For a couple of weeks now, the UCSB and UC Davis men’s basketball teams have remained deadlocked at the top of the Big West standings. That will come to an end on Thursday night in Davis.
Neither team has been able to edge ahead of the other in conference play, with both sides racking up 7-2 records thus far. Santa Barbara does hold the advantage in the overall mark boasting an 18-5 record compared to Davis’s 16-7 record.
On Thursday, they’ll have their first head-to-head meeting in a clash for conference supremacy.
The Gauchos will be coming in hot as winners of their last six games. It’s a streak that includes victories over some of the top teams in the conference, such as Hawaii and UC Irvine.
UCSB will have a chance to take complete control of the Big West Thursday, but they’ll do so away from the friendly walls of the Thunderdome. The Gauchos are 11-0 at home this year, the longest such streak to start a season in school history, but they are just 6-5 on the road.
Some of that disparity is attributable to the top-25 schools UCSB has played on the road, but an away win over a top Big West competitor would do wonders for the team’s confidence as it heads into the homestretch.
A rough start to conference play defensively put the Gauchos in a hole early, but they’ve battled back since. No team has scored more than 70 points in regulation against UCSB since their Jan. 13 loss to Hawaii, a major turnaround that has helped propel the team up the Big West standings.
A strong defense will be especially important against a UC Davis team that’s coming off of a 105-point performance, albeit in double overtime, against Long Beach State on Saturday. The Aggies won that game on a running three-pointer by TJ Shorts II with just two seconds to go. That’s a major high, and one that the Gauchos might be able to take advantage of on the comedown.
To do so, UCSB will rely heavily on sophomore guard Max Heidegger and graduate transfer Leland King II on offense, just as they have all season. King has been particularly potent as of late, as his double-double average over the Gauchos’ two wins last week earned the forward the honor of Big West Player of the Week.
King is now averaging 16.2 points and 10.6 rebounds on the year and is knocking down about two three-pointers a game at a 42.3 percent clip. That’s almost as good as Heidegger’s 42.4 percent rate from distance, a sparkling percentage that has propelled the sophomore to his team-leading 20.9 points per game.
The major question mark heading into Thursday’s game is the status of King’s frontcourt mate, Jalen Canty. Canty, who missed Saturday’s game against CSUN due to a suspension for violation of a team rule, is averaging about 13 points and eight rebounds per game. As of Monday night, the team had made no announcement on the senior’s status for Thursday.
UCSB isn’t alone in dealing with questions regarding a suspended big man. UCD sent senior forward Chima Moneke home before Saturday’s game in Long Beach and has also made no announcement as to whether or not the big man will play.
If Moneke is out, that’s a major blow to the Aggies. The 6’6” forward is averaging a team-leading 18.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, and he proved himself on a big stage against Kansas in last year’s NCAA Tournament with 20 points and nine rebounds.
On Saturday, UCD proved they could fill in for Moneke’s absence on the scoreboard, but his rebounding will be tougher to replace. No other player on the team is averaging more than four rebounds per game, and it’s likely that 6’3” guard Michael Onyebalu will struggle to replicate his 11-rebound performance from Saturday.
Without Moneke, the offensive burden would likely fall to junior guards Shorts and Siler Schneider. Both players were successful in doing so against Long Beach, as Shorts put up a team-high 31 points while Schneider was close behind with 27.
It’s unclear whether either big man, Canty or Moneke, will play on Saturday, but it’s a question that will have major impacts on the course of the game, and thus on the Big West.
It’s taken about a month of conference play for these two teams to meet, and they’ll finally do so with very high stakes. Looming suspensions cast a pall over the long-awaited matchup, which will likely be determined by which team can adapt the best and break the deadlock in their favor.
UCSB will take on UC Davis at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8 at The Pavilion.
A version of this story appeared on p. 6 of the Feb. 8, 2018, edition of the Daily Nexus.