After a rough-and-tumble preseason that saw two losses by a combined margin of three points along with a loss while hosting then-#1 North Carolina, the UCSB men’s basketball team was looking forward to a clean slate with the opening of Big West conference play. However, after a pair of hugely disappointing losses to Long Beach and Riverside, the Gauchos have dug themselves a hole they did not expect to be in.
Head Coach Bob Williams said that the struggles of the season have him feeling like he’s been coaching for a lot longer than his current 11-year tenure.
“It feels like [I’ve been on the court] 20, 25 years right now,” Williams said.
In their last loss against predicted conference punching bag UC Riverside – who has shut up all doubters and now tops the conference with a 2-0 mark – Santa Barbara dropped a 12-point first-half lead to the rallying Highlanders. While all due credit can be given to UCR for playing a stellar second half, Santa Barbara could simply not keep up in the shooting department, and ended up dropping the crucial game 69-71. Junior guard James Powell did smoothly sink the game-winning trey, but amid controversy over when the clock started on the inbounds pass, the shot was ruled to have been taken after the buzzer.
“Where we’ve really slipped is we’re not getting production from the perimeter, our guys aren’t hitting shots,” Williams said. “We’ve been very accustomed to having outside guys who can shoot the ball, I mean James Powell in the previous year shot the ball above 40 percent from three point land…If our consistency at the guard position was better, our record would be better. Most everyone can see that.”
Powell said that while the Gauchos have been better in past games at holding possession, the team sometimes is too willing to take the easy jump shots.
“I think [in] the past couple games we’ve been taking a better job of taking care of the ball,” Powell said. “We haven’t really changed anything in the offense, it’s just been that our concentration is a lot better. I feel like sometimes we get settled into the offense so much that we end up settling for jumpers when we should be attacking the lane. We need to not settle for jumpers running the offense.”
Powell has had to fill the shoes left by former Gaucho and prolific scorer Alex Harris, who graduated last year, but there is no doubt that he is a skilled shooter and is fully capable of making it rain. In fact, despite shooting only 32.1 percent from the field and 29.5 percent from three-point land, Powell is still second on the team with 11.1 points per game. Additionally, he has 23 assists to match 16 steals, and Williams has previously discussed how valuable Powell is thanks to his skill with the ball. Nonetheless, as the Gauchos’ leading shot taker by a wide margin, Powell’s ability to sink shots is going to be crucial to the squad’s success.
“The ball has just not been dropping through,” Williams said. “If [Powell] was shooting the way he is capable of, we’d be having a whole different conversation.”
Powell said that he’s getting used to being the go-to guy for UCSB, but he won’t try to force his game. While he feels that their offense has been running well, especially in the post, he knows that he can make a serious impact when he starts making shots more consistently.
“Our inside-out game has been good, the post guys are playing well,” Powell said. “I think it could improve if I start playing better. I’m not trying to go out there and just fire shots, I’m just trying to play smart and run it one play at a time. [Shooting well is] something I have to let come to me, rather than trying to chase it.”
The brightest spot for the Gauchos this season has been their inside game. Senior forward Chris Devine, always an efficient shooter, leads the team with 14.9 points per game off of 52.7 percent shooting despite having most opposing defenses focus on him.
“Devine is playing at a high level; I’m very happy with his play,” Willliams said. “Of course, he’s being double teamed every time he touches it, so his play has been rather remarkable.”
Newly acquired transfer Jesse Byrd, a junior forward, has been the biggest surprise for UCSB this season. He is currently averaging 8.3 points and 7.6 boards per game, and has been a very efficient shooter at 58.1 percent from the field. However, a knee injury and subsequent surgery in late December has sidelined Byrd until at least February, which has pushed freshman forwards Jaime Serna and Greg Somogyi into his place.
“Both [Serna and Somogyi] are good players, and they responded to being forced to step up,” Powell said. “I think they are both playing really well, better than we could ask for. But Jessie brought rebounds and a post presence that we definitely miss having.”
Although Santa Barbara has put themselves in a tough spot early, they are going to have to focus on moving forward to get back their winning ways in the rest of the conference season. With shooting being intrinsically hit-or-miss, Powell felt that Santa Barbara needs to just focus on the basics of their game in order to get the ball rolling again.
“We just have to start focusing on defense more than anything, then we start building momentum to the offensive side from there,” Powell said. “We have to get these next two wins, get back to .500 and go from there. Even though this last weekend was rough, it’s in the past, so we can only look forward from here.”