UC Santa Barbara: Gauchos

With lofty expectations set for conference play, the UCSB men’s basketball team is off to a hot start after winning its first two Big West games. The Gauchos (7-5 Overall, 2-0 Big West) opened up by beating Cal Poly on the road before winning its home opener over Cal State Fullerton.

“Our goal is to win the Big West conference,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “And this was a great start toward achieving that goal.”

The veteran Gaucho squad, armed with five key seniors, will look to return to the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season. Because of the team’s recent success, UCSB began this year on much of the country’s radar, receiving votes in the season’s first mid-major poll. Additionally, the Gauchos will be featured on national television as many as seven times during this regular season.

While recognition on the national scene is nice, it all comes down to conference play for the Gauchos. UCSB received four first-place votes and was picked to finish second in the Big West in the annual preseason media poll released by the conference. Long Beach State (10-6, 3-0), whom the Gauchos beat in the Big West tournament championship in each of the past two seasons, was picked to win the conference.

“I don’t really put any stock into these preseason ranking and awards,” Williams said. “It is all about being hungry, staying within yourself as you grow during the year you have a chance to achieve. We are highly motivated.”

Facing Fullerton (10-5, 2-2) in the team’s home opener, UCSB got off to a slow start but behind solid defense, was able to coast to a 77-64 victory. In the team’s Big West opener on the road at Cal Poly (10-6, 1-2) last week, senior standout guard Orlando Johnson’s three-pointer miraculously bounced in with five seconds left to give the Gauchos a one point lead and decisive advantage. The win gave Williams, who is in his 14th season as head coach of the Gauchos, his 223rd career win.

“We wanted to make a statement on the road against a good Cal Poly squad to start off

“It wasn’t exactly how we pictured it,” Williams said of Johnson’s bouncing three-pointer. “We were hoping to get Orlando going to the rim, but the defense forced him outside, and that was that…”

With a preseason John R. Wodden Award, preseason Top 50 and Lute Olson Preseason All-American, Johnson leads the Gauchos with 20.4 points per game — good for first place in the Big West and 13th in the nation. After transferring from Loyola Marymount, the 6-foot-5 player was named the Big West MVP as a sophomore two

seasons ago, and has led the league in scoring each of the past two seasons (including a Gaucho single-season record of 674 points last season).

Johnson and Nunnally (16.5 points per game, fourth in the Big West) — both of whom were selected to the Preseason Big West All-Conference Team — form the best 1-2 scoring punch in the conference.

“It helps us a lot,” Johnson said of he and Nunnally. “We are similar in a lot of ways — athletic, long, shoot the ball well … When one of us has an off-night, the other one is usually there to pick up the scoring slack. It’s something that other teams have to worry about.”

Santa Barbara’s third returning senior starter is forward Jaime Serna. An All-Big West Tournament pick a year ago, Serna is currently third in the nation with a .692 field goal percentage while averaging 9.8 points per game.

“I would certainly like to see Jaime get more shots up,” Williams said. “He is unbelievably productive, and when he’s active he is the best big man in the Big West.”

Mixed in with the experienced veterans are two key transfers and several freshmen that will be asked to make an immediate impact for the squad. Junior guard Keegan Hornbuckle, a transfer from Colorado, has come on strong as of late after returning from an early season injury. Junior guard Nate Garth, who was forced to sit out last season after transferring from New Mexico, has started nine games for the Gauchos, averaging 2.6 assists per game, as he and freshman point guard T.J. Taylor have split time at point guard.

UCSB currently has an influx of youth on its bench, with seven freshmen on its roster. Coach Williams will decide which will redshirt as the season continues, as four have played so far on the season.

“They have all acclimated pretty well,” Williams said of his freshmen. “They will all have to be big contributors for us at some point.”

Nine different players have started a game for the Gauchos in this young season, and Coach Williams has no plans of slowing down his lineup changes. Based on the opponent and style of play desired, UCSB will continue to thrive on versatility, tweaking lineups to capitalize on advantages.

“We try to change it up,” senior guard Christian Peterson said. “We are a very versatile team.”

Last season, in its quest to continue as regular season league champions, UCSB struggled in conference play and limped into the Big West tournament as a fifth seed. An improbable run to win the tournament sent the Gauchos back to the NCAA Tourney, becoming the lowest seed to do so since 1996. Despite a positive end result, UCSB is more focused this season.

“We have learned from past experiences,” Williams said. “Off the court manifested on the court, and we weren’t cohesive or physically aggressive. It is all about how you continue to grow and improve as a team.”

UCSB opened up the season on fire, winning its first four games as part of a six-game stretch in November at the Thunderdome.

