The UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball team may have just captured the Big West regular season championship, but that can only get them so far when the Big West Tournament comes around next Friday in the Anaheim Convention Center. With a bye into the semifinal round, the #1 seeded Gauchos (18-9 overall, 12-4 Big West) still need two wins to go dancing in the NCAA Tournament. But in a conference where upsets are abundant, it won’t be easy.
“There’s not a significant margin of difference between the bottom five and top four teams [in the conference],” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “You can wish for somebody but that might just be your worst nightmare.”
A nightmare would be a pretty fair assessment of UCSB’s semifinal exit against UC Irvine in 2008, where #1 seeded Santa Barbara shot itself out of the game against #5 seeded UC Irvine. Two years removed from an upset that sent Big West Player of the Year Alex Harris and company to the NIT, a new collection of Gaucho players are ready to prove why they are the favorites going in.
“That Al Harris, Chris Devine, Ivan Elliot team … it was a really good basketball team,” Williams said. “You can have a bad game, but you can’t take away from the quality of that group. This [year’s] team has more depth, and maybe in the long run a bigger upside. Down the road, this team has the tools to have the best team we’ve had here.”
Young but tested after winning half of their league games by a margin of five points or less, Santa Barbara heads into the tournament led by a pair of sophomore swingmen on the offensive end. Orlando Johnson currently leads the conference in scoring at 18 ppg and has reached double figures in all 27 games this season while making a strong case for Big West Player of the Year honors. James Nunnally is also a top 10 Big West scorer with 14.8 ppg. Both players are also in the top 10 in field goal percentage.
“We might be young, but I feel like we’re a veteran team because we’re at the end of the season and all of our sophomores are playing like juniors already,” senior guard James Powell said.
Alongside redshirt junior guard Justin Joyner, Powell started in the backcourt of the heartbreaker that halted a tournament bound 2007-08 season. Knowing that this is his last opportunity to take part in March Madness, Powell is ready to take on any team that stands in the way of a national spotlight that has eluded Santa Barbara for eight long years.
“We’re taking on all comers,” Powell said. “We just need to play our game and not worry about anyone else.”
While Johnson, Nunnally and Powell have been the go-to offensive weapons for UCSB this season, a depth of talent has played a key role in improving from last year’s fourth-place finish.
“The biggest difference [between this year’s team and the team of 2007-08] is the depth we have,” Powell said. “All of our guys, one through 12, can step up if any of us gets in foul trouble.”
If everyone can play their role on both ends, and the Gauchos can make up for below-average rebounding with hot shooting and steady defense as they have done all season, this might just be the year for UC Santa Barbara to break into the bracket.