For the first time in what seems like decades, UCSB women’s basketball is a bit of a mystery. After all, it is not every year that a team has to replace a legendary head coach who won 11 of 12 conference regular season titles (and made 10 NCAA appearances in that span to boot). But that is the predicament the Gauchos find themselves in after the departure of Mark French — and it has given the defending Big West champions an air of uncertainty. Think Lindsay Gottlieb is feeling the pressure?
“I think it’s a unique situation when you first get a job and the first question people ask you is ‘So, are you going go undefeated in the Big West this year?’,” Gottlieb said. The first-year head coach is confident in her team, though, and has lofty expectations for this season.
“As a team, we want to win the Big West Championship,” she said. “As a coach, I want to make sure we’re playing a brand of basketball that everyone can be proud of.”
The Gauchos certainly have enough talent to reclaim their conference crown. Santa Barbara returns all but two players from their NCAA-bound 2008 campaign, making it one of the deepest squads in the Big West.
“What separates good teams from really really good teams is depth,” Gottlieb said. Junior guard Meagan Williams thinks the Gauchos have plenty of it.
“We’re all on the right track,” Williams said. “We have three great point guards, our wing players are great, I can’t even talk about our post players … and we can defend.
“It’s incredible how much 14 players can contribute.”
One of the areas where the team seemed to be the strongest in the preseason was at point guard, with seniors Sha’Rae Gibbons and Lauren Pedersen returning and newcomer Emilie Johnson likely to contribute off the bench. However, Gibbons was sidelined for the first couple of months with an injury, and Johnson was forced to step into the starting role. The freshman proved more than up to the task until Gibbons’ December return.
“Going into the year we felt like we were ridiculously deep at point guard,” Gottlieb said. “In one fell swoop you lose one of them to injury for an extended period of time and it changes the look.
“I thought Emilie just did a remarkable job, stepping into a situation where she expected to back up and sort of learn from those to for a little bit and ease her way in, and obviously she was thrown into the fire.”
Pedersen, meanwhile, has thrived at the 2-guard position. The senior is getting it done in every aspect of the game, averaging almost 13 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals per game so far this season.
“I knew [Pedersen] was good, but I don’t think I knew she was going to be this good,” Gottlieb said.
UCSB’s real depth comes in the paint, however. The Gauchos feature some of the finest post players in the league, including sixth-year senior Jenna Green and fifth-year senior Kat Suderman. Both Green and Suderman have been plagued with injuries throughout their illustrious Gaucho careers, but the pair of 6-4 bigs poses quite a challenge for opposing defenses when healthy.
Green, in particular, is reestablishing herself well after missing nearly all of last year with an injury. To date, she is averaging over nine points and two blocks per game.
Santa Barbara also features sophomore forwards Ashlee Brown and Margaret Johnson, who can carry the load when the seniors are unavailable.
“That group right there I think is as deep and talented a post group as certainly you’re going to find in our conference, and it’s a neat luxury to have,” Gottlieb said.
UCSB can also boast a strong number of versatile role-players, starting with senior Whitney Warren. Warren has started every game so far for the Gauchos this season, and provides a welcome burst of speed and aggression to the squad.
Juniors Jordan Franey, Meagan Williams, and Christine Spencer contribute significantly off the bench as well. Franey and Williams played considerable minutes last year for the Gauchos, while Spencer is a transfer from the University of Wisconsin.
With such a talented squad, the team has plenty of potential. The main question coming into the season was whether or not the players would buy into their new coach’s system — and whether or not it would work.
Early on, things were a little rocky. An overtime victory against Vanguard in an exhibition match was far too close for comfort, but Gottlieb’s Gauchos responded with a season-opening win against San Diego a week later. The win was the first in Gottlieb’s head coaching career, and came as quite a relief. The feeling would not last.
Three straight road losses, to Fresno State, USC and Arizona State came next. However, the team rebounded the next week with huge home wins against solid opponents Nevada and Gonzaga. Again, the joy would be short-lived, as Santa Barbara went 0-3 in its next stretch. Then it appeared something clicked for the team, because since that point the Gauchos are 3-0 and already have a win over major Big West contender UC Riverside under their belts.
While the non-conference schedule certainly featured a few bumps in the road, the Gauchos appear to have solidified in time for Big West play and are only getting better.
“Our defense is at a really good spot right now,” Gottlieb said. “We’ve been holding teams consistently below their averages. I think we need to continue working on our offensive execution. I think we can score more points than we’ve been scoring … when we execute our offense we’re going to get good looks.
“Our immediate goals are to win the conference, win the conference tournament, and get [to the NCAA tournament]”
If things are as good as they look for the Gauchos right now, those goals seem well within reach.