With one of the most heralded senior classes in the history of the UCSB men’s basketball team set to finish off its college career, two Gaucho freshmen have been making an unexpected and immediate impact on this veteran-laden squad. With UCSB’s final game of the season this Saturday and the Big West postseason tournament next week, both center Alan “Big Al” Williams and point guard T.J. Taylor will have a major say in whether UCSB can make it back to the Big Dance for a third consecutive season.

“It’s fun being the two young guys getting the minutes on the team,” Williams said. “In preseason and stuff we were saying that we wanted to start, and we knew that if we kept working hard it could happen.”

Entering the school year last summer, both Williams and Taylor expected they would be watching most games wearing street clothes as redshirt freshmen.

“Coming in, we both thought we would have to redshirt,” Taylor said. “Then a couple of guys got hurt or whatever, and we both got the opportunity to play more.”

Both freshmen have taken advantage of the opportunity, running with it all the way to starting jobs. Williams has started 14 of 24 games overall for the Gauchos, including 13 of 14 in conference play. Taylor has started nine games overall for UCSB, including eight in conference.

“Al and T.J. have really both created their own opportunities by playing well when given the chance,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “Especially Al; every time he played he was productive and his minutes just got extended as he carved out a niche for himself.”

There is no doubt that anyone who has seen a UCSB game this season knows Williams’ niche is rebounding the basketball. The 6’7” big man is currently averaging 8.2 rebounds per game in conference play, good for third in the Big West. His 1.9 blocks per game also rank third in the Big West. Impressively, Williams has more offensive rebounds on the season, a statistic in which he ranks first place in the league, than defensive rebounds.

“I know my biggest impact is rebounding the ball,” Williams said. “It takes pressure off my guards knowing they can put up shots and I’m under the basket rebounding … I just try to go after it and get it done — it’s fun to work hard.”

“It is invaluable to know your role as a player,” coach Williams said. “The key to being successful, whether you are a player on a team or in a corporation, is that you see what you can bring to the table. … Al sees what he brings, he does what he is best at and he is excited about doing it every day.”

Big Al has become a fan favorite this season, as the Gaucho Locos’ cheers often reach their loudest after Williams blocks a shot, grabs an offensive rebound or dives for a loose ball.

“It’s a lot of fun to go out there and try to bring as much energy as possible,” Williams said. “Our fans are loud and supportive … we do it for them, we represent this whole campus and school, it feels good that they are supporting us.”

Standing at 5’9”, Taylor is the lightning to Williams’ thunder. Often the smallest guy on the court, Taylor makes up for his lack of size with exceptional speed and fearlessness.

“He has got great quickness and is a natural leader,” coach Williams said. “He has this natural charisma about him that is just contagious.”

As a young point guard often asked to run a veteran-laden team, the responsibility of being a leader is magnified. Taylor, who ranks fifth on the team in minutes and third in assist-to-turnover ratio in conference, is accepting and embracing the challenge with an eye toward the future.

“If I can become a good leader for this team with a veteran group, it will help me in the future,” Taylor said. “I would like to work on becoming more vocal, more fearless and just fully taking advantage of the opportunity.”

The recruiting experiences for Williams and Taylor were not alike, as different circumstances in the past few years eventually brought the pair to UCSB.

Williams played high school basketball in Phoenix, Arizona, and was not highly recruited out of high school despite winning two state championships in his sophomore and junior seasons.

“I didn’t really start getting recruited until the summer between my junior year and senior year,” Williams said. “That was the last recruiting period so I guess you could say I was a late bloomer.”

Initially unsure of whether Williams was a good fit for UCSB, coach Williams decided to make an offer after attending a tournament to watch him play.

“Watching him in a tournament in Arizona, I remember a specific play where he was running the length of the floor at full speed,” coach Williams recalled. “He picks up a ball thrown at his ankles in a dead sprint and finished with a finger roll right over the rim … a guy with that kind of ability for a big man is just rare.”

Taylor’s path to UCSB began differently. Out of Oakland, Taylor had originally committed to Santa Clara as a sophomore before later deciding to reopen his recruiting. That is when coach Williams swooped in.

“I liked T.J., but I fell in love with the kid when it came down to the in-home visit,” coach Williams said. “When I went in the home and got to know his family and his mother and grandmother, I fell in love with the kid. I walked out of the home and said I would really love to have him — he would be a great fit for our program.”

As this year’s squad looks to close out its season with a Big West championship and trip to the NCAA Tournament, Williams and Taylor understand that their impact at UCSB will be felt for years to come.

“It only gets better,” Taylor said. “We don’t plan on having any dip in the program in the future. We will be coming strong here for the next three years.”

“We will be the sophomore veterans next year,” Williams added.

A bit of an oxymoron, but that is quite possibly the truth. As the only two regular starters returning to a team that will lose five seniors to graduation, much of the leadership roles will fall on their shoulders.

“That’s why it’s good for us to be out there getting the experience,” Taylor said. “To set the tone for the next three years.”

While excited and optimistic about the program’s future, coach Williams remains reserved with his expectations.

“They have some big shoes to fill,” coach Williams said. “They still have a lot to prove. … However, I love the fact that they are excited about it and I do think this freshman class has a chance to be as great as our graduating senior class right now.”

The immediate future will allow both Williams and Taylor to make a difference in the Gauchos’ postseason run this season, but the freshman duo will have three more years to make a lasting impact on the UCSB men’s basketball program.