Heading into this weekend’s road games, the UCSB men’s basketball team has already matched last season’s win total and has won eight of its last 10 games.
The Gauchos will look to continue a stretch of solid play when they travel to face UC Riverside on Thursday and Cal State Fullerton Saturday in a televised contest.
Santa Barbara enters the backend of a three-game road trip with an 11-5 overall record and 2-1 mark in Big West play. Riverside enters Thursday at 6-12 and 1-3 in the conference, while Fullerton is 6-11 and 1-2 in the Big West.
“I feel like we have some momentum, and I feel like we’re playing good basketball,” sophomore forward Mitch Brewe said. “The physical effort is there, I think we just need to put some mental things together. Closing games is big for us, so if we clean that up a little bit we definitely feel confident for Riverside and Fullerton this week.”
UCSB has won its two most recent games after dropping the conference opener to Cal Poly, rebounding with a home victory over Long Beach State before a road victory at Cal State Northridge, the first game of the Gauchos’ three-game road trip.
In last week’s victories, sophomore guard Michael Bryson shot an incredible 12-16 while garnering his second Big West Player of the Week honor this season.
“It feels great [to be honored]. We got two big wins that were really necessary for us to get after losing to Cal Poly,” Bryson said. “Me being able to be a part of those wins was definitely great.”
Bryson’s play was pivotal to the Gauchos’ success last week, as leading scorer Alan Williams was limited to an average of 14 points in the two contests. The junior center leads UCSB and the Big West with 22.8 points per game, good for fifth in the entire nation.
Big Al also ranks sixth in the nation with 11 rebounds per game and is second in the Big West at 2.4 blocks per game.
“We want other guys to step up. We saw the problem when it was just Al in a game where everybody else just couldn’t seem to get it going,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “It’s a group conversation about how we need to get other people involved, we need other people to step up, make plays, be aggressive, and I think we did a much better job of that the last two games.”
When scouting Riverside, Big Al and the rest of the UCSB big men will certainly face a tough matchup against sophomore Taylor Johns. The 6’7” forward leads Riverside in points at 12.8 per game while ranking third in the conference in rebounds (8.2) and blocks per game (1.9).
“I make it a mission to stop whoever I’m matched up against,” Brewe said. “If I am matched up against Riverside’s big guy, it’s going to be my personal mission. I know it’s Al’s mission and Sam’s mission to really stop him and keep him contained. That’s going to be part of the game plan, and we feel like we have the physical presence and the ability to do so.”
The Highlanders have lost four of their last five games, the lone victory being an 81-69 comeback win over UC Davis. UCSB split the season series with Riverside last season with each team winning on its home floor.
“Hopefully we’re not going to overlook them. We need to be edgy, and we’ve already lost a home game — that puts you in a little bit of a hole,” Coach Williams said. “We need to win as many road contests as possible. You want to be in the championship hunt, it’s about how many road games can you win, and we need to make sure we take advantage of any opportunity we have on the road.”
Fullerton, meanwhile, has also lost four of its last five contests with the only victory coming in a 78-73 home contest against Riverside. The Gauchos also split last year’s contest against the Titans, winning at home and falling on the road.
Tip-off against Riverside on Thursday is scheduled for 7 p.m., while Saturday’s contest at Fullerton is set for a 7:30 p.m. start on Fox Sports Prime Ticket.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January 23rd’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus