Big West Conference men’s basketball favorite UC Santa Barbara is taking a literal approach to the league race.
A recent practice looked more like a track meet, with coach Joe Pasternack ordering all the Gauchos to the endline to run suicide drills whenever someone failed to block out or missed a defensive assignment.
Point guard Ajay Mitchell laughed at the end of the workout and said, “You know how he is, so you’ve got to work with him … He does a great job of this with everyone.”
Pasternack is not only taking the coaches’ preseason vote with a grain of salt, he’s rubbing it into the Gauchos’ wounds anytime he senses a letup.
“We were picked first last year, too,” he said with a shrug, “and we finished in fifth place.”
He does have high expectations for a team that returns six of its top eight scorers while adding graduate transfer Andre Kelly, a center from Cal who received All-Pac-12 honorable mention last year.
“We have a very deep team,” Pasternack said. “We have a talented team, individually. But it’s all going to come down to how we defend and rebound.
“Last year, we didn’t do it, and our team choked.”
UCSB, 17-11 overall, went 8-5 during a league season in which five of its games — four that were to be played at the Thunderdome — were canceled by COVID-19 protocol.
The Gauchos’ season ended in the Big West Tournament semifinals with a 67-64 loss to top-seeded Long Beach State. Pasternack was peeved that UCSB got out-rebounded 35-32 and had its defense foul the 49ers enough to get outscored 14-5 from the free-throw line.
“We have a lot more experience this year and, hopefully, we can become a great defending and rebounding team,” he said.
Basket Full of Talent
The Gauchos are equipped for a great offensive show. They return all of the playmakers from last year — 84.7% of their assist total of 371 — and 67% of their scoring. They have a pair of highlight-reel dunkers in Josh Pierre-Louis and Miles Norris to go along with an army of three-point snipers.
Pasternack will put it all on display at the Thunderdome at 7 p.m. Nov. 7 when UCSB hosts San Francisco State in its “Blue Out” season opener.
He’s gotten personally involved in promoting his product, inviting every youth group and high school team in the community to the contest. He’s arranged a halftime game between teams from the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County. Every UCSB student in attendance will receive a free blue shirt as well as a coupon for a free burrito at Freebirds.
Pasternack is determined to make Gaucho basketball a community “happening” while realizing “that first game will set the tone for the whole season.”
He’s been hawking single-game tickets for $11 with the pitch that it’s “cheaper than going to the movies.”
“It’s been amazing, the requests for season tickets,” he said. “It’s the most we’ve ever had. The students, we’re really excited to get them back in there. The last game against Hawai‘i in the Thunderdome was just electric.
“We’re going to have some awesome giveaways for the students. Our players put on a great show for our fans.”
Kelly, the 6-foot-9 and 255-pound transfer from Cal, has seen video clips of last year’s Senior Night game against Hawai‘i.
“It looks pretty rowdy,” he said. “I already know that Santa Barbara has a great atmosphere as a campus, so I’m really excited to see it come alive at the basketball games and just experience that.”
Center of Attention
UCSB took its only graduation hit last year at the center position, losing four-time all-leaguer Amadou Sow and his backup, energizing team leader Robinson Idehen. Kelly is expected to help fill that void after having averaged 13.4 points on 61% shooting and 8.4 rebounds for the Golden Bears last year.
“He’s a big body who has great, great hands,” Pasternack said. “He’s a very good passer who can score in the post.”
Pasternack has brought in an impactful graduate transfer every year, beginning with Leland King and Marcus Jackson during his first season of 2017-2018. Experience tells him that Kelly’s ability to acclimate to his new teammates and surroundings will be one of the keys to the Gauchos’ season.
“Think about this: Andre Kelly already had two different coaches and two totally different systems, and now he’s learning a third one from a third coach,” he said. “It’s just natural that it takes time.
“Our defensive principles and offensive principles are different than the ones he’s had. I think it just takes time. But he’s working really hard, and he’s a great kid.”
Norris, a 6-10 graduate student, is Kelly’s running mate on the front line. He’s taken this season as seriously as anyone, winning every sprint that Pasternack mandated during the recent workout and fighting for every rebound.
