One would think that eight new players and an injured top scorer and starting forward would spell doom for any basketball team. At the least, 2006-2007 seemed to be a rebuilding year for the UCSB men’s basketball program.
But the Gauchos (11-4 overall, 3-1 in the Big West) have battled through these shortcomings to get off to their best start since the 1988-1989 team went 12-1 in nonconference games and began Big West play as one of the early season favorites. The squad has already put together a pair of four-game winning streaks and its overall record is second best in the conference.
“We’ve had some good wins and have learned a lot about our team,” junior forward Chris Devine said. “A lot of these wins are wins I don’t think we would have gotten last year.”
A huge reason for Santa Barbara’s fast start has been the emergence of junior guard Alex Harris in the conference’s elite. The Alameda native netted a career-high 25 points in a season-opening home victory over San Jose State, and in the subsequent matches he averaged 20.3 points per game, the fourth-best in the Big West.
Harris’ strong start carried into the first weekend of conference action as he notched a new career-high of 32 points in the opener against UC Riverside, and added a season high of nine rebounds in a victory over Cal State Fullerton. His performance earned him his second Big West Player of the Week honor of the season.
“[Harris’s] pre-league start has been as good as anyone’s in the conference,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “But to be considered among the elite, he needs to do it in league games and at both ends of the floor.”
Devine’s performance a year ago earned him Second Team All-Big West accolades and he hasn’t missed a beat this season, ranking third in the conference in both scoring and rebounding. The Alaskan has also picked up one Big West Player of the Week award.
Recently joining Devine in the frontcourt is senior forward Glenn Turner who missed the final three games of last season with a reaction to medications and then had surgery to repair a herniated disk before the start of this season, which caused him to miss the first nine games. After showing a season ago that he can be a dominant force down low, Turner has proven that he is on his way back from injury after posting an eight-point, nine-rebound and five-block performance against the Highlanders in just 19 minutes.
Returning from injury earlier in the season is senior guard Cecil Brown, the leading scorer from a year ago. After missing the first six games of the year, Brown has averaged 7.4 points a game off of the bench, including 13 against Cal State Fullerton.
“Cecil is still probably two weeks away from being all the way back,” Williams said. “Getting Glenn back is going to take a little longer.”
Many newcomers to the Gaucho roster have played a large role early on for UCSB, especially in the backcourt. Redshirt freshman guard James Powell has started every game for Santa Barbara and shown he can be a third scoring option behind Harris and Devine.
Fellow freshman guard Jason Joyner has proven to be a reliable backup point guard and leads the squad in assists, while his teammate at De La Salle High School, freshman guard Paul Roemer gives Coach Williams another option off of the bench.
“We all knew what James could do because he redshirted and was around last year,” Devine said. “The young guys have shown they can play in big moments.”
Helping the Gauchos ease the early season loss of Turner has been junior forward Ivan Elliott, a transfer from West Valley College. Pulling down the second most rebounds on the team, Elliott has started both Big West contests and is averaging 12.5 points in league play.
Battling Elliott for a spot in the starting lineup alongside Devine is sophomore forward Tom Garlepp. The Australian has been inconsistent early on and Elliott has been logging the majority of the minutes. Also seeing time in the frontcourt is freshman forward Emmanuel Bidias a Mouté, the brother of UCLA star Luc Richard Mbah a Mouté.
Williams is guiding the Gauchos for the ninth straight year and is a two time Big West Coach of the Year. The 10-3 start is the best by any UCSB squad under Williams and his teams have finished over .500 in four of the past five seasons.
“I think they have a great chance at the title, especially with Cecil coming back,” Long Beach State Head Coach Larry Reynolds said. “If they can work him back in they should be fine.”
To open up conference play in 2007, the Gauchos fell hard to Long Beach – the Big West leader by a half a game – with a score of 101-65, its worst loss since 1979.
Four nights later, on Jan. 6, Santa Barbara broke its previous two-game losing streak, squeezing by Irvine to notch its third conference win at 64-59. On the night Harris led the team with 23 points and Devine notched his fourth double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
With a 3-1 start in Big West play and a big home win against contender Cal State Fullerton under its belt, the UCSB squad has as good a chance as anyone to walk away with the conference crown.