It’s certainly presumptuous to rename UCSB the minor leagues for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) but the Gauchos have created a credible reputation with professional basketball teams, graduating a bevy of talent to the next level over the last few years.

Expected to hear her name called during the 2005 WNBA Draft in April is Santa Barbara All-American candidate Kristen Mann. The 6’2″ senior forward and four-year starter appears to have the talent that could allow her to excel at the next level. Mann has made a living at Santa Barbara getting to the hoop and making contact but, given too much space in the perimeter, the 2003 All-Big West First Teamer will spot up in your face and make you pay.

“If there is an opportunity [to go to the WNBA], I would definitely take it,” Mann said. “I’ve tried not to look into it too much this season. I don’t even know if there have been scouts here or not because our coaches don’t want me to get distracted.”

Professional scouts have certainly shown interest in Mann, specifically this season, after replacing three time Big West Tournament MVP Lindsay Taylor as Santa Barbara’s go-to threat. UCSB Assistant Head Coach Carter Shaw said that scouts from every WNBA team have shown interest in the swingman and frequent the Thunderdome to watch her play games.

“She’s a gifted one-on-one basketball player but her versatility separates her from most people in the country,” Shaw said. “There’s just no way to defend her. She’s definitely going to have opportunity to play at the next level.”

UCSB Head Coach Mark French and the coaching staff have deliberately worked on some of the weaker parts of Mann’s game to improve the Gaucho basketball team but also to prepare her for a career after Santa Barbara. French asks that his players live by his motto: Habits of Excellence.

“We stress to all of our players the importance of being well-rounded,” French said.

Mann leads the Big West in scoring at 22.1 points per contest, shooting an incredible 48 percent from the floor. Mann also knows how to dial long-distance, shooting the sixth best mark in the Big West from three-point range at 34 percent. Yet one of her biggest statistical improvements has been banging the boards, marked by her team-best 8.7 rebounds per game, which is fourth-best in the conference.

Santa Barbara has sent five players to the WNBA, sending a pair of posts to the Phoenix Mercury in Kayte Christensen and Lindsay Taylor in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Christensen, who is playing the off-season in Slovakia, and Taylor, who is also playing abroad, are the only two UCSB alumnae currently playing in the WNBA. Erin Alexander (Utah/Los Angeles), Erin Buescher (Charlotte/Minnesota) and Stacy Clinesmith (Detroit/Sacramento) are the other players that have spent time in the WNBA. Seven Gauchos have played in Europe, including 2003 graduate Jess Hansen, who is now playing in Germany.

“These players have paved the way for somebody like Kristen to play in the WNBA,” Shaw said.

If Mann is drafted in April and she signs a contract, she will have still have to make the team, something both Christensen and Taylor were able to do after being drafted in the second rounds. The WNBA minimum rookie salary is just $30,000 and the veteran’s minimum is $40,000 for the four-month season, which begins in April and extends through July. Mann said that many WNBA players play overseas in the off-season to hone their skills and earn more money than basketball leagues in the United States can offer. Mann has done some traveling through basketball over her college career, playing for Team USA in Croatia in 2003 and with UCSB in Australia last summer.

“I would love to go anywhere that’s safe,” Mann said. “Italy and Spain have pretty good basketball organizations.”

With last season’s impressive run to the NCAA’s Sweet 16, Taylor’s draft stock certainly raised with heightened national exposure. This season, Santa Barbara is in position to win another Big West title and go dancing at the NCAA Tournament.

“I know that I personally need to have a good year to enter the draft, but I just want to win the Big West and get to the NCAA Tournament,” Mann said.