The UCSB men’s basketball team is off to its best start in 15 years, going 5-1 to open the season. With tonight’s huge non-conference game against UNLV looming, Daily Nexus sports editor Alex Pavlovic sat down with Head Coach Bob Williams to discuss the team’s hot start and the challenges that lie ahead for a team that has been picked to win the Big West Conference.
AP: How would you describe the new system of defense that you guys are playing this year, and what prompted the change in philosophy?
BW: We’re just trying to be more aggressive defensively. We’re trying to put more ball pressure on and be in a great help position so that we’re in a position to trap [you] if you make a mistake. I thought that we needed to do something different this year. I wanted to generate more offense off of our defense. I wanted to create more turnovers and create more havoc and change the aggression level. We have a healthy group and a group that moves better laterally so we can do a few different things.
Senior guard Alex Harris improved a lot before last season and he’s even better this year. What changes have you seen in his game?
BW: He’s passing the ball much better and he’s stronger physically and he’s rebounding better. I just think that he’s another year older and another year wiser, and that much better. He’s very driven for the team to do well and he’s very demanding of himself.
I know it’s hard to tell, but as a coach, what would you say Al’s NBA draft prospects look like right now?
I know there are a lot of people looking at him, and it wouldn’t surprise me if one game or another this year, half the NBA is out to watch him. He’s on the map, but it’s hard to tell whether or not he has an NBA-type game and whether or not his game in the NBA would be the same as it is here. Al might have to change his game a little for the next level. He might have to be more of a defender or distributor. He’s a really good open shooter, which will help him. He has a phenomenal work ethic and he’s really driven, which will help him, but I can’t tell you what makes that NBA guy. I’m not [UNC Head Coach] Roy Williams who has four of them a year, but I tell you what, he’s a great college player and he’ll play [professionally] somewhere.
You lost a few players from last year’s frontcourt rotation. How do you feel about the way that group is playing this year?
I think its one of our strengths. The three-man rotation of [senior forwards Ivan Elliott and Nedim Pajevic and junior forward Chris Devine] is really good. We thought it would be, and it’s panning out. We’re more versatile and we have better balance. Knock on wood, we don’t get injured and we don’t have to play an extended period of time without one of those guys, but from where we are right now, it’s pretty solid.
What has the addition of Nedim added to the team?
He’s the best passing big kid that we’ve had since I’ve been here and he has a really nice shooting touch. We need to get that third dimension to his game, which is some power moves to the rim. We get the third dimension and he’s going to be a real load for people. But everyone likes to play with him because they know that if you move and cut, you’re going to get the ball.
How do you feel about the development of the sophomore backcourt of Justin Joyner and James Powell?
I’m not going to say it’s where I want it to be, but they’re better players than they were a year ago and they’re better defensively. They’re making progress and they have experience and wins under their belt. They’re both confident players and it’s a great backcourt to build on.
Chris Devine kind of flies under the radar sometimes, but how important is it to have a guy who goes out and consistently contributes every night?
He’s a warrior. The guy’s an absolute stud warrior and he brings it every night, emotionally, physically, and he has great energy. You know he’s gong to score and chase down rebounds and take on the other team’s best front line guy. He’s an emotional leader for this club.
What’s your overall view of this team after six games?
I’m pleased with where we are. I think we have a huge challenge against [UNLV] but at the same time, I feel like there are so many areas for us to work on and so little time to really dedicate to working on it. We know there are certain things we’ve got to clean up.
Finally, Nedim has kind of become a fan favorite with his mustache and his game. Will you let him keep the ‘stache as long as the team’s winning?
As a coach, the ‘stache doesn’t mean anything to me one way or another. If people are enjoying it and it’s a throwback, I’m fine with that. I just need him to keep playing well. I think what gets the crowd going is when he makes good plays. I don’t think the mustache has got the crowd going. I think his mustache and that Euro-alleyoop high-rising big arc shot of his gets the crowd going. He’s got great skills and a very soft touch and all that stuff that I think people like, and he has fun playing the game.