However, arguably the team’s two toughest nonconference opponents yet were due into Santa Barbara next. On Nov. 26, UCSB suffered its first loss of the season in an overtime thriller to No. 25 San Diego State, a team that is slated to become a member of the Big West conference beginning in 2013.

Four days later, another ranked opponent — this time, No. 17 UNLV (15-2) strolled into Santa Barbara fresh off a win over No. 1 over North Carolina. With the rowdy Thunderdome home crowd behind them, the Gauchos battled all game behind Johnson’s 36 points and 10 rebounds, but eventually lost 94-88 in double overtime after a buzzer-beater tip-in from senior center Greg Somogyi forced overtime, and then a UNLV buzzer-beater three-pointer forced a second extra period.

“It’s just tough to swallow games like that,” Johnson said. “We will just build on it, that’s all we can do.”

With a 4-2 record in its pocket, the UCSB squad hit the road at the beginning of December for a four game 12-day road trip with games at USD, UWash, UC Berkeley and BYU — teams with a combined record of 41-24.

“It was a great time for a road trip, right after finals. We love going on the road during that time of the year,” Williams explained. “It is a building and bonding time for the team.”

The trip began positively after the Gauchos bested San Diego 65-61. Three days later at Washington, 24 points and 10 rebounds from Johnson was not enough as the Gauchos ran out of gas late, falling 87-80 to the Huskies. At Cal (12-3), UCSB struggled mightily in its most lopsided game of the year, falling to the Bears 70-50. UCSB ended its road trip with another close loss against a tough opponent in BYU (12-4). The Gauchos fought hard but were unable to pull the game to closer than seven late in the second half, as a season-high 19 turnovers limited the team’s opportunities.

Ultimately, this team knows it all comes down to conference play, and will use its tough nonconference schedule to learn and grow as a cohesive unit.

“We are still evolving as a team,” Williams explained. “We are still trying to find ourselves in terms of our identity, but going forward we will have to be a team that doesn’t turn the ball over, defends hard and plays very unselfish. If we get those three things going, I like our chances.”

Aware of what is at stake, the Gauchos are focused and grounded headed forward.

“Our goal is to just take it one game at a time and get better consistently,” Johnson said. “We want to put ourselves in the best situations and make sure we are on the right path to where we want to go … With the group we have I think will do a good job to not let this season take a bad turn … We want to make this year special, and be a Cinderella team.”

Long Beach State: 49ers

As the reigning No. 2 team in the conference for back-to-back seasons, it may have seemed surprising that Long Beach State would be ranked pre-season No. 1 in the conference. However with four out of five starters returning — including last season’s Player of the Year senior guard Casper Ware — the 49ers will bring back more experienced leaders than any other team in the league.

“A lot of veterans have been through a lot of different parts of seasons, good and bad,” Head Coach Dan Monson said. “And we’ve had a lot of both. They’ve changed the Long Beach State program.”

Forward T.J. Robinson, guard Larry Anderson and forward Eugene Phelps each received All-Big West honors last season, and join Ware as the core of the 49ers squad.

Long Beach’s preseason schedule this year was not only one of the toughest for a Big West team, but one of the most challenging in the nation amongst Division I schools. The 49ers faced perennial powerhouses North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, San Diego State, Xavier and Pittsburgh, all of which made it to the NCAA tournament last March. CSULB was able to upset Pittsburgh and Xavier, each by a 10-point margin. For Monson, the rigorous preseason schedule is another step toward the goal of improvement.

“My philosophy is that the preseason is to get yourself ready for the season,” Monson said. “It’s really hard for players or teams to know how good they are unless they play good teams.”

CSULB is thus far undefeated through its first three games of Big West play after beating UC Irvine 74-60 on the road, Cal Poly 55-50 at home, then Cal State Northridge 81-68 at Northridge. Robinson currently averages a double-double with 12.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Ware ranks third in the league in scoring with 16.6 points per game, the highest average of any 49er.

In each of its Big West championship appearances during the past two years, CSULB has suffered a defeat to UC Santa Barbara. With the return of four experienced seniors this season, Monson hopes to continue playing through March for the first time since 2007.

“It wasn’t just losing to Santa Barbara … we didn’t play well in the [Big West] tournament,” Monson said. “[This year] we have the opportunity to compete for a championship.”

Cal State Fullerton: Titans

Projected to finish fourth in the preseason Big West conference poll, Cal State Fullerton is off to an impressive start in the 2011-12 basketball season, compiling a 10-5 record (2-2 Big West).

The Titans, who finished sixth in the Big West last season with a 11-20 record (7-9 in the conference) are headlined by a trio of incoming transfers who have boosted the talent of the team tremendously.

