The UCSB men’s basketball team has heard just about enough of how good Irvine is and hopes to go out and show the Big West how good the Gauchos are.
After falling 80-56 to the Anteaters on the heels of a long road trip in mid-January, Santa Barbara is shooting for more success during tonight’s contest against Irvine at 5:30 in the Thunderdome. The Gauchos (5-10 overall, 2-3 in the Big West) are facing an uphill climb in the conference if they lose their fourth straight game, especially to the streaking Anteaters. Irvine (12-2, 5-0) has won nine consecutive games and poses a serious threat to Utah State for supremacy in the Big West.
“This is one of the best teams in the nation,” sophomore point guard B.J. Ward said. “They lost two games this year, and one of them was to UCLA. This is a really good team we’re playing.”
In order to win tonight’s battle, UCSB will have to get better production from starting point guard Jacoby Atako, who has connected on only 11.1 percent of his shots during the last three losses. Senior power forward Juliano Jordani and freshman forward Casey Cook will have to help inside on the Anteater’s solid interior game and contribute offensively off the bench.
Irvine is led by swingman Jerry Green and his 17.5 points per game. Green is the key player on either side of the ball, and controlling him will be a priority.
“We’re focusing on Jerry Green,” Ward said. “We have to work on containing him. He’s a really quick player. He can just go off, and we have to keep a handle on him. We’ve been working on executing our offense, but we know our offense will come. We’ve been mostly focusing on defense.”
After the teams’ first meeting this season, the Gauchos hope they don’t run out of gas against the athletic Anteaters. The players also realize the importance of playing in front of their fans at the Thunderdome.
“It’s always an advantage to play at home,” Cook said. “We got to get the fire and intensity going since we lost to Irvine earlier. We should play with a lot more emotion.”
Another key to Santa Barbara’s success in tonight’s game will be the consistent production of the starting lineup. Redshirt freshman guard Nick Jones and freshman guard Branduinn Fullove have been the team’s most aggressive inside-outside threat and must put pressure on Irvine to try and force their game plan. Hull will have to increase his role offensively by playing with more intensity in the second half. The Gauchos will lean on junior forward Mike Vukovich to be the rock in the middle now that senior forward Adama Ndiaye officially redshirted his senior season.
“We’ve been playing knowing that Adama won’t be coming back this year,” Ward said. “We miss him a lot, but we’re doing OK. In the one-two point losses, we could have really used his presence. But we’re OK. We can do this.”
After having almost a week to think about their nailbiting losses to Long Beach State and Idaho, the Gauchos appear to be focused on halting the steamrolling Anteaters from continuing their dominance in conference play.
“We’re going to be ready,” Vukovich said. “We are going to try and hand it to them and try to get a little revenge against them.”