Media day for the UCSB men’s and women’s basketball team came and went last Friday afternoon at the Thunderdome without much fanfare. But those in attendance could not help but feel the optimism surrounding the Gauchos’ 2001-02 upcoming season.
For the women, the reason for optimism is clear. Santa Barbara has won five straight Big West Championships, and there is no reason why UCSB can’t make it six-pack in 2001-02. The team is returning seven players from last year’s championship squad, including Big West Player of the Year candidate Kayte Christensen and last year’s Big West Freshman of the Year, sophomore center Lindsay Taylor.
“We expect to get past first round the NCAA [Tournament] this season,” Taylor said. “That is our goal. I don’t have any personal goals; I just want to help the team achieve as much as it can.”
For the men, optimism returns in the form of 6’9″ senior center, Adama Ndiaye, returning from 2000-01 season washed out by a fractured finger. Ndiaye has used his off-season to bulk up, adding at least 10 pounds of muscle in hopes of becoming the preeminent center in the Big West Conference.
Including Ndiaye, the Gauchos are returning five other starters from the previous season making this the deepest and most experienced squad UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams has fielded in his fourth season at Santa Barbara.
“We’re excited that this year’s team may be the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Williams said. “We have virtually six returning starters…we have maybe the best all-around players since I’ve been here.”
In addition to Ndiaye’s presence, the Gauchos will be blessed with four returning All-Big West performers. Senior Mike Vukovich, junior Mark Hull and sophomores Nick Jones and Branduinn Fullove[ add immense scoring punch to the Gauchos’ attack.
The most fundamental advantage UCSB has is its experience. For the first time in school history, Santa Barbara started three freshmen in multiple contests: Jones, Fullove and sophomore point guard Jacoby Atako. Playing with each other for an entire year and working out in the off-season should pay dividends immediately.
“Experience right now is our biggest strength,” Atako said. “All our starters are returning and Adama is back. Everyone knows what to expect out of us.”
While one of the advantages for the men’s team will be its experience, the same cannot be said of the women’s squad. The Gaucho roster in 2001-02 will be freshman heavy, as UCSB Head Coach Mark French brought in seven new players, comprising the fifth-best recruiting class in the country.
UCSB’s five blue-chip recruits, guards Karena Bonds, Mia Fisher and Kristen Mann, and forwards Hillary Jager and Brandy Richardson, are all expected to contribute immediately. However, as talented as they may be, the freshmen know that adjusting to Division I basketball at its highest level will be no easy task.
“[The competition] is so much more than high school,” Jager said. “I never played any club [basketball], so I’m really looking forward to it. It will help me improve, and my teammates, so we can work together on the court.”
The Gauchos play one of the toughest schedules in the country in the upcoming season in hopes of preparing for the level of competition they will play if the make the NCAA Tournament. Santa Barbara believes that next season’s blend of veterans and freshmen will take the program to the next level.
“I’m hoping that the preseason schedule will bring us all some experience and get us ready for postseason play,” junior guard Jess Hansen said. “I’m excited. It will be really fun. Nothing’s better than going on the road and beating a team on their home floor.”
Despite its depth, the men’s team is feeling the tinge of injuries to two players. Sophomore center J.J. Todd herniated a disc in his back in June, limiting his offseason workout regiment. However, Todd is determined to rejoin the team healthy for the regular season opener against Westmont, Nov. 17.
“I will play this year,” Todd said. “I have so much energy built up inside from sitting around this summer. I definitely want to contribute and get healthy to help out where I can.”
Freshman guard Cecil Brown is suffering from a back injury and is likely to redshirt the upcoming season, according to Williams. Another freshman, forward Scott Rainey, is also likely to redshirt.
The Gauchos will also welcome transfer sophomore forward Bryan Whitehead. Redshirt freshmen include guards Chrismen Oliver and Chris Newell.
Santa Barbara also has a two-pronged attack at point guard. Atako is likely to start, and junior B.J. Ward will provide necessary experience off the bench. Atako and Ward shared duties last year, and the duo improved as the season progressed.
Another dynamic duo for UCSB will be Ndiaye and Vukovich plugging up the middle. The seniors will participate in their first significant roles with each other. Vukovich filled in admirably for Ndiaye, collecting 11.1 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.
“[Playing together] gives us an advantage,” Vukovich said. “On defense especially, someone gets the ball and gets past me, Adama is there to block the shot. On offense, [Ndiaye] gives us another weapon. It’s hard to double team someone who can score.”
Ndiaye is especially motivated to put the final touches on a solid career at UCSB after watching his team go through some growing pains. For Ndiaye, this is the time.
“I’m excited, man,” Ndiaye said. “I’m probably more excited than all those other guys out there. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a year.
“[The only goal is to] win the Big West. There are no other expectations than that.”