“It’s been terrific, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team that gets along as well as these kids do,” nine-year Head Coach Bob Burton said. “They blend in very well; that was the difference of us winning 11 games last year and having 10 already at the halfway point. The difference has been the transfers.”

Senior forward Omondi Amoke, a transfer from UC Berkeley, has led the Titans in rebounding with 8.5 boards per game, good for second in the Big West. Amoke also ranks fourth on the team in scoring, averaging 11.5 points a game.

“He’s not only given us good scoring, rebounding and defense, but a lot of leadership too,” Burton said. “The kids have appointed him the captain of the team unanimously.”

Pacing the highest-scoring offense in the Big West have been a pair of junior guards in Kwame Vaughn and D.J. Seeley, transfers from San Francisco and Berkeley, respectively. Vaughn is second on the team with 15.3 points per game and leads Fullerton with over four assists a contest. Seeley meanwhile is the team’s leading scorer at 15.5 points a game on the season.

Fullerton used a seven-game winning streak, the last two of which were in conference, to come into Big West play strong before dropping tightly contested matchups to UCSB and Cal Poly.

“We actually lost a couple of games I thought we should have won, but all in all I’m really happy with the preseason we had,” Burton said. “Starting 2-0 in league has really been great for us.”

Rounding out the starting five for the Titans are sophomore guard Isiah Umipig and senior forward Orane Chin, the most veteran player on Fullerton’s roster.

Burton envisions his team playing tough down the stretch and competing for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

“I think it’s feasible, but it’s going to be very difficult,” Burton said. “Obviously Long Beach and Santa Barbara are the two dominant teams in the league. I think in this league anything can happen. I think we have the capability to do it.”

Cal Poly: Mustangs

Touting the Big West’s top defense in points allowed per game, Cal Poly currently holds a 10-6 record (1-2 in conference) entering the second week of conference play.

Finishing last season second in the Big West at 15-15 (10-6 conference), the Mustangs were picked to finish third in the preseason conference poll.

“Our number one goal: keep improving,” three-year Head Coach Joe Callero said. “If we keep improving, we feel like we have enough talent this year that we can be competitive and we have a chance to win the postseason tournament and get to the big dance.”

Leading the Mustangs is senior forward David Hanson, a preseason Big West first team selection after garnering second team honors last year. Hanson currently leads Cal Poly in scoring at 10.9 points a game, while second on the team in rebounds, averaging over five a game.

“The best part about David is that he is such a calm and confident guy,” Callero said. “He brings not just great play, but a great maturity and great poise, and that’s what you rely on out of your seniors.”

While securing impressive road victories over Fresno State and USC, the Mustangs have fallen short against a number of top teams including two five-point losses to both DePaul and St. Mary’s.

“We had five or six games against good if not great teams,” Callero said. “I think it has prepared us well. I think a lot of teams in the conference have played really good preseason games.”

Conference play meanwhile has been cruel to Cal Poly with a 55-50 loss at Long Beach and a 58-57 defeat from UCSB at the hands of an Orlando Johnson last second three-pointer.

The Mustangs rebounded with a win over Fullerton on Saturday for their first conference victory.

“I think we would have liked the bounces to have gone a little bit better,” Callero said in reference to Johnson’s winning shot. “That always hurts. You win some games that way and you lose some games that way. The first two games we played very well, we just got pinched in the last minute of the game.”

Playing important roles for the Mustangs this season are a pair of senior transfers from Hagerstown College in forward Will Taylor and point guard Amaurys Fermin. Both were eligible to play last season but were redshirted due to academic and health issues.

Taylor is fourth in the conference with a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game while averaging better than 10 points a contest. Fermin meanwhile also averages over 10 points and is second in the conference with four assists per game.

“It gives us a really true experienced point guard in Fermin and gives us another real aggressive rebounder and post up player [in Taylor],” Callero said. “They played junior college together so they have very good team chemistry too. They really know how to play well together.”

UC Riverside: Highlanders

There are few teams in the Big West playing as well as the UC Riverside Highlanders are right now. After stumbling out of the gates to a 1-4 start, they have won six of their last 10 games and sport a 7-8 (1-1 in conference) record early on in the conference portion of the season.

“I think we got off guard a little bit,” Head Coach Jim Wooldridge said. “I think we all felt that since we had a number of returning players that we would have a better identity early on. We got humbled a bit, and then we started to realize what we had to do to be a better team.”

Like most coaches, Wooldridge pays little mind to preseason rankings. He knows that his team will face stiff completion from the rest of the Big West.

“We knew coming into the season that Santa Barbara and Long Beach were the two best teams in the league, and then from there it is a mixture of teams,” Wooldridge said.

