Fifth-year senior point guard Justin Joyner believes that 6’7” junior James Nunnally is an NBA talent. He says the same about 6’5” junior guard Orlando Johnson, last season’s Big West MVP, and the inconsistent 7’3” big man from Budapest, Greg Somogyi, who may have the physical skills to take him to the next level but lacks the aggressiveness, the mentality and the consistency.

[media-credit name=”Daily Nexus File Photo” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]Despite having three potential NBA players on one team, the Gauchos have gotten off to a mediocre start for the second straight season, losing their conference opener to Long Beach State on Dec. 28 on their way to a 7-5 overall record. In one game, they struggled to a first-half lead of two points against NAIA team Master’s College before winning 68-54. In another, they upset #22 UNLV 68-62 on the road in their first victory over a ranked opponent in 13 years.

“[There will] be times where you have slumps where you don’t shoot the ball well, and that type of thing,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “But when you don’t compete well, that starts to be a concern.”

The UCSB men’s basketball team, predicted to finish first in the conference in a preseason poll of Big West coaches, might have the talent to not only make its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, but to advance. However, a lot needs to improve during league play in order for the team to do so, particularly the team’s shot selection (seven of Nunnally’s 10 misses against the 49ers came from behind the arc) and its defensive intensity and rotation onto outside shooters (#7 SDSU, currently undefeated, shot 50 percent from the three-point line).

“The difference between this year and last year’s team is toughness,” Nunnally said. “We lost a couple of guys that have been through the grind, the hard seasons. We were a physical team. This year’s team, I don’t know if we’re as tough as last year’s team, but talent-wise we’re much better.”

The Gauchos also have plenty of time to prove themselves. They play each conference team twice before the Big West Championship Tournament begins on March 10 at the Anaheim Pond. They meet Long Beach State again — last season’s conference runner-up — at the Pyramid on Feb. 26. Since earning an at-large bid is a difficult feat in a relatively weak conference, winning the Big West Tournament and earning an automatic bid might be the only way for the Gauchos to return to March Madness.

“People are playing their best games against us,” Joyner said. “We returned a lot of players from last year. People want what we had last year. We don’t have any nights off. We have a target on our backs.”

Last season, the Gauchos were 6-6 through 12 games but closed out the season 14-4. Joyner attributes the transformation to the team’s matchup zone defense.

“We played more freely on offense knowing we were going to get a stop on defense,” he said. “[Now,] I think teams have given up on scoring on our zone. Teams are making a conscious effort to push the ball against us.”

The Gauchos may have lost veteran workhorses Paul Roemer and James Powell (the pair graduated last spring), but they return six of their core players. Next season, the team adds two transfers in point guard Nate Garth from New Mexico and Los Angeles native Keegan Hornbuckle from Colorado.

The future of UCSB basketball is bright, but only time will tell if its execution can match its talent.

“We can be at the top of our league,” Nunnally said. “If we played every game like we played against UNLV, we can really distinguish ourselves.”