UC Santa Barbara: Gauchos

There’s been a lot of change for the UCSB women’s basketball team in the past year — a new coach and a new system — but last year’s co-champions of the Big West look ready to contend for another title.

An adjustment period with new Head Coach Carlene Mitchell, whose team sits just below .500 at 6-7 with a 1-1 conference start, was to be expected. But UCSB is accustomed to slow starts, starting conference with a record at .500 or better only twice.

“It’s definitely a new year and a different team,” senior guard Emilie Johnson said. “We’re more dynamic and we’re not satisfied with just playing hard. We want to win.”

In the Big West preseason polls, UCSB was predicted to finish second, right behind conference foe Cal Poly. The two teams received the same number of first place votes, but Cal Poly received more points overall.

However, the Gauchos weren’t thinking about the polls. They were concerned with adjusting and readying themselves for conference play. Their preseason schedule included some stiff competition, such as St. Mary’s and Washington State.

“I think we had a great schedule,” Johnson said. “It was tough and it prepared us for conference.”

The Gauchos began conference on the road, facing rival Cal Poly first. As expected, the game went down to the wire. A three-point play by senior guard Ashlee Burns with 2.3 seconds remaining left the Gauchos winless to start conference for only the second time in the last 17 seasons.

A week later, Mitchell earned her first conference win as head coach against Cal State Fullerton 39-37, although it wasn’t the Gauchos’ best showing.

If there is one thing that hasn’t changed for the Gauchos this season, it’s their tenacious defense. UCSB allows opponents a mere 49.6 points per game, the best in the Big West and seventh in the nation. In eight of their past 10 games, their opponent hasn’t scored over 50 points. Furthermore, the Gauchos have held their opposition to 37 percent shooting, also first in the conference.

“We’re not going to try to outscore teams, but we’re going to try to make it hard on opponents on the defensive end,” Mitchell said. “That’s what I’m about and that’s what this program is about. We have to control what we can, which is defensive intensity.”

On the offensive end, there is no apparent leader for UCSB. Certainly no player will be found atop the Big West rankings, but that is Mitchell’s strategy on offense: balance. UCSB has a deep team with many players who can make a difference.

“Every player should have the confidence to be the go-to player if we need them to,” Mitchell said. “Then teams can’t focus on one player.”

Currently, junior forward Sweets Underwood leads the team in scoring at 8.9 points per game. She is also second on the squad in rebounding at 7.8 per game, placing her sixth in the Big West.

“[Sweets] has that ability to get a double-double every night,” Mitchell said. “Sweets understands we’re not asking too much for her and her athleticism.”

While Johnson, who played for Team USA in October, has been inconsistent in finding her shooting touch thus far, she continues to lead her team by doing the less noticed things, like distributing the ball and getting steals. She leads the team in both categories with 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals per contest, while still averaging 8.4 points.

“I don’t think [Emilie] has to score for this team to be successful,” Mitchell said. “She’s such an unselfish player, and she understands it’s important to be a distributor and set the tempo. If she has five or six assists, that means 10 or 12 points.”

UCSB’s other senior and captain, Kelsey Adrian, has recently found her stride in the new system, especially from behind the arc. The guard shoots 42.6 percent from three point land, good enough for second in the Big West.

The two sophomore guards Nicole Nesbit and Melissa Zornig have also proved themselves as offensive threats, averaging 8.6 and 8.2 points per game, respectively.

“I think we have a good mix [of players],” Adrian said. “ We have some super athletic players and some shooters. We’re really complimentary of each other. We’re not as big as other teams, but we’re bigger and have bigger basketball IQs.”

Junior center Kirsten Tilleman cleans up the paint under the hoop night in and night out. She ranks second in rebounds in the Big West at 8.6 per game.

“[Kirsten] is instrumental to our success so far,” Mitchell said. “She has to guard the other teams’ tallest and most physical players. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the effort and intensity every night.”

As Coach Mitchell has preached all year, it most likely will be the little things that determine the Gauchos’ run for a title. Defense is their bread and butter, but rebounding and turnovers may make the difference.

“Rebounding and limiting turnovers have been our keys all year long,” Adrian said. “We’re smaller, so blocking out is going to win or lose us games.”

Thus far, Santa Barbara’s weakness seems to be consistent offensive production as they continue to work on executing on the offensive end. As a result, they score the least in conference at 51.1 points per game, but overall they still maintain the greatest scoring margin (+1.5).