The Highlanders are lead by a pair of senior guards, Phil Martin and Kareem Nitoto, who lead the team in most statistical categories. They stand out most, however, in their contribution to the team’s offensive output. Martin leads the team with a whopping 242 points, 16.1 per game, and Nitoto is second with 151 points (10.1 per game). In comparison, the third highest scorer on the team has put up just 83 points.

“They are critical to our success,” Wooldridge said. “If you look at our scoring, we’re somewhat limited in that department. If those guys play well offensively then it really gives us a chance to win ball games. We don’t have a whole lot of other options currently, so we have to rely on both of those guys to play that role for us.”

The Highlanders have lately reaped the benefits of junior guard Robert Smith, who transferred from Santa Clara this season and had to sit out the first several games due to the NCAA’s transfer rules. Even with the missed time he has put up nine points per game for a total of 72 points.

“He’s changed our team,” Wooldridge said. “He’s helped us win a few ball games at home and on the road. He’s a talented young man. He’s brought a level of confidence to the other players on our team, because they know that they can rely on him to make plays.”

The Highlanders’ real strength, however, lies on the defensive side of the ball. They lead their opponents in steals and blocks per game and are +0.1 in the turnover margin. In order to succeed in a competitive Big West, they will need to continue their strong defensive play.

“Well the numbers look pretty good right now,” Wooldridge said. “I think we can play better defense. I think that’s going to be the staple of this team. It is the only way we can consistently win ball games.”

Though 1-1 is only a so-so start to the conference portion of their schedule, the Highlanders have the potential to contend for a Big West title. They enter conference competition playing well, and, with players like Martin, Nitoto and Smith leading the way, they have to potential to be a force to be reckoned with in the conference.

“Defensively, [we need to] finish possessions get defensive rebounds [and not] allow second chance opportunities to creep into the ball game,” Wooldridge said. “Offensively, when we’ve been successful, we’ve had good balance; we’ve moved the ball; we share the ball; we get the ball into the lane.”

The Highlanders are coming off a two-game road win streak and will now head home to do battle with UCSB and Cal Poly. Both are teams they must beat in order to contend for the Big West title.

UC Davis: Aggies

The UC Davis men’s basketball team enters its fifth season in the Big West conference after finishing last season at the bottom of the conference table, finishing 10-20 overall and 4-12 in conference play. Led by new head coach, Jim Les, the Aggies have started this season on a nine-game losing streak, going 1-12 and 0-1 in conference.

After coming off their worst season since entering the Big West conference, Les has the task of replacing most of its offense from last season including its top two scorers in Mark Payne and Joe Harden, as well as losing 49.5 percent of their assists and 48.9 percent in steals. With only two seniors on the team, the Aggies have struggled in finding consistency so far in the season.

“Right now we’ve been inconsistent with the guys we need to step up,” Les said. “We’re searching for answers in terms of guys that can replace that productivity. We need multiple guys to step up and play, and be more productive for us.”

Leading the way for the Aggies this season will be senior guard Eddie Miller who started all 30 games last season and finished second on the team in total steals (32) and third in scoring (12.5). Last year’s Big West Co-Freshman of the Year, sophomore guard/forward Josh Ritchart is the Aggies’ leading scorer averaging 12.2 points per game and is team leader in blocks with 10.

The Aggies will have to replace junior guard Ryan Sypkens who, before going down with a knee injury for the season was averaging 14.5 points per game. Head coach’s son, sophomore guard Tyler Les also appears to play a prominent role in the offense. Last year Les played in 25 games and shot 50 percent from behind the arc and is second in the league in three pointers (2.75).

“[Tyler] is getting more playing time and he’s in a system and culture he’s comfortable with, and that’s allowing him to step up and produce,” Les said. “He’s a young player, he needs to continue to grow and get better. His work ethic in practice every day is allowing him to have success on game night.”

The Aggies have had a rough start to the season where they have lost their last nine games including their first conference match against Cal State Fullerton. Davis’ offense ranks eighth in the conference with 62.5 points per game and are last in defense giving up 75.9 points per game, averaging 15.9 turnovers per game.

In his first year at UC Davis, Head Coach Les is trying to bring enthusiasm and relevance to the program by bringing in an up tempo and high scoring offense to the team, which is ranked second in the conference in three point field goal percentage (36.5), but has struggled in bringing in a tough, physical defensive mentality to the team.

“We’ve gotten off to a rough start but I think we’ve made some strides,” Tyler Les said. “Defensively there’s a lot more intensity, a lot of ball pressure, it’s definitely helping us individually and as a team. If we play hard and bring it every night we should be at the top of the conference.”