Each team will be battling for the opportunity to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament with today’s start of the Big West Conference Tournament.
Beginning its March Madness quest is the fourth seeded UCSB men’s basketball team, 17-12 overall and 11-5, hoping to write its own history as it will face UC Davis in the Quarterfinals round to tipoff the postseason.
The Aggies are currently the fifth seed in the conference tournament, hosting an overall record of 11-18 and 6-10 in conference.
Following a 3-5 start to open up the Big West this season, UCSB has shown signs of significant growth since then, currently holding on to a program record eight-game winning streak.
Facing UC Irvine, Long Beach State and top seeded Hawaii to open up the month of January, the Gauchos managed to battle through their tough conference schedule. Since then, Santa Barbara has swept teams such as Cal State Fullerton, UC Riverside, and upcoming opponent UC Davis during this tenured win streak.
“I don’t think there were a lot of people that believed when we were 3-5 we’d move back to the upper echelon of the league,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams said. “Our team has definitely responded well [following this start].”
Nonetheless, this essence of hot streaks towards the end of the season is nothing new for Santa Barbara. The Gauchos ended Big West play last year on a five-game winning streak finishing against notable teams such as then first seeded UC Davis, third seeded UC Irvine, and fifth seeded Hawaii.
Despite ending this season on such a good note, Santa Barbara does face some challenges when matching up against UC Davis. The Aggies host some offensive threats in Neal Monson, Josh Fox, and Darius Graham.
Although not as effective in the Aggies’ two losses to UCSB during the regular season, Monson has been relatively efficient as of late, averaging 16.5 points in the past two games. In his third year at UCD, Monson is coming off a career night last Saturday against Cal State Northridge in which he registered his third double-double of the season with 21 points and 15 rebounds. These were both team-highs as Monson helped propel the Aggies in their 87-83 triple overtime win on the road.
The duo of Fox and Graham will also be key for the Aggies against Santa Barbara. Fox, this year’s All-Big West Second Team honoree, has been a reliable scorer for Davis. The senior forward has proven to be dangerous down low scoring 20 or more points on six occasions this year as well as tallying double-figures in scoring in 21 games this season.
Fox recorded 17 points in his last outing against Santa Barbara, going 8-15 from the floor along with seven rebounds. His ability to maneuver his way into the paint and take quality shots can be attributed to his versatile scoring capabilities as he ranked sixth in the conference with a 51.3 shooting percentage.
Forwards Sam Beeler and Mitch Brewe will have their hands full containing both Fox and Monson in the frontcourt as they will attempt to deny the Aggies’ interior attack and hope to limit Davis from scoring easy points in the paint.
Junior Darius Graham is another central component to Davis’ unit. Awarded this year’s Big West Hustle Player of Year, it is Graham’s tenacious effort at both ends of the court that makes him a vital piece to the Aggies’ success.
While Graham is only one of three Aggies who averages double figures in points, alongside Fox and junior guard Brynton Lemar, it is his motor and willingness to scrap for loose balls that sets him apart from the rest.
Aside from Graham’s gritty demeanor on the floor, the third year player has proven to be a threat from beyond the arc. In his last two games against the Gauchos, Graham has hit 6-10 shots from behind the three-point line including a 3-4 performance from downtown in the Aggies’ 72-66 home loss to UCSB on Feb. 11.
As for UCSB, Williams will rely on the shooting core of Michael Bryson, Gabe Vincent, and John Green to propel his team to victory.
The three have been the most consistent for UCSB, averaging more than half of the team’s points— scoring 42.7 of the Gauchos’ 70.8 points per game.
After missing six games this season due to a knee injury, three of which were during conference play, the redshirt senior is coming along nicely. Green is shooting an efficient 53 percent from the field during Santa Barbara’s win streak.
“[John] has had great support around him,” Williams said. “He is a very strong man and drives through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.”
Green has scored in double figures five times during the team’s current eight-game winning streak, including a team-high 14 points to go along with 10 rebounds on senior night in the Gauchos’ 69-50 win over Cal Poly on Saturday.
“[We’re playing] with more discipline, but at the same time just having more fun,” Green said. “We’ve been trusting each other more. I’ve always said that it’s not what matters in the beginning of the year it’s what matters in early February and late March. It’s really clicking for us right now during the best time of the year.”
Tipoff between UCSB and UCD is set for 12 p.m. at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA. The Quarterfinal matchup between Santa Barbara and Davis will air on Fox Prime Ticket.