UC Santa Barbara’s acrobatic basketball team could get the jump on any slam-dunk contest.
But those garish Gauchos, voted by both the coaches and media as the Big West Conference’s preseason favorites, are no slam dunk to defend their championship when league play begins Thursday.
You don’t get style points for flushing zero-foot shots. You do get bonus points for making them from beyond 22 feet and 1.75 inches.
And if UCSB wants another shot at a Big West title, it will need a better shot from three-point range.
“When you say defend and repeat and all that, unfortunately this is a different team,” coach Joe Pasternack said.
His Gauchos are on pace to become only the second team in school history to shoot under 30% from the three-point line. Their 29.9% shooting after 11 games this season is ranked 296th out of the 350 teams in Division 1 basketball.
Their plummeting percentage is fast approaching the school’s all-time worst mark of 29.0% set during the 2016-2017 season.
That last-place, 6-22 team did have an excuse, having lost three starters throughout the season. They included Gabe Vincent, UCSB’s career record holder for three-pointers.
Vincent, now a regular with the NBA’s Miami Heat, returned from knee surgery in 2017-2018 to help the Gauchos shoot 38.1% from three and give Pasternack a 23-9 record in his first year as head coach. It ranked as the greatest turnaround in college basketball that season.
UCSB shot healthy percentages of 34.2% or better the next three years, resulting in records of 20 wins or more each time. But its golden touch turned rusty sometime between last March and November.
“We’re not the same team as last year,” Pasternack concluded. “We have totally different players.”
Vetting the Veterans
Many of the returnees from last year’s 22-5 team certainly look like different players. Three lettermen in this year’s starting lineup — Ajare Sanni, Miles Norris and Josh Pierre-Louis — combined to shoot better than 37% from three last year (80-216). But they’re at just 20.9% (18-86) so far this season.
Their protracted slumps have baffled Pasternack.
“All the years we’ve been here we’ve had good shooters, and they’re going to make shots,” he said. “We shoot every single day, relentlessly. We’ll continue to do that and hopefully they start going in.
“But I don’t have a magic pill that can make the threes start going in.”
The Gauchos haven’t had a good three-point shooting game since their 7-of-17 performance against Pepperdine on Dec. 3 — their best win of a 7-4 nonconference season. They’ve been under 30% in the five games since.
Pasternack sent his players home for a three-day Christmas break after beating Idaho State, 56-43, in a defensive struggle on Wednesday.
“I think it’s great for them to get away from us and for us to get away from them,” Pasternack said. “They can kind of recharge and be ready for Sunday’s practice.”
Tidings of Great Joy
But it’s not all bah-humbug for the Gauchos.
They’ve been a virtual Scrooge on defense, ranking 76th nationally in field-goal percentage allowed (39.9%). They’re also 28th in rebound margin (plus-7.8).
“For us to have any chance to win a game in our conference, we have to be a relentless defensive and rebounding team,” Pasternack said. “We tell our guys that all the time.
“When we get stops, we can get out there and run, and we’re really good in transition.”
A running start, after all, leads to the best dunks. And they’ve gotten enough of those point-blank baskets to shoot 50.2% overall this season — 10th-best in the NCAA.
But losing the trio that ran the show last year — McLaughlin, Ramsey and Brandon Cyrus — has led to a literally quiet nonconference season for the Gauchos. None of their seven wins have come against a Division 1 team with a winning record.
“We need to be more vocal,” all-league forward Amadou Sow insisted. “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.”
Mitchell ranks second in the Big West in assists per game (4.5) and first in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.58). His midrange shooting has been spot-on, resulting in a field-goal accuracy of 58.8%.
Wishart has been an opportunistic defender, ranking fifth in the Big West for steals (1.5 per game). He’s also sinking 42.9% of his threes with a team-high 12 makes.
But he and Mitchell have both caught the Gaucho cold.
Mitchell, who started off his career by making 5-of-7 threes, has missed all but one of a dozen in the last seven games. Wishart has gone just 3-for-13 in his last five games after a 9-for-15 start.
Reaping What They Sow
Sow is the one Gaucho who’s insulated himself from the recent cold snap. The 6-foot-9 senior has made 7-of-12 attempts from three-point distance (58.3%) this season and ranks 24th nationally with an overall field-goal accuracy of 61.5%.
He’s lived up to his candidacy for the Lou Henson Mid-Major Player of the Year Award by ranking second in the Big West in both scoring (17.0-point average) and rebounding (7.6).
But Pasternack knows he needs an even better version of Sow to make another title run.
“Amadou is doing well,” he began, “but I’m always seeing the warts of Amadou, and that’s my job to never be satisfied with him.
“He’s got to keep getting better and better and better. His job from a defense and rebounding standpoint has to continue to improve for us to have a chance to compete for this league.”
The Big West remains as up in the air as one of his high-leaping Gauchos.
But they’ve also lost their share of head-scratchers. UC Davis’ performance in a home defeat to the Academy of Arts was no masterpiece.
COVID Cancels UC Irvine Game
A recent surge of coronavirus cases makes it even tougher to handicap the league race.
COVID-19 protocol has forced Irvine to cancel three games including its league-opening homestand against Cal State Northridge on Thursday and UCSB on Saturday. The Anteaters will have to shake the rust of a layoff that will be at least 25 days.
Riverside has had to cancel four straight games, including this week’s road trip to Davis and Hawai‘i. The Highlanders haven’t played a game since Dec. 12.
The Big West regards COVID cancelations as noncontests instead of forfeits. It has left fan attendance up to the discretion of individual schools.
San Diego — UCSB’s host on Thursday — as well as Riverside are barring spectators for at least the first few weeks of the season.
“Right now, I have no idea what they’ll do here,” Pasternack said. “Whether we have fans or don’t have fans, unfortunately we have no control over that.
“What we can control is having a great practice on Sunday when we get back here.”
He just hopes a better shooting touch returns with them.
— 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.