The UC Santa Barbara men's basketball team celebrates its Big West Conference Men's Basketball Tournament championship victory over Cal State Fullerton last month at the Dollar Loan Center in Las Vegas.
The UC Santa Barbara men's basketball team celebrates its Big West Conference Men's Basketball Tournament championship victory over Cal State Fullerton last month at the Dollar Loan Center in Las Vegas. Credit: Zach Schmidt photo

Overview:

Gauchos expected to add to their three committed recruits with the start of the spring signing period.

A day at the beach turned out to be more of a mirage for UC Santa Barbara basketball coach Joe Pasternack.

“I was jogging there and saw some family friends,” he told Noozhawk. “They went, ‘Gosh, your season is over and now you get to go on vacation.’

“It is anything but vacation right now.”

The offseason has become a busy portal in the storm for college basketball coaches.

The 60-day window for players to enter the NCAA’s transfer portal, a period which runs from March 13 to May 11, opened on the day after Selection Sunday.

Just call it Ejection Monday.

Nearly 1,500 college basketball players have pushed the ejection button by declaring their intent to transfer. That represents a whopping 20% of the sport’s student-athletes.

The NCAA created this monster of a meat market with several rule changes the last few years.

First-time transfers are no longer required to sit out a year as a redshirt. Student-athletes also are now allowed to sell the rights to their “names, images and likeness.”

Schools that can arrange better NILs are getting players to go AWOL in droves.

“It’s really become a sad state of affairs in college basketball,” Pasternack said. “The job for a college basketball coach now is, No. 1, the retention of his players.

“Recruiting is No. 2.”

Gauchos Show Staying Power

Several All-Big West Conference players have “ported” company with their schools.

They include UC Irvine’s D.J. Davis and Dawson Baker, Cal State Fullerton’s Latrell Wrightsell, Cal Poly’s Brantly Stevenson and UC San Diego’s Roddie Anderson III.

But so far, so good for the Gauchos.

Ajare Sanni, an oft-injured guard, is the only Gaucho who’s entered the portal so far this spring. He was unable to return since he’s already earned a graduate degree at UCSB, but he can still get a fifth season of eligibility at another school with the COVID-19 bonus year being offered by the NCAA.

Pasternack is expected to return three of the top backcourt players — Ajay Mitchell, Josh Pierre-Louis and Cole Anderson — from last season’s 27-8, NCAA Tournament team.

He began to re-recruit all of his underclassmen as soon as they returned to the team hotel in Denver after their loss to third-seeded Baylor in the NCAA South Regional.

“The first thing we set out to do was retain our players, meeting with them and their parents,” Pasternack said. “Then it was to recruit the next players.

“From the moment we got off the bus after the game, it has not stopped for one second. I wake up at the crack of dawn, at 5:30-6 a.m. every morning, and I’m on the phone until 10 o’clock at night. It is relentless.”

Backcourt to the Future

Plenty of power-conference schools were ready to pounce on Mitchell had he entered the portal. The 6-foot-5 sophomore point guard won Big West Conference Player of the Year honors after averaging 16.3 points on 50.6% shooting and 5.1 assists with just 2.2 turnovers.

Ajay Mitchell, a sophomore point guard, won the Big West Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Year Award after leading UCSB to a school-record 27 victories this season. Credit: Marc Piscotty photo

He also earned Most Valuable Player honors at the Big West Tournament after leading the Gauchos to their second championship in three seasons.

“It says a lot about Ajay Mitchell, wanting to be back here,” Pasternack said. “It shows the culture of our program.

“All those kids are jumping, thinking the grass is always greener, and he understands that he can accomplish everything right here.”

Pierre-Louis, a 6-4 guard, plans to take advantage of the COVID-19 bonus year and play one more season at UCSB. He averaged 9.5 points per game with 50.9% shooting last season while also drawing the team’s top defensive assignment.

Anderson, a 6-4 sophomore guard, is a long-range sniper who complements the lightning-quick drives of Mitchell and Pierre-Louis. He emerged as a big spark off the bench late last season while making 16-of-31 three-pointers (51.6%) in the final eight games. He finished the season with a team-best 41.5% accuracy from beyond the arc.

“That threesome will have been in our program for their third and fourth years,” Pasternack said. “We’re rock-solid there, beginning with the player of the year in Ajay.

“You’ve got one of the best athletes in the league — if not the country — in Josh Pierre-Louis. His energy is contagious, and he’s going to be an all-conference player.

“And you’ve got Cole Anderson, who I think is the best shooter in the conference. The improvement of his defense from freshman to sophomore year was the best of any player I’ve ever seen, and he’s going to expand his game this spring and summer with his development.”

Gauchos’ Forward Thinking

But UCSB’s coach knows he’s got to fill two big postholes.

Miles Norris, a 6-10 All-Big West forward, is now gearing up for a shot at the NBA.

Andre Kelly, a 6-9 center, is weighing his opportunities in two different pro sports: overseas basketball and stateside football. He’s been working out as a tight end with the San Francisco 49ers the last few weeks.

“We have to add some experience and talent to our front court,” Pasternack said. “We’re charged with being able to get that done, and that’s what we’re working on right now.

Evans Kipruto, left, battles for a rebound during last month’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament game against Baylor. The 6-foot-8 junior became a major force off the bench after Koat Keat Tong suffered a season-ending knee injury. Credit: Marc Piscotty photo

“Spring recruiting has become so huge. We would not have won the Big West Tournament and gone to the NCAA Tournament if it hadn’t been for our spring recruiting of Matija Belic and Evans Kipruto.”

Belic, a 6-7 freshman from Serbia, and Kipruto, a 6-8 and 250-pound junior from Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas, were both pressed into key bench roles after injuries took both Sanni and Koat Keat Tong out of the lineup.

Tong, a rangy 6-10 freshman, should help fill the void left by Norris when he returns from his knee surgery.

“K.K. won’t be ready to practice until May or June,” Pasternack said. “Evans and Matija didn’t get a spring with us last year, but now they do get one.

“Getting a whole spring to develop in both the weight room and on the court will be huge for them.”

Some Sweet Tweets

The spring National Letter of Intent signing period began this week and will continue until May 17.

Ben Shtolzberg, a 6-foot-4 freshman who played for NCAA quarterfinalist Creighton last season, announced on Twitter that he is transferring to UCSB. Credit: Creighton Athletics photo

Three recruits have already announced their commitments to UCSB on Twitter: Ben Shtolzberg, a 6-4 freshman transfer from NCAA quarterfinalist Creighton; Mezziah Oakman, a 7-foot junior who took City College of San Francisco to this year’s state junior college final; and Jason Fontenet, a 6-5 high school guard who was the top scorer for Bella Vista College Prep of Scottsdale, Arizona, the No. 10 team in the MaxPreps national rankings.

“Filling out our roster with the best players who can fit into our team is what the month of April is all about,” Pasternack said.

“They don’t have to be the most talented individuals, but they do need to fit what we need to accomplish our vision.”

That vision, he added, is to advance in the NCAA Tournament — something the Gauchos came within one point of achieving with its last-second loss to Creighton in 2021.

And to enjoy March Madness, there can be no vacations in April.

“It’s constant action this time of year,” Pasternack said. “You have to have your antennas up and be ready for anything. It’s so unpredictable, you get curveballs thrown at you every hour.

“It’s nonstop, and I love it.”

Mark Patton

Mark Patton, Noozhawk Sports Columnist

Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at sports@noozhawk.com. The opinions expressed are his own.