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Exactly at the halfway point of conference play, the UCSB men’s basketball team has often looked like the best team in the Big West. That assessment will certainly be tested tonight when the Gauchos face rival Long Beach State on the road to open the second half of conference play.
Santa Barbara sits in second place in the Big West with a 6-2 conference record (15-6 overall) and is a mere half-game behind first place UC Irvine in the win column. Long Beach is third in the conference with a 6-3 record (10-13 overall) and has won five of its last six contests since falling to the Gauchos on Jan. 16.
“It’s going to be a challenge for sure because they’re playing really good basketball,” junior center Alan Williams said. “We’re not playing the same Long Beach team we played in that second week of the [conference] season. It definitely won’t be a cakewalk. If we stick to the game plan and listen to the coaches play … we’ll have a good chance.”
When the two teams previously met, Santa Barbara defeated Long Beach 64-51 at the Thunderdome behind a balanced offensive attack with no player scoring more than 13 points. Despite committing 19 turnovers (compared to the 49ers’ seven), the Gauchos managed to hold Long Beach to under 30 percent shooting on the night and an even worse 19 percent in three-pointers.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a lot tougher to play there because I would bet money that they shoot a whole lot better [tonight] than they did at our place,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “They’ve won five of their last six in league and they’ve been a very formidable team.”
Long Beach’s leading scorer and assist man in junior point guard Mike Caffey led the team with 21 points last time against UCSB, but was the only player to score in double figures. Junior guard Tyler Lamb, who averages over 15 points per game, was held to five points on a dreadful 1-13 shooting in the loss.
“That’s what our goal is, to execute our defense the way we need to and make them take the shots we want them to take,” sophomore guard Michael Bryson said. “I doubt they’re going to shoot as poorly as they did at our house.”
Bryson led the Gauchos with 13 points against Long Beach in January and has lifted UCSB in recent games, scoring 18 in last week’s victory over Hawaii. The athletic wing player ranks third on the team with just under 11 points per game.
“He’s regained his shooting form and he’s playing very physical and rebounding and playing tough,” Coach Williams said. “He’s a key ingredient for us. He’s one of those versatile pieces that allows us to play several different sizes.”
UCSB enters the game off three straight victories, the fourth such time this season. The Gauchos have yet to win four straight, however, and will look to do so against a Long Beach team that will have the crowd on its side.
“I think it’s a really tough environment, it’s a great home crowd. They’ll have it sold out, it’ll be rocking,” Coach Williams said. “They’ve made basketball a real priority there and you can tell by their home attendance that it’s something that they’ve put a lot into as a whole school.”
Leading the charge in the hostile environment will be Big Al who ranks eighth in the country in points per game and fourth in rebounds. Williams leads the Big West in points and rebounds, is second in blocks and ranks seventh in field goal percentage and steals.
“Al has had a superior year, he’s been absolutely spectacular. He brings it night in and night out and I think he’s getting better,” Coach Williams said. “His conditioning looks better, his confidence in shooting the ball from the perimeter is getting better — he’s improving in every way.”
While things are certainly looking good for the Gauchos as a program, the team received devastating news that sophomore guard John Green will miss the rest of the season with a fractured wrist. Green previously missed the past two seasons with foot injuries, and after finally playing in his first regular season game as a Gaucho this season, will miss a third consecutive year to injury.
“It sucks. It’s a really sad and unfortunate and unlucky kind of situation. John is the strongest guy that I know and I know he’ll get through it,” Big Al said. “We’ll consistently pray for him and maintain our faith. He’s going through a lot right now but his spirits are up and this team is picking him up. I just can’t wait until he finally gets back out there on the court.”
Now with even more motivation to play for their fallen teammate, the Gauchos will certainly be ready for the task against a Long Beach program that has consistently battled UCSB atop the Big West standings in recent years.
“We think it’s going to be a pretty hostile place. It always is,” Big Al said. “It’s always a big game between us two and their fans really show up and make a lot of noise. They’re going to be out there hungry for a win so it should be a good environment.”
UCSB faces Long Beach State at the Walter Pyramid tonight for a 7 p.m. start time.
A version of this article appeared on pages 1 and 6 of February 13, 2014’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.