Max Heidegger reaches past the defense toward the hoop. Dustin Harris/Daily Nexus

Following a summer filled with determination and growth, the Santa Barbara Gauchos have returned to the gym with ambition and high hopes for the upcoming season. While UCSB came up short last year in the Big West Tournament, the squad is eager to build on the biggest program turnaround in college basketball last year.

It’s no coincidence that the team’s turnaround came at the same time that Coach Joe Pasternack took over the head coaching duties. After previous coaching positions at storied programs such as the University of Arizona and UC Berkeley, Pasternack took his second head coaching job with UCSB in March of 2017.

As he took the helm, there was an instant shift in the culture of UCSB basketball. Pasternack stretched his recruiting range by adding a plethora of veteran graduate students and transfer players, and Santa Barbara eyed epic success on the hardwood once again.

Although four of the five starters from last year’s historic squad departed in the offseason, the Gauchos ushered in another wave of transfer students who are keen on making an immediate impact on the team. The lone incumbent starter, junior guard Max Heidegger, has assumed a prominent leadership role as a weathered Gaucho to welcome his incoming teammates.

“We have seven or eight new guys,” Heidegger explained. “We’re [focused] on building camaraderie, getting everyone into our system and doing what Coach P. expects from us.”

Of those players who made the move to sunny Santa Barbara, the majority of the transfer additions are guards and wings. Spearheaded by sophomore point guard Devearl Ramsey, who redshirted last year after a move from the University of Nevada, and graduate transfer Ar’mond Davis, who brings tournament experience after his March Madness run with the University of Alabama last season, the new faces plan to make a significant impact early in the year.

“It makes practice competitive,” Heidegger joked. “Offense, get to the rim, do what we did last year; obviously we were the best offense in the Big West.” Heidegger harped on the team’s focus for the upcoming year: “Defense, defense, defense … When I talk about what Coach P. wants for the culture, it’s all about playing defense and playing hard; that’s what we’re getting everybody to do.”

As the transfer guards get situated in their new roles and fight for a spot on the starting rotation, the Gauchos have also integrated a myriad of young talent into the program at the forward position.

The freshmen forward duo of Jay Nagle and Amadou Sow tower over opponents at 6’8” and 6’9” respectively. As if the Twin Tower additions weren’t enough, the Gauchos continued to reinforce their front court this offseason when the team introduced sophomore forward Robinson Idehen, a native Spaniard who staggers at a whopping 6’10”.

As the big men get situated in their new digs, who better to mentor the young forwards than fifth-year senior center Ami Lakoju? With a first-hand look at the paradigm shift between Coach Williams and Coach Pasternack, Lakoju is the ideal guide to transition the new recruits into the culture that UCSB basketball is currently rebuilding.

“We have a lot of young talent,” Lakoju beamed. “If you make a mistake, just brush it off. You have to focus on executing your job. Everybody has their own role.”

The veteran big man had a career year last season playing in all 32 matches for the Gauchos, including starting seven games, as he facilitated in the absence of Jalen Canty. As he battles back from an offseason toe injury, Lakoju suggested that his game continues to evolve under Coach Pasternack.

“Mentally I’ve seen players grow under each coaching staff,” Lakoju observed. “I feel like the game is so mental. As a freshman, I didn’t really see it that way … if you’re strong mentally, physically you can do anything.”

The complement of veteran leadership and young talent makes for a deadly combination. With Coach Joe Pasternack at the reigns, this Gaucho team reflects a shut-down defense along with an offensive attack that sends shivers down the spines of every Big West coach.

While most teams would have a bleak outlook on this season following the departure of four starters, this Santa Barbara squad has unusually high potential in the upcoming year. With the recent talent brought in for the 2019 season, the Gauchos have high expectations for a successful Big West campaign and a deep run in postseason play.