What a difference one year can make. Last season, the UCSB men’s basketball team struggled for much of the year, hampered by injuries to the third-youngest roster in the nation. This season, Santa Barbara looks like a much more mature team that is poised to compete for a Big West title behind an arsenal of offensive weapons.
“We have so many potent offensive players that there will be times where each one of us has our time to shine. For the other team, it makes us hard to guard and hard to scout when we have so many perimeter players and Al down low,” senior guard Kyle Boswell said. “We’ve all kind of excelled in our roles, especially in terms of being unselfish as a team and playing for each other. It’s unlike a team I’ve been on before.”
Santa Barbara finished non-conference play with a 9-4 overall record, a mark somewhat expected for a squad selected to finish second in the conference preseason media poll. What wasn’t expected, however, was the ability of the Gauchos to stick with some of the top teams in the nation, especially with a non-conference schedule that ranked 29th in the nation in strength of schedule.
The biggest game for UCSB this season was an impressive 72-65 victory over visiting Cal in front of a raucous home crowd. Add in a 86-65 shellacking of UNLV on the road and a victory over South Dakota State, a NCAA tournament team last season, and it is evident the Gauchos have the ability to win both at home and on the road.
Perhaps equally as telling was UCSB’s ability to play neck-to-neck with a pair of ranked teams in UCLA and Colorado on the road. Santa Barbara eventually lost both but showed in each game that it has the talent to compete with some of the top teams in the country.
“Being exposed to the best talent in the country is always a good thing in the preseason, it kind of lets you know what’s out there and what you can do as a team to get to their level,” Boswell said. “It really prepares you for league, especially when night in and night out it’s a grind.”
No one has contributed to the Gauchos progression more than junior center Alan Williams, a first-team All-Big West selection last season. Big Al was a preseason All-Big West selection this year and has delivered in a big way, ranking fifth in the nation in scoring at 23.5 points per game and ninth in the nation in rebounding at 10.4 rebounds per game. Williams is one of only two players in the nation averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
“[What’s allowed me to perform this well] is my teammates. Them growing as much as I’ve grown and all of us growing together is really important for us,” Big Al said. “I’m only as good as the guys next to me, so me being able to do the things that I’ve been able to do this year is solely based on my teammates’ consistent improvement. They’ve been getting a lot better and everybody’s growing, so it’s been a lot easier on me.”
Big Al’s most dominant game was a 39-point, nine-rebound, eight-block performance against South Dakota State, but Williams has shown the ability to perform against top-level competition as well. Against UCLA, Big Al scored 23 points to go along with eight rebounds, while he added 24 points and 12 rebounds against Cal.
“An argument can be made that he is the best big man in the West Coast. When we’ve played against good bigs, when we played against UNLV, when we played against Cal, when we played against those guys, he’s man-handled them,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “He’s come a long way and he still has a long way to go. But, boy oh boy, has his passion for competing and his game just expanded to where he is the real deal.”
Playing second fiddle to Williams is Boswell who ranks second on the team with over 12 points per game. Last year’s Big West Sixth Man of the Year, Boswell is as dangerous a threat from behind the arc as there is in the conference, shooting .488 from the three for fourth best in the Big West.
Boswell also ranks second on the team with 3.5 assists per game (sixth in the Big West) and his assist to turnover ration ranks 11th in the nation. He, like Williams, has a knack for stepping up in big moments, and despite his role off the bench, is always on the floor when the game is on the line. Boswell
“Just in the last two seasons being in that role, I just feel comfortable being a spark off the bench,” Boswell said. “The more unselfish we play, the more treacherous we are on the offensive end. We got a lot of guys involved, and in the preseason, we found our roles as team members, and we’re excelling at each of them at this point.”
One of the biggest reasons for UCSB’s success this season has been limiting turnovers, as the Gauchos 10.8 turnovers per game rank second-best in the Big West. Junior point guard Zalmico Harmon, a transfer from Ventura College, has aided that effort greatly with a conference-best 5.2 assists per game. Harmon ranks ninth in the nation in assist to turnover ratio as well.
Freshman point guard Eric Childress has helped Santa Barbara off the bench with 3.2 assists (eighth in the Big West) and 1.4 steals per game (10th in the conference).
“It’s been absolutely a godsend to have two new point guards come into the program … and it’s been so valuable to have two guys whose assist to turnover ratio rank in the top 20 in the country,” Head Coach Williams said. “They’re unselfish pass-first guards, score when they need to and love to defend. They’ve been really good additions to this program.”
Adding to the depth of UCSB is a pair of talented sophomore wing players in Michael Bryson and Taran Brown. Bryson’s 10.6 points rank third on the team and his .439 three-point percentage ranks sixth in the conference.
Brown, meanwhile, ranks second for UCSB in blocks and rebounds and is one of the most athletic players in the league with his incredible speed and leaping ability at 6’8”. Both have matured tremendously this season and are a big reason UCSB is taking better care of the ball and ranks as the top three-point shooting team in the conference.
“We’ve grown as a team, especially mentally, we’ve grown a lot,” Big Al said. “We don’t turn the ball over a lot, and we take care of the ball. We’re a very unselfish team, which is good especially going into league. We’ve got to stay together.”
Providing important play down low is trio of forwards senior Shawn Moore and sophomores Mitch Brewe and Sam Beeler. Moore, a walk-on, provides UCSB with a versatile player who can defend guards or forwards despite his 6’5” frame. Beeler has proven valuable as a backup center and has an imposing presence in the post thanks to his 6’10” build.
Brewe has emerged the most of the three, breaking his way into the starting lineup and recording his first career double-double on Saturday against Master’s College. Brewe, Beeler and Moore may not be highly celebrated, but all three play important roles for the team, especially defensively.
Much of the Gauchos success this season can be attributed to its improved defense, as they rank second in the conference in defensive points allowed and first in defensive field goal percentage.
While the team has stayed relatively healthy, injuries have plagued two important players for the Gauchos. Sophomore guard John Green is out indefinitely with a foot injury, his third in as many years. Green played in one game for the Gauchos this season and his future for the remainder of the season remains in question. Junior point guard T.J. Taylor, last season’s starter, will also miss the entire season due to offseason surgery.
With such a talented and deep team, UCSB has a great chance to capture the Big West title this season and return to the post season for the third time in the last five seasons.
“We have a lot of things to improve on, but what I like about this team is we’re relentless and we’re always willing to improve on some of the aspects of our game that we struggled with,” Boswell said. “We have so much talent on this team and we’re so close to each other that I feel like something special is bound to happen this year.”
UCSB begins Big West play on Saturday when it hosts rival Cal Poly in the first installment of the Blue-Green rivalry. Tip-off is scheduled for 4 p.m.
A version of this article appeared on pages 1 and 8 of January 8, 2013′s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.