The critics picked them to finish second in the Big West preseason polls, and with inconsistent individual production and several stretches of cold shooting, you can see why UC Santa Barbara took a backseat to conference favorite Long Beach State. At the same time, the Gauchos (6-6 overall, 1-1 Big West) have given a stalwart defensive effort game after game and boast an upside unrivaled by most teams in conference — an upside that if reached would give them plenty of firepower to reclaim the Big West crown.

“Overall we feel like we have underachieved and lost some games that we shouldn’t have, but right now all we’re worried about is the Big West,” sophomore guard Orlando Johnson said.

UCSB’s conference opener against supposed bottom feeder UC Irvine was one of the games Johnson was alluding to. Normally effective from three-point range, the Gauchos’ long-distance attack went south as they finished 2-for-12 from beyond the arc en route to a 57-55 upset. In their following game against UC Riverside, the shots were not falling from anywhere on the court, as Santa Barbara finished with a season-low 14 points in the first half.

“I think we played one good half offensively out of the two [conference] games … thank goodness our defense held up,” Head Coach “Cowboy” Bob Williams said.

Thankfully, the team’s one good half came in the form of a 43 point explosion in the latter half of the UCR matchup, propelling them to a close win against an upstart squad fresh off a win against Long Beach.

“We all had to come to the realization that it’s conference time now and every game matters,” senior guard James Powell said. “Fortunately for us, we turned it around quickly … hopefully the win [over Riverside] is a springboard for us”

The late-game victory came with plenty of crunch-time heroics, culminating in a play where Johnson sank a three with 22 seconds remaining before nailing a pair of free throws to seal his team’s first conference win.

Though Johnson struggled mightily in the first half of the Riverside game, the LMU transfer has been a staple of the Gauchos’ offense all season long, leading the team in points (16.8) and rebounds (5.9) while getting to the line at a torrid pace. Orlando currently averages over seven free throws a game with slashing ability that has drawn comparison to recently departed Gaucho great Alex Harris.
“[Orlando] is a great kid and has fit in really well with us,” Coach Williams said. “He’s a difficult matchup inside and out, and has provided offensive consistency in an area where we have struggled.”

The Gaucho offense will receive a boost in their upcoming games if sophomore forward James Nunnally, a key member of last year’s late-season push into the postseason, can continue his recent roll.

The versatile Nunnally capped off his 2008-09 campaign by averaging 17.5 points, four rebounds and four assists over his final two games, including a buzzer-beating three against Long Beach in UCSB’s regular season finale. The man regarded by his teammates as “Sleepy” had a slow start to his second year but has woken up since a return to the starting lineup in a Dec. 28 game against Furman, highlighted by a 19 point, 10 rebound performance his last time out.

“He’s a special talent,” Johnson said of Nunnally. “You get him going with me and [Powell] and that’s a three-headed monster.”

The reemergence of Powell in his final go-around in the blue and gold is yet another reason to believe in this year’s team. The former All-Big West Honorable Mention regressed in his junior campaign, shooting a paltry 33 percent from the field and 29 percent from three after setting a team record by netting 47 percent of his distance tries as a sophomore.

This year, J.P. entered the season with a renewed focus that has allowed him to find his form of old. In addition to shooting 46 percent from the field and 47 percent from deep, Powell has recorded multiple 20 point games, including a 21 point, six rebound and four assist outburst at Loyola Marymount.

“It’s not a secret that I didn’t have the season I wanted to or expected to have [last year],” Powell said. “That [LMU] game right there was probably my best game in two years … it let me know that I was still able to be a player.”

As Nunnally transitioned into the starting five, Powell embraced his new role as a sixth man, still receiving starters minutes while leading a second unit that had yet to develop an identity.

Santa Barbara’s bench players played a key role through the team’s season opening four-game winning streak as Coach Williams played the majority of his talented roster. Just as they seemed to hit their stride however, the Gauchos dropped four straight to even their record, putting the spread of playing time into question.

“The depth is always talked about with this year’s team, so [Coach Williams] was trying to give everyone a look,” Powell said. “After we took four losses he might have wanted to shorten the rotation to get us into more of a rhythm.”

In recent games, it is apparent that the nonconference tryouts have ended. With the exception of Powell, sophomore center Greg Somogyi has been one of few UCSB players contributing with big minutes off the pine.

“In two of the last three games [Greg] has shown up and produced,” Williams said. “Against Riverside, he singlehandedly changed the game for us.”

In only 17 minutes, Somogyi chipped in six points, five rebounds, three assists, zero turnovers and blocked five shots while altering several more. But while the Hungarian Hammer has continued to improve, several other missing pieces have yet to come into their own. And with junior Justin Joyner and senior Paul Roemer — two of the team’s marquee ball handling guards — sidelined with injuries, they are going to have to.

Sophomore forward Jaime Serna will need to rediscover a low-post offense that he showed glimpses of last season. Another player to watch out for is freshman guard Chris Brew, who will backup his sophomore brother Will at the point while Joyner and Roemer get healthy. Chris exploded onto the scene in his second game played as a Gaucho, sparking the UCSB offense with 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting against Santa Clara on Dec. 1.

“When everyone is coming to play it takes the pressure off all of us,” Johnson said.

While the pressure to make plays will ease up if everyone fills their roles, the pressure is on for Coach Williams and Santa Barbara to win the Big West, a feat they have yet to accomplish since the 2007-08 season.