A young team can be expected to go through some growing pains during its first season.

With freshmen guards Branduinn Fullove, Jacoby Atako and Nick Jones receiving extensive playing time this season, the UCSB men’s basketball team realizes that every game is a learning experience. This young talent can produce thrilling victories, such as the Gauchos’ 80-77 triple overtime win against San Diego State. Yet inexperience can also result in disappointing losses, like Santa Barbara’s back-to-back defeats in games against Long Beach State and Idaho.

UCSB is now entering the heart of its Big West competition, and veterans, especially starting junior forward Mike Vukovich, have started to pick up their play and provide leadership, both on the court and in the locker room.

Vukovich, thrust into the starting lineup after the devastating injury to senior center Adama Ndiaye, has produced his finest season in a Gaucho uniform. Vukovich is pouring in 11.2 points a game and tearing down 5.9 rebounds on the season. The power forward started to come on strong toward the end of last season and says that he has carried that over to this year.

“I think it’s just a matter of me getting some confidence and getting in there and playing,” Vukovich said. “Towards the end of last year I got a lot more playing time, and that’s carried over to this season.”

With his extended playing time, Vukovich has been able to dramatically improve his career averages in both points and rebounds. Vukovich credits his increased production to many things, including changing his playing style.

“I think my aggressiveness has definitely improved, and I’m calling for the ball a lot more now,” Vukovich said. “I’m just trying to be a strong inside presence.”

While Vukovich has become an aggressive force in the paint, he is exactly the opposite off the court. A lover of the beach, Vukovich also learned to surf at his home in Huntington Beach. When he’s not bumming it on the sand, Vukovich likes to tear it up, Playstation style.

“I’ve got a Playstation and one of my buddies just got a Playstation too,” Vukovich said. “I like NBA Live and Madden and all those sports games.”

But Vukovich says that by no means is he the team’s Playstation King. He says those honors go to former Gaucho basketball point guard, Larry Bell.

“Larry Bell is pretty good, and a couple of other guys too. That’s all they do,” Vukovich said.

One of the main reasons Vukovich has seen extensive minutes this season is because of Ndiaye’s fractured ring finger. Since they play the same position, Ndiaye has been able to give Vukovich advice on his game.

“[Ndiaye] gives me little pointers on what he sees during the game,” Vukovich said. “He’s in the same position that I was last year – not playing that much. He helped me out during the beginning of the year when I was having some problems playing. He told me that he went through the same thing last year and gave me some pointers on how to get through it.”

On a team that starts three freshmen and a sophomore, forward Mark Hull, the new and improved Vukovich has become a go-to player and a threat in the post. Vukovich and Ndiaye both realize the importance the freshmen athletes have on the team in the future.

“The most important thing is for them to realize that one loss is not the end of the world. Our guys are really young and inexperienced, and it’s important for them to get better and learn from their mistakes,” Ndiaye said.

“I just tell them to calm down and concentrate,” Vukovich said. “They play a little fast at times, but other than that they’re really good players, and they get better everyday.”

While some people may be surprised by Vukovich’s improved play this season, Ndiaye is not.

“Mike is a really good player, and we all know it,” Ndiaye said. “The fact that he didn’t get many minutes meant that he didn’t get to show what he was capable of. I’m really proud of him, that he was able to step up and do the things that were asked of him.”

Santa Barbara is now entering the stretch run of its season; it’s put up or shut up time, and Vukovich believes that he and the rest this team can raise their level of play.

“Right now our goals are to get better every day and make a run in the Big West tournament so we can be in the NCAA tournament,” Vukovich said. “Personally, I want to get better too. I’m going to try and be more aggressive, score some more points and grab some rebounds.”