The UCSB men’s basketball team has played some important games this season against the likes of Cal and UCLA, but no game this season may be more important than tonight’s road matchup against UC Irvine, the team tied atop the Big West standings with the Gauchos.

Santa Barbara and Irvine enter the contest tied for first place in the Big West, each with a 9-3 conference record this season. UCSB is 18-7 overall and has won two straight games, while Irvine is 18-10, previously losing its one-game lead on the Gauchos with a loss to Cal State Northridge last Saturday. Needless to say, tonight’s game in Irvine holds major implications for both teams’ chances to finish on top of the Big West this season.

“I think they’re pretty confident in themselves when we play high level teams and competition,” Head Coach Bob Williams said. “We’ve played well in big games this year; we played well in the preseason at UNLV and Cal, UCLA and Colorado. We feel like we’re pretty well suited to play in these types of games and we’re just excited about the opportunity.”

When the two teams previously met on Jan. 30, UCSB ran the Anteaters out of the Thunderdome with an 80-60 victory. In that victory, however, Irvine was without junior forward Will Davis II, last year’s Big West Defensive Player of the Year.

“He’s a key player for them, no doubt. He’s not one of the top three scorers, but what he is, is a really versatile four/five,” Coach Williams said. “Even though you don’t see him at the five much, I think you will see him at times at the five today. I think you’ll see them go to a small team, press us, play small with the five, and it gives them way more versatility than with their big guys they have.”

Another player to watch for Irvine is freshman Mamadou Ndiaye. The 7’6” freshman is the tallest player in collegiate basketball and ranks 8th in the nation with 3.19 blocks to per game. Irvine features much depth along its starting line with freshman guard Luke Nelson and senior guard Chris McNealy each averaging over 11 points per game.

Because of its depth, Irvine has played well of late, as the Anteaters were winners of five straight games before falling to Northridge.

“We’re looking forward to the test against Irvine,” Coach Williams said. “We’re sure that they will play much better than when they played here against us, and I think we’re ready for the challenge.”

UCSB enters the game with plenty of momentum as well, winning six of its last seven games; the lone loss coming in overtime to the same Northridge team. Leading the Gauchos is junior center Alan Williams. Big Al leads the nation with 12.0 rebounds per game and ranks 8th in the country with 22.5 points per game.

“Part of [his rebounding ability is] he creates space, but the other part of it is he’s leaner, he’s moving really well, he’s got great instincts, he follows where the ball is going and he reads it really well,” Coach Williams said. “He’s just got great gifts, tremendous feet, tremendous hands, he’s a very good player.”

While the Gauchos have come to expect greatness from Big Al, another player in junior point guard Zalmico Harmon has emerged as a game-changer for a UCSB team hitting its stride. Harmon ranks second in the nation with a 4.52 assist to turnover ratio and is second in the conference with over 5.2 assists per game.

Even more impressive, Harmon has compiled 50 assists and only three turnovers in his last nine games. In addition to his superb ball handling, Harmon has also become an efficient scorer for the Gauchos, notching two 20-point games in the last three contests. In the team’s last game, Harmon racked up 20 points and 10 assists, the first Gaucho to accomplish the feat since 1989.

“He continues to get better. He makes great decisions and takes great care of the ball, obviously,” Coach Williams said. “He’s shooting the ball with much more confidence now, he’s playing his best basketball of the year and we just kind of expect him to continue to grow.”

No doubt that on Saturday the Gauchos will rely on what has been working for them all year — feeding Big Al down low and relying on its perimeter shooters to hit outside shots and drive to the rim for open looks.

UCSB will need to play tremendous defense against an Irvine squad that ranks first in the conference in field goal percentage at 47.5 percent. Santa Barbara held the Anteaters to under 36 percent in the victory earlier this season.

Irvine also ranks first in the conference in rebounding and will challenge Big Al, the nation’s top rebounder, down low. In the team’s previous matchup, Big Al managed to dominate as he has done all season with 26 points and 10 rebounds, with the Gauchos winning the battle on the glass by eight.

“There’s high energy, a lot of emotion in this game because it is such a big game and the environment is going to be hostile and they always bring a good crowd,” Big Al said. “It’s definitely going to be a lot of fun to play there and go up against Irvine. We’re really excited. It’s a big game.”

Tonight’s clash between the first-place teams is scheduled to tip-off at 7 p.m. at the Bren Events Center in Irvine.


A version of this article appeared on pages 1 and 6 of February 27, 2014’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.

Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.