Let’s not confuse the UCSB men’s basketball team challenge against the Utah State Aggies this Saturday with a hopeless attempt to upset the #24 team in the country. Forget not – David did slay Goliath.
In what is likely to be an epic conference battle, it is the Gauchos who have more at stake in the game, however. Santa Barbara seems content to downplay the grandness of the situation, though.
“We just want to go in there and give it our best effort,” UCSB junior forward Casey Cook said last week. “We have nothing to lose.”
Yet UCSB sits uncomfortably in third place in the Big West, two games behind the Pacific Tigers, who hold onto one of the coveted two-round byes in the Big West Tournament awarded to the conference’s top two seeds. The new tournament setup clearly favors the conference’s top two teams to advance to the Big Dance by granting them free rides to the tournament semifinals. Utah State Head Coach Stew Morrill has repeatedly stated that Utah State will not go undefeated in the Big West in an attempt to downplay pressure.
The Aggies didn’t attain a top-25 national ranking for nothing. Utah State is 18-1 overall and 10-0 in the Big West after beating Cal Poly ?-? on Thursday night. Critics have suggested that the Aggies have played a patsy schedule, yet USU’s starting five is the most complete in the Big West.
Senior guard Mark Brown runs the point of attack for the Aggies, looking deliberate in his passing and creative in his play-making ability. Comfortable with the system, Brown leads the conference in assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio. Senior guard Jacoby Atako isolated Brown at the Thunderdome on Jan. 10, but the turnover-prone Atako was not able to run a competent half-court offense against the Aggies’ petty zone defense. In the second go-around, Atako will need to provide post-entries to the UCSB forwards to get the Aggies’ two most potent weapons, junior forward Spencer Nelson and sophomore forward Nate Harris, into foul trouble and force a tentative defensive effort in the paint from Utah State.
Nelson (11.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 3.2 apg) and Harris (12.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.9 apg) have been uncanny down in the block. The two might be competing against each other for Big West Player of the Year awards. Nelson is the go-to guy and court leader for Morrill, yet it’s been three-straight Big West Player of the Week recipient Harris who has torched the nets with the hottest hand lately.
Senior guards Branduinn Fullove and Nick Jones will need to rise to the occasion and come out of their shells, particularly Jones. In the first game, UCSB could not stop Utah State’s offensive attack. With a proficient motion offense, Utah State can dissect UCSB’s zone defense with superior passing capability and optimal court vision. The script to beat the Aggies is fairly simple; the Gauchos have to make stops late in the game. Utah State has proven over its past 10 contests that it will let the opposition hang around. But with three minutes to go in the game, Nelson, Harris and senior guard Cardell Butler (13.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.1 apg) continually step up to bury teams in the coffin.
The Aggies are certainly beatable. The Gauchos don’t have a problem scoring and, for the first time all season, Santa Barbara is completely healthy. Clearly 11 deep, UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams can afford to rotate to find the hot hand. The Aggies conversely are realistically just six or seven deep, so foul trouble may be important on Saturday. If the Santa Barbara defense can prove capable of making stops in the halfcourt set, minimize its turnovers and consistently pose threats in the motion offense, there is no reason why the Gauchos can’t stage an upset on the road. Fullove loves big games but has emitted more emotion than production in games like Cal Poly and Pacific. Fullove will need to be able to both incite boos and bury threes to play that type of game.