When Sports Illustrated recently listed UCSB as the best sports school in the Big West Conference, one reason for the Gauchos’ national recognition comes to mind. Make that two reasons.
The UCSB men’s and women’s basketball teams, introduced last Friday on Media Day, will return to the court in 2002-03 to defend their Big West titles. 2002 marked the first time that both the men’s and women’s squads clinched postseason crowns in the same season.
And with four of five starters returning for both teams, no one will expect anything less than a basketball sweep and another trip to the Big Dance.
Seven of the top nine scorers return from last season’s women’s team. Two-time All-Big West player and 2002 Big West Tournament MVP junior center Lindsay Taylor leads the Gauchos. The 6’8″ post player tallied 12.8 points and seven rebounds per game last year.
Senior guards Debby Caine and Jess Hansen solidify a solid backcourt. Sophomore guard Mia Fisher and All-Big West sophomore forward Kristen Mann, the Big West Freshman of the Year, also return.
“We’re going to be good, very good,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said of his women’s squad. “I think we have a nice mix of talent and a bulk of our scoring back.”
Four of five starters will return on the men’s squad including senior forward Mark Hull, junior forward Branduinn Fullove and junior guards Nick Jones and Jacoby Atako. Senior forward Bray Skultety, senior point guard B.J. Ward, junior forward Bryan Whitehead and sophomore point guard Chrismen Oliver also played significant minutes during the 2001-02 season.
“I think we should be as good as, if not better than, last year,” UCSB Assistant Coach Marty Wilson said about the men’s team. “We have a lot more depth this year than last year, especially at the 1-4 spot. Our biggest question is who’s going to step up at the five.”
Skultety may end up being the answer at the center position. Skultety, the fiercest competitor and strongest rebounder on the roster, came on late in the season to give the Gauchos a huge boost on the defensive end of the court.
“Tell you what, Bray may be the guy that solidifies himself at that five spot,” Wilson said. “He’s undersized, but he’s as tough as any guy we have.”
Santa Barbara worked “their tails off all summer” in the weight room, Wilson said, realizing that a deep team must wear down its opponents as the season rolls along. “I think our guys, collectively as a team, probably have worked harder in strength and conditioning than any team in the country.”
The men’s team will enjoy the presence of several newcomers as well. Redshirt freshman Cecil Brown will be a significant presence in the backcourt, and redshirt freshman center Scott Rainey will help in the paint. True freshmen guard Josh Davis and forward Glenn Turner will try and earn significant minutes. The depth at both guard positions is unprecedented for any of UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams’ past teams.
“All these guards out here, I think it’s great. We got like eight, nine guards,” Fullove said. “I think it’s really good in practice. Everyone’s got their own style of game, so in practice you’re always going against someone different and everyone’s competing for time.”
The women’s squad will try to clinch an unprecedented seventh consecutive Big West Championship and a spot in the NCAA Tournament without Kayte Christensen, last year’s Big West Player of the Year and UCSB’s leading scorer and rebounder. Factor in the loss of last year’s most indispensable player and team leader, and the Gauchos are left sighing and scratching their heads.
“It’s definitely a loss,” Mann said. “Not only is she a phenomenal basketball player, but I think she was a great example to all of us.”
With the loss of Christensen, UCSB will need to get scoring production from across the lineup and the bench. The Gauchos are extremely deep this season and hope that the seven sophomores can step up and compete for playing time, forcing the starters to play on their toes.
“As a result of last year’s freshman, we are going to be better, sooner,” French said. “Lindsay’s progression should be interesting. She will have to establish herself as our go-to player and inside scoring threat which will hopefully let her step out of Kayte’s shadow.”
Santa Barbara is ranked No. 22 in an early 2002-2003 pre-season Women’s Basketball News Service poll. UCSB begins its march into March on Nov. 22 at North Carolina State.
“I think this team has the potential to get to the Sweet 16,” Caine said. “If we play consistent to our level and not down to our opponent, we have a shot.”
For the men, they have only one goal in mind to build from last year: “Win,” Wilson said. “Win. Win the league. That’s always our goal. Get to the tournament this year and win at least one game. That’s our plan.”