After a disappointing finish to their 2008-09 season that culminated in a semifinal exit in the Big West tournament, the UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball team returns this season with plenty of reasons to believe in a Big West title.
There’s the growth of former freshman trio Jaime Serna, Greg Somogyi and James Nunnally. There’s the return of floor general Justin Joyner, the slotted starting point guard for the regular season. But while all these reasons hold true, what could very well be the biggest reason behind a renewed confidence in Gaucho basketball is the eligibility of sophomore guard Orlando Johnson, an explosive talent that was forced to sit out last season after transferring from Loyola Marymount University.
Tabbed to be first-team all Big West this year by the media without having played a game in conference, Orlando plans to do a lot more than just sit this year.
“With me, you’re bringing in a guard who’s very physical, and somebody who can do it all really,” Johnson said.
Orlando’s skill set was on full display in his first and only season at LMU, leading his team in scoring (12.4 points per game) and rebounding (4.9 points per game) as a freshman star still making the transition to the collegiate level of play.
“I was trying my best to pick up the speed of the game,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot because I was thrown into the fire at a young age.”
Though he was the featured hoopster for a Division I program in the West Coast Conference, Orlando’s burning desire to win prompted the Seaside, Calif. native to make the switch to UCSB.
“My first year at LMU had a lot of rough points because we lost a lot,” Johnson said. “It also probably would have helped to have learned from more experienced [players].”
With a change of scenery to Santa Barbara came a new responsibility to win, a mindset Orlando was ready and willing to embrace alongside a new set of teammates.
“These are definitely guys I like to play with, guys I could be best friends with five or 10 years from now,” Johnson said. “We all want to win, but have a good time with it.”
On the flip side, the emergence of a player the caliber of Orlando, who is rumored to be able to play anywhere from point guard to power forward, has drawn rave reviews from his teammates.
“It’s great playing with Orlando,” Nunnally said. “Him being on the floor should open up shots for all of us.”
Though there is considerable hype building up to his debut in this Saturday’s 3 p.m. home game against Sonoma State, Orlando maintains an air of modesty regarding his preseason accolades.
“It’s always nice to get recognition, but I feel like I haven’t really done anything to be worthy of being picked [to the first-team],” Johnson said. “We have plenty of other guys that could end up being on that list … that’s how good we can be.”
In Orlando’s opinion, the mounting hype surrounding his debut is not the only thing to look forward to; a date with his former team is set for the end of the month.
“That’s a big game right there. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really care,” Johnson said. “I’m really looking forward to returning to LMU and showing them what I can do, not as a Lion, but as a Gaucho.”