UCSB basketball reacts to NCAA draw
The UCSB men's basketball team reacts after seeing their name go up on the NCAA bracket opposite Baylor. Credit: Jeff Liang / Noozhawk photo


UCSB’s players excited to get a shot at the 2021 NCAA champion in the South Regional contest

UC Santa Barbara, returning to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament after an appearance in 2021, will open against the national champion from that season.

The Gauchos, slotted as a No. 14 seed, were pitted against No. 3 seed Baylor in a first-round game at the South Regional in Denver on Friday. Tip-off will be at 10:30 a.m.

“I’m really excited about the preparation for this week, though we have a very tall task ahead with Baylor,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said after watching the CBS Selection Show with his team at the Intercollegiate Athletics Building. “Baylor is an incredibly well-coached team. They won a national championship.

“But this is about us. We’re just going to focus on our process this week.”

The Gauchos (27-7), who have already surpassed their school record for victories, will enter the tournament on a seven-game winning streak. They defeated Cal State Fullerton 72-62 in Saturday’s Big West Conference Tournament final in Henderson, Nev.

Baylor (22-10) was ranked among the top teams in the country before losing four of its last six games in the tough Big 12 Conference. They will come into the tournament ranked No. 10 by the Associated Press and No. 11 in USA Today’s coaches’ poll.

UCSB’s players are relishing their shot at one of the nation’s elite programs.

Joe Pasternack reacts to NCAA Tournament draw
UCSB basketball coach Joe Pasternack reacts upon seeing his Gauchos draw Baylor in the first-round of the South Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Credit: Jeff Liang / Noozhawk photo

“I think it’s great, going to the tournament and playing a great team like Baylor — just going out there to have fun and have that experience,” Ajay Mitchell said. “I think it’s going to be amazing.

“The platform is way different playing a big school like that. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be about us as a team, how we compete against big schools like that. It’s going to be great experience for us.”

Mitchell, a sophomore point guard averaging a team-high 16.4 points and 5.1 assists per game, won both the Big West Player of the Year and Tournament Most Valuable Player awards.

Miles Norris, a 6-10 forward who averages 14.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, will be playing in his third NCAA Tournament. He was a freshman reserve for the Oregon team that advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2019.

“It’s crazy playing Baylor, a team that’s won (the NCAA title),” he said. “But we’re all just excited to get out there and play on the big stage, one of the last 68 teams playing, when everyone’s watching.”

Norris, Josh Pierre-Louis and Ajare Sanni are the only players remaining from UCSB’s NCAA Tournament team of 2021. Norris had 13 points and six rebounds when the 12th-seeded Gauchos lost a 63-62 heartbreaker to No. 5 seed Creighton in a first-round game in Indianapolis.

“They’ll probably never forget that the rest of the life, the way the game ended,” Pasternack said. “They were really hungry to get back to the NCAA Tournament, and lost on a heartbreaker last year (at the Big West Tournament).

“But this is all about us. This is a totally different team than two years ago. I’m really excited for them to experience March Madness.”

Sanni, a starting guard, has missed the last nine games with a knee injury. He dressed, however, for the Big West Tournament.

“We really feel confident that he’ll come back, but we’ll see how practice goes this week,” Pasternack said.