), when the Gaucho men host Long Beach State (3-8) in their conference opener. Cal State Northridge (8-3) will visit the Thunderdome on Saturday. Both games begin at 7 p.m.
How important are the league games? The final standings will determine where the teams are seeded in the Big West Tournament, and under the format introduced four years ago, only those teams seeded No. 1 or No. 2 have won the championship and an NCAA bid. You have to play well in January and February to keep going in March.
During his 10 seasons as UCSB’s head coach, Bob Williams has seen teams begin the New Year with losing records and suddenly blossom into championship contenders. “We’re tickled to death to be 11-2,” Williams said after the Gauchos defeated Eastern Washington 58-51 in their preseason finale last Saturday. But he was concerned about his team’s lethargic first half that made the game closer than it should have been.
“You’re going to go through spurts,” sophomore guard James Powell said last week. “Every team is going to have ups and downs. The key is to make the downs as short as possible-instead of two or three games, make it a half-and the ups as long as possible.”
Maybe the worst half the Gauchos played so far was the first 20 minutes against UNLV, when they scored all of 16 points. Powell had zero. But in the second half, he sank five 3-point baskets, including the tiebreaker with less than half a second remaining, as UCSB won 63-60.
“I give the credit to my teammates,” Powell said. “J.J. [fellow sophomore point guard Justin Joyner] can find you. Alex Harris [the team’s leading scorer with a 22.4 average] attracts most of the attention. Chris Devine draws defenders to him and can pass the ball out. : Everybody’s pitching in.”
To trigger the comeback against the Runnin’ Rebels, UCSB’s defense had to come up with crucial stops. Only top-ranked North Carolina, a 105-70 winner over the Gauchos on December 22, has scored more than 71 points against them.
“I’ve never played a team that had so much talent, athleticism, and great coaching,” Powell said of the Tar Heels. “Most teams don’t know what to do against our defense, but they just ran away from us. They had another gear.”
UCSB will be straining to break away from the pack in the Big West. “Six or seven teams have a chance to be in the hunt,” Williams said.
Long Beach State, the defending champion, lost nine players from last year and has a new leader in Dan Monson, former head coach at Gonzaga and Minnesota. The 49ers, like Cal State Northridge on Saturday, will be playing the nothing-to-lose card. “It’s hard to be in Bob Williams’s position with a target on your back,” Northridge coach Bobby Braswell said after the Big West’s preseason poll anointed the Gauchos as the favorites to win the title. “He knows there are a lot of good teams in this conference.”
HOOP NOTES: UCSB’s women open Big West play on the road. The Gauchos are 5-6 after splitting a pair of games at Montana’s Lady Griz Holiday Classic last weekend. A day after falling to the host Grizzlies, 88-70, they came back with a gritty 74-66 victory over Mississippi. The Big West women’s outlook has been dimmed by season-ending injuries to three marquee players: UCSB’s Jenna Green, UC Riverside’s Kemie Nkele, and Long Beach’s Karina Figueroa. The league’s best preseason record is 6-6 by UC Davis. Freshman forward Dan Rasp (20 points) led Westmont College to the championship of the Tom Byron Classic with a 78-75 victory over previously unbeaten Puget Sound last Saturday night. The Warriors have won their tournament 18 times in 32 years. Another freshman, Ryan Aijian from Bishop Diego High, hit a floater in the final seconds as Westmont defeated Baruch (New York) 57-55 in the tournament opener.