“We emphasize [defense],” Johnson said. “That’s been our identity: our toughness on that end of the floor.”

The Gauchos will host UC Riverside this Saturday in the Thunderdome at 2 p.m.

Cal Poly: Mustangs

Cal Poly women’s basketball went 3-9 and lost seven consecutive games entering conference play. They opened conference with two straight wins. The lesson: last year’s Big West co-champions and this year’s predicted league champs by the preseason polls should never be counted out of the mix.

“We are really excited and honored to be selected to win it, but we know we’re a long way off of that and know we have to earn it every single day,” Head Coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “We had some really good competition in preseason and I think it’s prepared us all for the great competition we’re going to face in the Big West.”

While the Mustangs lost last year’s Big West Player of the Year, Rachel Clancy, they return with arguably an even more dangerous threat. Redshirt senior and 2009-10 Big West Player of the Year Kristina Santiago, who missed last year with a torn ACL, is back in action. Against San Diego State on Dec. 21, Santiago made the bold statement that she is completely back, tallying a career high 44 points.

“We definitely have a different team, [which is] trying to put it together so we can have as successful a year,” Mimnaugh said. “Santiago is obviously one of the main reasons for that success. She is by all accounts an all-star and somebody that I’m sure the WNBA is having a really close look at as far as an addition to their league.”

Thus far, the 6’1’’ forward has averaged 24 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Both statistics are good enough to lead the Big West and nationally rank her fifth and 17th, respectively.

Senior guard Ashlee Burns is Cal Poly’s third leading scorer at 8.8 points per game. Opponents should watch out for her three-point shooting; she averages 36.7 percent from behind the arc.

“Ashlee Burns has been a terrific three-point shooter and somebody we count on to extend the defense so they can’t completely collapse on Kristina,” Mimnaugh said.

As a team, the Mustangs are extremely strong offensively, preferring high scoring games. They lead the Big West, averaging 72.1 points per outing. The also lead the league in field goal percentage (42 percent) and assists (14.4).

“We love up-tempo,” Mimnaugh said. “If we can score in the 70s, we’re usually on the victory side.”

Consequently, Cal Poly also allows their opponents the most points in the Big West, so their game plan is simple: outscore the other team.

Pacific: Tigers

The University of the Pacific was picked to finish eighth in the Big West in the Preseason Media Poll, but already has almost as many wins as they did all of last year. The Tigers went 5-11 in conference play last season (9-22 overall) and entered the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed. There, they upset second seed UCSB in the first round before falling to first seed Cal Poly in the second round.

This season, Pacific is currently in third place in the conference at 2-1 (8-6 overall). The Tigers went 6-5 through a tough nonconference schedule, including a trip to second-ranked Connecticut, and feel they are prepared for Big West play.

“Now we get into the rhythm of conference play,” Head Coach Lynne Roberts told pacifictigers.com. “The Big West is going to be a close race. We know [each game is] going to be very tough.”

In its first conference game against Cal State Fullerton on Dec. 29, Pacific won 72-67. In its next showing on Jan. 5 at UC Irvine, the Tigers lost in overtime, 77-75, but rebounded with a big win on Jan. 7, 80-59 at UC Riverside.

Early in the season, there were indications that the Tigers were on track for an improvement from last year. On Dec. 5, junior guard Erica McKenzie was named Big West Player of the Week, and on Dec. 12, junior guard Ashley Wakefield earned the same award. McKenzie averages 12.4 points per game, and Wakefield is the team’s leading scorer at 12.6 points per game. On the defensive side, sophomore guard Gena Johnson is third in the conference in blocked shots with 1.4 per game.

One area Pacific has found success is from behind the arc. McKenzie has made a conference-leading 34 three-pointers thus far this season, and junior Kendall Rodriguez leads the conference in individual three-point field goal percentage with .440. Overall, the team has the second-best three-point field goal percentage in the Big West with .344.

Roberts hopes that the team can sustain these areas of success, which have contributed to its exceeding expectations so far.

“Our focus now is making sure our players understand we have momentum, but we’re not where we want to be yet,” Roberts said.

UC Davis: Aggies

The UC Davis women’s basketball team enters the season as defending champions of the Big West conference, after making a run in the conference tournament as a fourth seed and losing to Stanford in the first round of the NCAA tournament. With new Head Coach Jennifer Gross at the helm, the Aggies have started the season 8-5 overall and 0-1 in conference.

