There’s more than a method to UC Santa Barbara’s March Madness. There’s also a history.
If the Gauchos read that history like a road map, they can find their way back to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
UCSB’s 2011 team had nine of its best players back from its first Big West Conference Tournament championship team in eight years. But those Gauchos wore the crown like an albatross. They poisoned themselves with some toxic team chemistry, losing six of nine games through one stretch of their season.
Then-coach Bob Williams turned them around by putting their feet to the fire — almost literally — with a bonfire of the vanities. James Nunnally, who had resented being the sidekick to future NBA draft pick Orlando Johnson, described it this way after making his own NBA debut a few years later:
“Coach had us write down everything we hated about anybody on the team or him on a piece of paper, and we burned it in the trash,” he recalled. “We lit the papers on fire, and that was the end of that.”
The phoenix of another NCAA Tournament season arose from those ashes. The Gauchos didn’t lose to another league opponent that year, eventually winning the Big West Tournament despite coming in as the No. 5 seed.
It marked only the second time in the tournament’s then-36-year history that a team seeded lower than fourth had won the event.
Coach Dan Monson admitted his surprise after his top-seeded Long Beach State team lost to the Gauchos, 64-56, in the 2011 tournament final.
“They were the team that didn’t trust each other, it looked like, two weeks ago,” he said. “They really pulled that together.”
Looking for Another High-Five
Monson might be worried about history repeating itself this week. His Long Beach team is seeded No. 1 while the Gauchos — resurrected again with eight wins in their last nine games — come in as No. 5.
UCSB (16-10) will begin its quest to become the league’s first repeat champion since its 2011 team when it faces No. 4 UC Irvine (15-9) in a quarterfinal game at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada.
The Gaucho women (15-11) are also a No. 5 seed, drawing a 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal against UC Riverside (13-10) on Wednesday.
The men’s quarterfinal will rekindle the more recent memory of last year’s championship game when the Gauchos’ beat Irvine 79-63. UCSB senior Amadou Sow, a three-time All-Big West forward averaging 15.8 points and 8.2 rebounds, knows the history as well as the potential of this year’s Gauchos.
“We’ve proven that we can play with all the top teams in our league right now,” he told Noozhawk. “We’ve fallen short in a couple of games, here and there, but we’re going to go after it in the tournament.
“I know guys are excited to get to the tournament and keep working. That’s very exciting, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Coach Joe Pasternack, like Williams before him, used a visual aid to pivot his season. This year’s Gauchos were just 8-9 when he challenged them by drawing a mountain on the locker room’s whiteboard.
“They’re really relishing the fact that we’re climbing the mountain,” he said. “Two months ago, when we already had four losses in conference, I drew a line going up that mountain, and I said, ‘The only thing we’re worried about right now is getting better, because we’re just trying to get the best seed we can possibly get in the conference tournament.’”
A Game of Follow the Leader
There are differences between 2011 and 2022 besides the change of coaching staff and roster.
The 2011 team benefitted from the leadership of such veterans as Johnson and senior point guard Justin Joyner, now an assistant coach at 19th-ranked Saint Mary’s. The 2022 Gauchos did return seven veterans, but their three leaders — guards JaQuori McLaughlin, Devearl Ramsey and Brandon Cyrus — all graduated last spring.
Their replacements, highly regarded newcomers such as freshman Ajay Mitchell and junior transfer Calvin Wishart, were too new to take a firm grip of the team. The result was a basket-full of close defeats. The Gauchos lost each of their first eight games that were decided by single-digit margins.
Sow summed up the situation this way as New Year’s Day approached:
“The one thing Ajay has to get better at is being vocal, but I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said. “He’ll get that going once we start league play.
“We need to be more vocal. We lost three leaders from last year. They’re hard to replace, three strong leaders. But we have our work to do, and we’re going to focus on that and get that done.”
The Frosh Approach
Mitchell began asserting himself on the court in February. He’s averaged 18.6 points in the last nine games — 15.5 in league play — to boost his season average to 11.8. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.23 leads the Big West and ranks 51st in the nation.
Those numbers could add up to a Big West Freshman of the Year Award.
“It’s not even close,” Pasternack said. “What he’s done as a freshman at the point guard position, I’m not even sure he shouldn’t be right up there as Player of the Year.
“He’s been like a Gabe Vincent or a JaQuori McLaughlin who just honors the process every single day. He’s an everyday kind of guy.”
The advantage that UCSB’s 2022 team has over its 2011 squad is that it didn’t have to cook its chemistry in an ash can. The Gauchos say it was always there. It just needed time to ferment.
“We’re just a group of guys that like being together,” said Josh Pierre-Louis, a junior guard who averages 9.0 points and 3.2 assists per game.
“We respect each other’s abilities. We respect each other’s emotions. At this point, we’re playing for each other.”
A New Home, Sweet Home
Pierre-Louis and 6-10 senior Miles Norris (10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds) are athletic players whose up-and-down play can get as extreme as their high-leaping dunks. Both are transfers who were happy to resettle in Santa Barbara.
“Coming from somewhere else, you’re worried about, ‘Am I going to connect with these guys?’” said Pierre-Louis, who played at Temple during his freshman year. “But I was automatically connecting with these guys.
“This sweat in my jersey is for my guys … They’ve welcomed me into their program as terrifically as a brother.”
Wishart, a Minnesota school-boy star who played his first two seasons at Georgia Southern, said this year’s Gauchos are “the closest team that I’ve ever been on.”
“From top to bottom, our team is just full of genuinely good guys,” he said. “I tell people that all the time, that there’s not one person here who I wouldn’t hit up to hang out with, to chop it up with, to go out to dinner with.
“The chemistry is definitely there. I’m going to invite all these dudes to my wedding one day.”
And maybe to another event much sooner. … The one the NCAA likes to call The Big Dance.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.