With Rivalry Week in full swing across the country, the UCSB men’s basketball team will find the shadow of its biggest rival creeping up in the rearview mirror.
The Gauchos will square off against Utah State tonight at 7 in the Thunderdome for a chance at first place in the Big West Conference. Briefly in first place last week, UCSB has a shot at climbing to the top in the friendly confines of the Thunderdome.
“We need to have the best crowd we’ve had all year,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said.
Santa Barbara, 9-10 overall and 6-3 in the Big West, will try to knock the swagger and the strut out of a physical Utah State team (16-4, 7-2) that soundly defeated UCSB 75-59 at Logan on Jan. 11.
The Gauchos upended the Aggies when it counted most, in the Big West Tournament Championship game, 60-56 last March in Anaheim. Before last season’s thrilling victory over USU, Santa Barbara defeated Utah State only once in the regular season during Williams’ tenure, an overtime victory in Jan. 1999.
After destroying Irvine 70-54 last Thursday, the Gauchos know that the time to put Utah State away has arrived.
“We all have to step up on a personal level,” said senior forward Mark Hull, the all-time three-point shooter in Gaucho history with 198 after dropping two shots behind the arc against Long Beach State on Saturday. “We’ve seen them one time already and we’re ready for them. We’re looking forward for tonight and to pay them back a bit.”
Ready or not, UCSB knows that the Aggies must not control the offensive glass. In January’s setback, Utah State ripped down 39 rebounds, 15 more that the Gauchos.
“If we don’t make a concerted effort to keep them off the boards, we’ll be in for a long night,” UCSB Assistant Coach David Campbell said.
Utah State, the strongest rebounding team in the Big West, boasts a stupendous +8.0 rebounding margin.
Sophomore forward Spencer Nelson grabbed 12 boards and combined with senior forward and 2003 Big West Player of the Year candidate Desmond Penigar for 28 points in the January victory.
“We can’t afford to double off anybody,” Williams said. “We’ve got to make their inside scoring a lot more difficult on them. We won’t be in the game if we don’t. We can’t let them get easy buckets.”
Nelson, an unknown quantity before the game, will be on UCSB’s radar.
“I have a strange suspicion that we’ll be a little more focused on where Nelson is on the court this time,” Campbell said.
The Gauchos will also rely on the Big Three, Hull and junior guards Branduinn Fullove and Nick Jones, for the bulk of the points. Fullove is two points away from 1,000 in his career and averages 16 ppg this year. Hull and Jones average 14.2 and 13.1 ppg.
Hull has hit a wall on the offensive end, scoring 10 and eight points in the last two games, including a 2-8 field goal display at LBSU. His mini-slump, partially due to logging almost 35 minutes a night, has not rattled the coaches.
“Mark’s been awesome all year long,” Campbell said. “His presence on the floor is invaluable even if he doesn’t score one point.”
Though it’s not tournament time, all the players are looking to put the shadow of Utah State behind them.
“It’s time to come back,” freshman guard Josh Davis said. “We believe we’re going to win this game.”