UCSB point guard, Calvin Wishart, makes his way through Pepperdine defenders, as he drives to the basket. | Credit: Erick Madrid

Replacing the backcourt tandem of JaQuori McLaughlin and Devearl Ramsey was always going to be a tall task for the UCSB men’s basketball team coming into the 2021-22 season. After seven games and a 5-2 record, the backcourt questions still linger, despite promising flashes from several current players.

McLaughlin was named Big West Player of the year last season as well as Big West Tournament MVP. He nearly led the Gauchos to a first-round upset of Creighton in the NCAA tournament and later signed a two-way contract with the Dallas Mavericks, splitting time between the Mavericks and G-League Texas Legends. Ramsey was a three-year starter and a steadying presence with a knack for clutch shooting and playmaking. He is currently playing for the G-League Stockton Kings.

“We have new guards, and they’re trying really hard to learn our system,” said UCSB coach Joe Pasternack following a victory over Pepperdine this week. “I had Calvin [Wishart] up to my office, and we had an intense meeting face-to-face. He said, ‘Coach, I’m only five games in,’ and I said, ‘You’re right; it takes time, but this is what we need you to do.’”

Wishart, a Georgia Southern transfer, was a revelation against Pepperdine as he came off the bench and lifted the Gauchos out of an offensive malaise with hot shooting, including 5-of-6 from the field with four three-pointers and 9-of-9 from the free-throw line on his way to 23 first-half points.

Perhaps even more remarkably, Wishart did not score a single point in the second half and missed his only shot attempt with just over a minute to play. The awareness to not force his individual offense after such a hot start is a sign of maturity from the redshirt junior, and his teammates responded with a dominant second half.

“I’m just trying to play more freely and take what they give me,” Wishart said. “If I’m going out and forcing things because I have a hot first half, then it’s going to undermine our team.”

Wishart started the first four games of the season but since then has embraced his role coming off the bench. Freshman point guard Ajay Mitchell out of Belgium replaced Wishart in the starting lineup. “I thought Calvin responded well to not starting,” Pasternack said following a loss to UT Arlington on November 29. “He had a little fire in his belly. I thought he played better.”

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Mitchell does a nice job of picking his spots offensively and has been extremely efficient shooting the ball. He boasts a 62.5 field goal percentage, while shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range. Mitchell has a high ceiling and the potential to blossom into a star, but like the rest of the UCSB guards, turnovers have been an issue, and the question remains how far along he will have come by the Big West Conference schedule and ultimately the postseason.

Junior guard Ajare Sanni is coming off a Big West Sixth Man of the Year recognition, posting 12 double-digit scoring outings in 21 games played last season. He is now a fixture in this year’s starting lineup but has yet to rediscover his shooting touch. The Gauchos will have ample firepower on the perimeter when all their weapons are in rhythm.

“In practice, those guys shoot really well, but we’re not clicking on all cylinders right now,” said Pasternack of UCSB’s hit-and-miss three-point shooting.

With a dominant presence in the interior with senior Amadou Sow, achieving balance is key for UCSB to reach the lofty expectations that many onlookers have for the program this season. But Pasternack is quick to remind his team that success is earned, not given.

“People take winning for granted,” Pasternack said. “Winning is hard. You must be competitive. You must have every detail ― Is dotted and Ts crossed ― in every phase of an athletic department and a basketball program.”

The Gauchos will travel to Saint Mary’s for a non-conference contest on Saturday, December 11. The game will be livestreamed on the WCC network.

FIGUEROA TIES RECORD:  Despite a 44-22 loss to Palomar college in the 2021 Chick-fil-A Winter Festi-Bowl, SBCC kicker Jorge Figueroa put three points on the board from 21 yards out to open the scoring for the Vaqueros. With his 12th successful field goal of the season, he tied Jeremy Ybarra (2017) for the SBCC all-time single-season record. Figueroa, a freshman from Las Cruces, New Mexico, connected on 12-of-16 kicks this year, including a long of 46 yards. He was also a first-team all-American Pacific Conference selection.

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