He chose to take advantage of the extra season offered by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic and return to UCSB to work on his offensive rebounding.
“I’m going to have the high motor going, crashing the glass every day, every time, consistently,” Norris said. “That’s one thing I’m going to take pride in this year. I think it’ll help me go far and help the team, as well.”
His unique combination of high-soaring dunks and team-high 37 three-pointers led to a 10.3-point scoring average and All-Big West honorable mention last year. But he wants to increase his rebound average of 5.6, and his 1.4 offensive rebounds in particular.
“He definitely has a renewed passion to have the best possible year he can have,” Pasternack said. “He’s had an unbelievable summer and fall, and he’s highly motivated to rebound the basketball.
“That’s going to be a big, big part of his success.”
Point of Emphasis
Mitchell had a big offseason, as well. Last year’s Big West Freshman of the Year added 24 pounds of muscle to his 6-5 frame. Pasternack moved his Belgian recruit into the starting lineup as point guard in the fifth game of last season and was rewarded with averages of 11.6 points and 3.7 assists.
“He came here in August of last year at 172 pounds, and he weighs 196 right now,” Pasternack said. “He’s gotten a lot stronger. More athletic. More confident in our system. Better leader.
“Early last year he was unsure of himself. I think he’s gained a lot of confidence from all the games he played. He’s getting better and better.”
That improvement was best illustrated by Mitchell’s Big West scoring average 15.5 on 53.8% shooting, which included a 43.5% accuracy from the three-point line.
He’s surrounded by such veteran three-point shooting threats as seniors Ajare Sanni (10.2-point average) and Calvin Wishart (7.0). Sanni missed six games last year with a badly sprained ankle but returned in time to help UCSB win nine of its last 11 games.
“It was a really tough injury and it really hurt our team,” Pasternack said. “We went downhill. And finally he came back and by the conference tournament he was really spectacular.
“He’s got experience. He’s gotten a lot stronger. His weight has gone up maybe 10 pounds over the spring and summer. We’re going to count on his experience.”
Wishart’s versatility as a playmaker and scorer, and sophomore Cole Anderson’s elite shooting ability — a team-best 40.4% accuracy from three-point distance — add valuable depth to UCSB’s backcourt.
“Calvin has had an amazing summer and fall — he’s playing the best basketball of his career,” Pasternack said. “And Cole is such an unbelievably hard worker. He wants it so bad and he loves the game. Nobody is in the gym more than Cole Anderson.”
But no Gaucho is more important to Pasternack’s plans this year than Pierre-Louis, an ultra-athletic, 6-4 guard who spearheads his man-to-man defense.
“His energy is a great difference-maker for us from a defensive and rebounding standpoint,” Pasternack said. “His defense leads to scoring for us. He’s worked really hard on his shot this summer. We’re going to need him to be solid for us.”
He plans to take advantage of his backcourt depth by playing a three-guard offense. Zach Harvey, a 6-6 transfer from Cincinnati who sat out last year while undergoing knee and ankle surgery, and 6-7 freshman Matija Belic will provide size to the guard line.
Belic, recruited out of Serbia, has been perhaps the biggest surprise at UCSB’s workouts with both his shooting and driving abilities.
“I’ve had busts while recruiting overseas who just can’t play at that level you recruit them to, and I’ve had guys like Ajay Mitchell who — Wow! — it’s unbelievable what he does as a freshman,” Pasternack said.
“Matija has really surprised me on how mature and talented he is, and his body is really coming into shape.”
Two other highly recruited newcomers — 6-8 and 250-pound sophomore Evans Kipruto from Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas, and 6-9, 215-pound freshman Koat Keat Tong from Irvine’s Crean Lutheran High School — have taken their coach’s call for rebounding and defense to heart.
Ariel Bland, an athletic 6-7 sophomore, has also excelled in those roles, and 6-10 junior Jakov Kukic provides valuable experience at the center position.
The competitive intensity of it all has transformed those track-meet practices into a rugby scrum at times.
“We practiced against each other for eight weeks this summer, and for the past six or seven weeks this fall, and I think they’re ready to play against a different colored jersey,” Pasternack said.
They’ll line up for real starting next week.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.