In a nationally televised matchup costarring the top two teams in the Big West conference, the UCSB men’s basketball team will travel to face undefeated Long Beach State tonight. The game, televised on ESPN2, features a rematch of each of the last two Big West Tournament championships.
“We are ready to go,” senior guard Orlando Johnson said. “We have had this game marked on the calendar for a while now, and here it is.”
Led by the senior duo of Johnson and forward James Nunnally, UCSB (15-8 overall, 9-3 Big West) remains in a tie for second place in the Big West with Cal State Fullerton (18-7, 9-3) with four games remaining on the schedule.
Johnson comes into the game second in the Big West in scoring at 19 points per game. For his efforts last weekend in road wins over UC Irvine and Utah State, he was named Big West Player of the Week for the sixth time in his career, tying him with two current Long Beach State players — senior guard Casper Ware and senior guard Larry Anderson — for the third most in Big West history. Johnson is currently third on the UCSB all-time career scoring list, just 13 points out of second place and 22 shy of the school’s all-time record.
“We are a really confident team right now,” Johnson said. “We had to grow up a little bit, and I feel like we did that in the past few weeks — we are getting better each game.”
Nunnally ranks second on the team and 10th in the conference with 12.9 points per game and ninth in the conference with six rebounds per game.
Long Beach (19-7, 12-0 Big West), after playing one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, entered Big West play with a .500 record at 7-7. Since then, the 49ers have dominated Big West opponents, winning 12 games in a row by an average margin of victory of 13.3 points.
“It just takes a good game [to beat Long Beach],” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “No doubt we will have to play very well and execute, but it won’t take a perfect game. They have played well, but are by no means untouchable.”
Led by four prolific senior starters of its own in guards Ware and Anderson and forwards T.J. Robinson and Eugene Phelps, Long Beach leads the league in scoring defense (62.7 points allowed per game), field goal percentage (.486), rebounding margin (+4.5) and steals (6.4 per game).
“They are a team that just has a different gear than any other team, especially defensively,” Williams said. “We have to adjust and control the game on the offensive end — that means being more physical, setting good screens, and taking care of the basketball.”
Several NBA scouts will be in the house on Wednesday night, with Johnson and Ware as the main attractions. In a matchup between the schools earlier this season, it was all Ware and Long Beach as the 49ers jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. Behind a stellar .587 percent shooting performance, Long Beach stunned a sell-out crowd at the Thunderdome to beat the Gauchos 71-48. UCSB was never able to get a rhythm going and had a tough time finding easy buckets all game.
“The main thing is that we need to come out with a better defensive energy than last time,” Johnson said.
While Long Beach thrives on pushing the ball in an up-tempo offensive system, the Gauchos will attempt to combat the 49ers’ speed with their own big lineup.
“We don’t think we took advantage of our big lineup against them,” Williams said. “We didn’t get our big guys — mainly Jaimé [Serna] — the ball enough in the right positions.”
This will be Santa Barbara’s final road game of the season, as the Gauchos will play their final three games at home in the Thunderdome. Tip-off is set for Wednesday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN2.