After losing five seniors in what may be considered the most talented team in school history, the UCSB men’s basketball team has shown promise this season as an inexperienced squad.
The Gauchos are currently 5-9 overall with a 1-2 record in the Big West, but have proved to be a team that can compete with teams atop the conference.
“I expect us to make more improvement than anyone in the Big West between now and March,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “What I want to finish with is a young group of kids that have grown up a lot, that feel good about themselves, that are playing their best basketball and [I want us to] make a run in the Big West Tournament. That’s the focus of where this group needs to be.”
Santa Barbara entered this season as the third-youngest team in the nation, with eight freshmen and only one senior on the roster. In their most recent game, the Gauchos started two freshmen and three sophomores.
Picked to finish fifth in the preseason Big West media poll, UCSB faced the toughest preseason slate in the nation with the No. 1 RPI strength-of-schedule. The Gauchos fell to numerous top teams including No. 17 San Diego State, 9-2 LSU, 12-2 Boise State and twice to 13-0 Wyoming. UCSB’s most impressive victory came at 12-4 Santa Clara, a team that actually held a second-half lead against No. 1 Duke just over a week ago.
“We played the toughest schedule in the country, so from that standpoint, when you take a very young team and you play a very difficult schedule, now it takes a while to build yourself back up,” Coach Williams said. “This group has kept their head up, they’re making progress, they believe in each other. I like the energy of the team for a group that is struggling to find wins. We just keep working like we are right now and wins will come.”
Perhaps the biggest bright spot for UCSB this season has been sophomore center Alan Williams. Big Al, as he is commonly referred to, has averaged 17.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game this season, the only player in the Big West to average a double-double. He ranks first in the conference in rebounding and blocked shots and is sixth in scoring.
Despite his outstanding achievements, Big Al has struggled to stay out of foul trouble, often missing playing time on the bench as he has played only 28 minutes per game.
“We need the big fella on the floor 30-plus minutes to win games in the Big West,” Coach Williams said. “[Al] is a load. There’s nobody we’ve played all year that has played him head up. Nobody can handle him one-on-one. That’s a pretty good weapon.”
Opening up Big West play, UCSB has started 1-2 with the two losses coming to preseason favorites Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. The Gauchos lost both games by seven points each and have shown much improvement compared to preseason play.
“I feel like we’re really growing as a unit, competing in every game,” Big Al said. “I feel, and a lot of the more experienced guys feel, that this team is going to be really good and we’re going to be up top of the Big West at the end of the season.”
Junior forward Kyle Boswell has been especially effective in Big West play, scoring a career-high 23 points in last week’s victory over UC Irvine. Boswell is third on the team in scoring with 12.5 points per game and second in the conference in triples with 41 three-point field goals.
“I feel like we’re making a lot better decisions offensively; we’re taking better shots as a team,” Boswell said. “All the concepts are there and people are understanding exactly what it takes to win. Now we’ve just got to take it a step further and execute, and get all the precision down on the offensive and defensive end to get to the next level.”
Of the eight freshmen on the roster, four have received consistent playing time. Forwards Sam Beeler and Mitch Brewe have been replacements for Big Al when he is on the bench. Guard Michael Bryson averages 4.9 points per game but registered a career-high 15 points in Saturday’s loss against Long Beach.
Forward Taran Brown has been the most consistent freshman, averaging 13.5 points per game, good for 13th in the conference and tops amongst any freshman in the league. Brown also ranks 14th in the conference with 5.5 rebounds per game and fifth in blocks at 1.1 per game.
“We’ve fought hard and I think we’ve shown some growth,” Coach Williams said. “They have a mindset about getting better and I like that.”
One key to the Gauchos’ continued improvement will be the development of Brown and Bryson as legitimate scoring threats. At times, both have shown to be dangerous shooters with Brown ranking third in the conference with 38 three-point field goals made.
Entering the season, the point guard position was an area of uncertainty for Santa Barbara, but lone senior Nate Garth has become a consistent playmaker. Garth averages a team best four assists per game, ranking sixth in the Big West.
“I have some experience that a lot of the guys here don’t,” Garth said. “I just try to share all my experiences with all the guys, whether it’s good or bad. I just try to give my knowledge and whatever I can to help all my teammates.”
Since Garth has been sidelined with an ankle injury, sophomore guard T.J. Taylor has started at point guard the past two games, averaging a Big West-best 7.3 assists per game in conference play. Taylor has also been a threat from behind the three-point line, shooting .452 from that range, good for fourth in the conference.
Defensively, UCSB has improved, but still has room for growth. They rank seventh in the league, allowing 78 points per game in conference play.
“Our defense has gotten a lot better since the beginning of the season,” Garth said. “We were giving up a lot of points; we gave up 100 points in the beginning of the year and I don’t think a team will ever get close to that again for the rest of the season. There’s a lot of talent in this group and these guys want to get better and want to learn. They have bright futures.”
Also figuring into the rotation for UCSB is sophomore forward Lewis Thomas. Thomas, a native of Australia, averages 3.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game on the season.
With a number of promising performances this season, at times the Gauchos have looked talented enough to be one of the top teams in the Big West. As a youthful squad relying on inexperienced players, Santa Barbara may very well get to that point by March.
“I feel like we’re more than capable of finishing at the top half of the conference. When you’re as young as we are, the learning curve is tremendous,” Boswell said. “As long as we keep learning from what we did and the mistakes that we’ve caused in our previous games, then we can kind of get the mentality that we can get better and get some wins in the second half of conference and even in these next few games.”
UCSB next travels to face University of the Pacific tomorrow night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Alex G. Spanos Center.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January 9th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.