Devearl Ramsey pulling up for an open shot. Nexus File Photo

UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball Head Coach Joe Pasternak wants free throws to be an integral part of his team’s identity. So far this season, that’s only been occasionally true.

UCSB is 1-1at this point in the season, with 22 free throw attempts in a win over Jackson State and 9 free throw attempts in a loss to UCLA. When the Gauchos host Rice University on Saturday afternoon, they’ll be aiming for a number closer to 22.

If the Gauchos need any more evidence that free throws are important, they need not look any further than the last time they played Rice. UCSB topped the Owls 99-89 in an overtime thriller last season thanks in large part to 23 free throws made on 24 attempts, a far cry from this season’s UCLA game.

The Owls are 3-1 this season with wins over Penn, Wayland Baptist and Northwestern State and a 91-43 loss at the hands of Arkansas. Penn beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa earlier this season, adding a little extra luster to Rice’s victory.

Rice returns with three starters from last year’s team, but sophomore guard Trey Murphy III, new to the starting lineup this year, has been the team’s most impactful player so far this season.

Murphy leads the Owls with 14.5 points per game on 45% field goal shooting and 33% shooting from beyond the arc. The sophomore has increased his point total in every game so far this season, including most recently with a 25-point performance against Northwestern State.

“Trey Murphy is a great player,” UCSB head Head Coach Pasternack said. “He can really shoot the ball. He’s a three-man playing the four-man, he can drive, he can shoot the ball, they iso him a lot and our four men are gonna have to do a great job defending him.”

Senior guard Ako Adams is second on the team in scoring with 11 points per game so far this season. Setting aside a game against Wayland Baptist that saw Adams play just 10 minutes and score zero points, the senior is averaging 14.7 points. 

Adams, who has started every game for the Owls since his sophomore year, is one of four seniors on the team. Fellow senior Robert Martin, a forward, is the only other senior in the starting lineup and provides some experience in the frontcourt.

Martin is averaging 5.3 rebounds a game so far this season, second only to 6-8 sophomore wing Drew Peterson and his 7.3 rebounds a game. Keeping both Martin and Peterson off the glass is a must for the Gauchos, who lost the rebounding battle, and subsequently, the war on Sunday against UCLA.

Rice has turned the ball over 16.8 times per game so far this season, third-worst in the Conference USA. That number is inflated by a nightmare performance against Arkansas that saw the Owls turn the ball over 27 times, but the point remains that Rice has struggled with ball security.

The Gauchos, meanwhile, have struggled to force turnovers in their two games this season, setting up an interesting clash on Saturday. Against UCSB, Jackson State and UCLA both turned the ball over 9 times, which would make for Rice’s most ball-secure game this season.

“What we have to do is play 40 minutes of defense,” Pasternack said. “Against Jackson State we only played a half, … and against UCLA we only played in the first half defensively.”

While the Owls haven’t excelled at taking care of the basketball, they’ve done at least a so-so job of keeping opponents away from the free throw line. While Northwestern State did achieve  24 chances from the charity stripe during their matchup, no other team has cracked 15 free throw attempts this season.

In order to follow in Northwestern State’s footsteps, the Gauchos will have to play aggressively on offense and focus on getting to the rim rather than settling for jumpshots. Rice presents much less of a size disadvantage for UCSB than UCLA does, which should make interior offense a little easier to come by.

“We need to be more aggressive offensively, attacking the basket, driving the ball, posting up and using our size to our advantage to get to the free throw line,” Pasternack said. 

UCSB played Rice aggressively last season and got 24 free throws and a win out of it. The situation isn’t exactly the same this season, but if the Gauchos follow a similar blueprint, they’ll put themselves in a position to win again.

UCSB hosts Rice University on Saturday in the Thunderdome at 2 p.m.