The alley-oop lob missed its target and bounced all the way to a section of rolled-up bleachers.
These are the dog days at UC Santa Barbara’s Thunderdome, where the short, one-hour workouts are as likely to produce an alley “oops” as any slam-dunk efficiency.
“They’re turning it over like hotcakes,” Gaucho coach Joe Pasternack groused when the session concluded. “The thing is, I don’t have time to stop and make them run. Come September 30th, when we get more time, these guys are going to run for every turnover they make.
“They’re going to go, ‘Wow! Did that just happen to me?’ They’ll get it out of their system.”
The Gauchos will hit the ground running when the workouts get longer with Thursday’s first official practice. Expectations are as high as the jumps of such prodigious leapers as 6-foot-9 senior Amadou Sow, 6-10 senior Robinson Idehen, 6-10 junior Miles Norris and 6-4 junior Josh Pierre-Louis.
“This is going to be a very good team,” former UCSB coach Jerry Pimm said as he watched the Gaucho workout. “This will be one of his better teams, I think, if everybody stays healthy.
“He’s got good young guys and some veterans … six good outside players and four good inside players. He’s got 10 guys who can really play.”
They are an imperfect 10 for now, but it’s the same story at this time every year.
“We’re just starting the process of becoming a team,” Pasternack explained. “Every team is new. Every team has a long journey to climb the mountain. We’re at the bottom now, taking baby steps, because it’s still so early.
“I tell them that we’re just five fingers right now … Those five fingers need to become a tight fist.”
The Gauchos are expected to pack a mighty punch. Three of last year’s top four scorers — Sow (13.5 points per game), 6-3 guard Ajare Sanni (10.9) and Norris (9.7) — return from a team that went 22-5 and won its first Big West Conference championship in a decade.
Two other veterans, 6-8 Jay Nagle and 6-5 Sékou Touré, are gearing up for their senior seasons. Although Touré was sidelined with an injury for much of the summer, nobody made better use of the offseason than the sharp-shooting Nagle. Pasternack considers him to be one of his most improved players.
“Jay is a fourth-year guy, and everybody matures and develops at different times,” he said. “He knows how we do things. He’s a smart player. I think Jay will help us this year, for sure.”
UCSB drew some national attention in March by coming within a layup of upsetting No. 5 seed Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The buzz of last season still echoes inside the Thunderdome.
The Gauchos have already been anointed as the Big West favorites by such college basketball preview magazines as Lindy’s Sports and Athlon Sports.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi agrees, projecting them as a No. 13 seed for the 2022 NCAA Tournament. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm rates them even higher as a No. 12.
Jon Rothstein of College Hoops Today, who spent part of his recent honeymoon by watching the Gauchos practice, was so smitten that he listed them among his “10 midmajors to watch.”
“UC Santa Barbara will miss do-everything guard JaQuori McLaughlin, but Joe Pasternack added a talented replacement in Georgia Southern transfer Calvin Wishart,” he wrote. “Six-foot-4 freshman Ajay Mitchell and Cincinnati transfer Zach Harvey — a former top-50 recruit — will also push for minutes in the backcourt.
“The strength of this team is its front court, as the triumvirate of Sow, Norris, and Idehen is power-conference caliber.”
Jakov Kukic, a promising 6-10 sophomore from Croatia, adds depth and keeps the future bright for that front line.
Pasternack’s aspiration from Day One in 2017 was to build UCSB in the image of Gonzaga, a West Coast Conference program that marched with a power-conference strut to last year’s NCAA final.
His donors have put their money where his dreams are, fund-raising for chairback seating that will soon be completed on both sides of the Thunderdome. The end-court seating is expected to be added within a year or two.
Also new is a practice court atop one of the mezzanine levels. Previous upgrades included a jumbo-sized video board worthy of an NBA arena, a new sound system and remodeled locker rooms.
“We’ve gotten some great support from external sources that give us the funds to get these things done,” athletic director John McCutcheon said. “One thing has led to another.
“When our outside donors see projects getting done when they commit to them, it gives them confidence that their money isn’t going to something that won’t happen.”
Paul Orfalea is the newest recruit to the Gauchos’ quest. The marketing genius who started Kinko’s at UCSB is organizing a contest to see which student can sell the most season tickets.
“He’s a mastermind of marketing and sales, and I’ve spent a lot of time just picking his brain,” Pasternack said. “He has so many great ideas.
“The gold zone is already sold out. It’s unbelievable. The tickets are flying off the shelf. There’s a lot of hype. I think people are anxious to get back and see a game live.”
He’ll give them plenty of opportunities, having scheduled 18 home games beginning with San Francisco State on Nov. 10. The road schedule includes such tough stops as Pac-12 title contender Washington State on Nov. 15 and Saint Mary’s on Dec. 11.
UCSB will be making those trips with two new point guards behind the wheel.
“He’s a big part of the whole thing this year,” Pimm said, gesturing to Wishart as his bounce pass found Sow for a layup. “He’s very smart, he’s got ambidextrous skills going to the hoop, he can shoot standing from outside, he handles the ball well … and he’s a good kid.
“And this new kid, No. 13 (Mitchell), is going to be a pretty good player, too. He’s got smarts and instincts and decent size (6-4½) for a point guard. He shoots it well, too. As soon as he learns everything and learns the motions, he’ll be a pretty good player for them.”
Cole Anderson, a 6-4 freshman from Clovis West High School near Fresno, is another big part of UCSB’s future. His 464 career three-pointers rank third in state history and his 2,730 points put him at No. 2 in the CIF Central Section record books.
“He can really shoot, and he’s athletic enough,” Pimm said. “He still makes mistakes, but he’ll learn. He really wants it. He really has a passion to play.
“Those kinds of guys, you can’t hold them back.”
Pasternack doesn’t like to hype new players, but he’s happy with what he’s seen from his freshmen. Mitchell, he said, is “mature beyond his years.”
“Pro teams (in Europe) wanted him to play for them instead of coming here,” he said.
The pros did claim Pasternack’s two playmakers from last year. McLaughlin, who recently signed a two-way contract with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, and Devearl Ramsey both ranked among the nation’s top 25 players in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. The Gauchos were 10th as a team.
There is a lot to clean up before they get there again.
“You can’t replace JaQuori McLaughlin, or his game experience,” Pasternack said. “He started here for three years. Devearl started for three years. You just don’t insert somebody and get that experience of knowing our system.
“But we do have seven perimeter players, and it’s going to be a highly competitive environment, fighting for every minute of playing time.”
And that’s what he’s liked best about the long, hot summer of short, hot workouts.
“We’ll have to do things differently because there’s not a JaQuori McLaughlin right now,” he said, “but I think we have enough talent to be as good as we want to be later in the year.
“The cream always rises to the top.”
And he’ll start churning them at full speed come Thursday.
— 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.