After finishing a three-game road trip with a tough loss, the UCSB men’s basketball team faces a crucial test Thursday night when it hosts first-place UC Irvine at the Thunderdome. A victory against Irvine would go a long way in pushing the Gauchos back towards the top of the conference, as Thursday’s contest pits arguably the top two teams in the Big West against each other.

Santa Barbara enters Thursday with an overall record of 12-6 and a conference mark of 3-2. Irvine, meanwhile, sits at 13-8 on the season with a 4-1 record in the Big West.

“We’ve had some losses this year that we definitely shouldn’t have lost. Every game counts and these conference games are big, especially at home like this,” sophomore forward Taran Brown said. “We’ve got to come out and execute because it’s a real important game; they’ve had some success and we’ve got to knock them down.”

UCSB is coming off a pair of close games last weekend when they defeated UC Riverside in overtime before narrowly falling at Cal State Fullerton on Saturday. The Gauchos will attempt to rebound from the loss when they return home, where they are 5-2 on the season.

Irvine, meanwhile, had a six-game winning streak snapped when they fell to Hawaii on Saturday for its first and only conference loss so far this season.

An interesting matchup to watch in this game will be UCSB junior center Alan Williams against Irvine freshman center Mamadou Ndiaye. The 6’7” Williams ranks first in the Big West with 22.9 points and 10.6 rebounds, and is second in blocks at 2.4 per game. Ndiaye, however, is an imposing 7’6”, the tallest player in the nation, and leads the conference with 3.4 blocks per game.

It will certainly be interesting to see how much of a defensive impact Ndiaye will have on Big Al, the seventh leading scorer in the nation.

“Al will be fine against him. Al will be able to score. [Ndiaye] really affects the game, he’s huge. We’ve never played against anything like him, nobody has,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “At the same time he scores nine points a game. His biggest effect on the game is on the defensive end, he’s tremendously effective down there at taking away the rim. Al might have to hit jumpers but I think Al will find ways to be productive.”

Offensively, the Anteaters are dangerous and versatile, ranking second in the conference averaging over 75 points per game. Senior guard Chris McNealy leads Irvine with over 12 points per game, while junior forward Will Davis II and freshman guard Luke Nelson each average just above 11 per game. Ndiaye along with sophomore guard Alex Young score above nine points per game to give the Anteaters a reliable starting five.

Irvine also ranks first in the conference in rebounds pulling down nearly 40 boards per game, while placing atop the Big West with a 48.5 field goal percentage. Ndiaye and Davis II each average just above six rebounds per game to lead the Anteaters.

“They’re a very good rebounding team, they have a plus-six average on the year rebounding-wise, which is a big number in college basketball. And that is not just Mamadou,” Coach Williams said.

Santa Barbara certainly will not go down without a fight, especially in front of a home crowd that has come out to support in recent games. In the last two home games, the attendance at the Thunderdome has averaged more than 4,500 fans per game.

“Hopefully we can make this place really tough for opponents to come into. That’s our main goal: to get as many students out here as we possibly can,” Big Al said. “Every game is important when you get into conference, especially home games. You’ve got to win as many home games as you possibly can, and this one’s really important, so we’ve got to get it.”

Defensively, the key number for the Gauchos seems to be 70. UCSB is 11-0 when they allow 70 points of fewer and 1-6 when allowing 70 or more. In order to defeat first-place Irvine, Santa Barbara will need to keep Irvine’s numerous offensive weapons in check.

The Gauchos will respond to Irvine with a trio of wing players who have supported Big Al from the perimeter. Brown along with sophomore guard Michael Bryson and senior guard Kyle Boswell have been impressive from three-point land this season, with the latter two each ranking in the top six in three-point percentage in the Big West. Junior point guard Zalmico Harmon has helped facilitate the scoring with a conference best 5.2 assists per game and a 3.6 assist to turnover ratio which ranks sixth in the nation.

“They’ve got a good team. But it’s not a better basketball team than Cal, [and] it’s not a better basketball team than us. We’ve got to show up and play,” Coach Williams said.

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at the Thunderdome.


A version of this article appeared on page 1 of January  30th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.

Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.