After replacing 14-year Head Coach Sandy Simpson, who went 24-9 overall and 10-6 in conference in his final season, new Head Coach Jennifer Gross is trying to bring a fast, up-tempo offense to the team, as well as a tough and physical mentality to both sides of the ball.

“Although I am in my first year as the head coach at UC Davis, I have been a part of this Aggie program for the past eight years,” Gross said. “Of course, I have my own style as the head coach, but the overall philosophy of our program will remain the same.”

This season the Aggies are led by their three senior captains. Senior guard Samantha Meggison started all 33 games last season, leading the team in steals with 61 and finishing second on the team with 66 assists. Meggison is leading the Aggies in points with 10.8 points per game and rebounds (4.5). Senior guard Hana Asano is averaging seven points and 3.5 assists per game. Senior forward Kasey Riecks is second on the team, with 10.2 points per game and is on pace to become the 15th Aggie to reach 1,000 career points.

“Three of our seniors, Samantha Meggison, Kasey Riecks and Hana Asano have been very consistent so far,” Gross said. “Whether it is scoring, rebounding or getting us stops, they have been providing great leadership and have been very productive on the court.”

After five straight wins to start the season, the Aggies have cooled off and are now 8-5 and 0-1 in conference. Davis is averaging 62.9 points per game, ranking sixth in the conference in offense, including a league-leading 7.6 threes per game, ranking them 14th in all of Division I. Defensively, they are only giving up 63.6 points to their opponents, forcing 19.9 turnovers a game.

Gross is focused this year on building strong relations and competing as a unit, fielding a team that can be competitive night in and night out in a very even conference that is up for grabs. The Aggies’ goal for the season is to continue growing throughout the next few months and coming as close as possible to reaching their potential.

“We have big picture goals like trying to go back to the NCAA tournament,” Riecks said. “But there’s a lot of goals within our team that we want to accomplish through each game, and its getting better every game, and the opportunity that we have to be on the court during practice is amazing.”

CSUN: Matadors

The Cal State Northridge women’s basketball team has already seen success this season, sitting at 8-7 overall and 3-0 in the Big West. Last year, the Matadors suffered through a 4-26 overall (4-11 Big West) season. Thus far, Northridge has defeated Irvine, Riverside and Long Beach to stand in first place in the conference.

The Matadors are led by senior center Jasmine Erving, who averages 14.7 points per game and has started all 15 games so far, alongside freshman guard Ashlee Guay.

Erving earned herself the Big West Player of the Week award the week of Nov. 28. She posted two consecutive double-doubles against Colgate and West Virginia.

On Jan. 2, freshman guard Janae Sharpe also took home the Big West Player of the Week award, bringing CSUN women’s basketball its second of the season. Sharpe scored 19 points and had seven steals against UC Irvine, leading Northridge to its first league win of the season.

In steals, Northridge only ranks behind Long Beach this season, partly due to freshman guard Ashlee Guay, who leads the team with 55. She and Sharpe, who has 29 steals, get the ball back for their offense and feed leading scorer Erving. Both Guay and Sharpe have 57 and 36 assists respectively.

Northridge will face Pacific on the road and Cal Poly at home before facing Santa Barbara at home on Jan. 21.

Cal State Fullerton: Titans

After posting a 6-5 nonconference record, Fullerton has opened its Big West season by going 1-3.

The Titans lost a close game at Pacific in its Big West opener 72-67, despite a fourth consecutive 20-point effort from senior guard Megan Richardson. Fullerton then upset UC Davis 58-50 two days later, and returned home 1-1 in conference.

In the team’s home opener, four different Titans tallied double digit points, but Cal Poly won 76-69. On Saturday, Fullerton played host to visiting UCSB, who escaped with a narrow 39-37 victory.

Head Coach Marcia Foster will be patrolling the sidelines in her third season with Fullerton, who a year after posting a 9-21 (5-11 Big West) overall record, was tabbed to finish fifth in the Conference Preseason Media Poll.

Richardson was named to the preseason All-Conference team and is the squad’s returning leader in minutes per game (32) and points (14.7). Other returning starters include redshirt senior point guard Lauren Chow and sophomore guard Alex Thomas.

An indication of Fullerton’s success may be how the team fares away from the friendly confines of Titan Gym. Last year, Fullerton was 3-14 on the road, including 2-6 in the Big West.