Sitting in the middle of the pack in the Big West at 5-5, the UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball team has two chances this week to move up the ladder. The team also has two chances at revenge.
On Thursday evening, the Gauchos travel to take on Cal State Fullerton (CSUF) on the road before quickly returning to the Thunderdome to host UC Davis (UCD) on Saturday. The Titans bounced UCSB from the Big West Tournament last season, and the Aggies handed the Gauchos their most recent loss last Thursday.
The Cal State Fullerton team this season is quite different from the one that ended UCSB’s season last year. Both of the Titans’ leading scorers from last season are gone and playing professional ball in Europe, leaving Jackson Rowe, Brandon Kamga and Austen Awosika behind to handle much of the offensive load.
Rowe was Fullerton’s third-leading scorer last season and has picked up where he left off from last year. The senior forward missed the first 13 games of the season with a knee injury but is averaging a team-leading 15.6 points on 42.4% three-point shooting since his return.
Kamga is just a tick behind Rowe at 15.2 points per game overall this season but is averaging a team-high 19 points per game in conference play. Kamga, a graduate transfer from High Point University, is new to the Fullerton program but seems to have acclimated quite well.
“Kamga […] is probably second in our league to [Cal State Northridge’s (CSUN)] Lamine Diane,” UCSB Head Coach Joe Pasternack said. “He does a great, great job of getting baskets.”
Senior guard Awosika brings up the rear of the scoring triumvirate with 13.5 points per game, but he chips in 4 rebounds and a team-best 4.0 assists per game.
The Titans are 10-16 overall this season, but they’re just a half-game behind the Gauchos in the Big West at 5-6. Thursday’s game isn’t just a chance for UCSB to avenge last year’s loss — it’s an opportunity for Fullerton to move up the ladder.
“They’re the team that knocked us out in the conference tournament,” Pasternack said. “They’re always a very good team. The league is so well rounded. The parity is amazing. On any given night, anybody can beat anybody.”
Fullerton has compiled a record that proves Pasternack’s point. The Titans have lost to the Big West’s two last-place teams, Cal Poly and UC Riverside and have beaten UC Davis and CSUN, both tied for second.
Not only that, but Fullerton also upset UCLA earlier this season.
It’s hard to know exactly what to expect from the Titans, but recent history suggests a lot of offense is likely. In six of CSUF’s last seven games, at least one team has scored over 70 points.
The Gauchos don’t have much time to recover from Thursday’s game before they take on UC Davis at home on Saturday night. The two teams just met last Thursday, when the Aggies won 84-75 in a game more lopsided than the score would indicate.
UCSB couldn’t buy a bucket in the first half, shooting just 36% to Davis’ 50% mark. The Aggies took full advantage of the Gauchos’ slow start and rocketed out to a 36-24 halftime lead that they never fully relinquished[[ok]].
“Credit to Davis, they played a great game,” Pasternack said. “They were very well-prepared. All credit goes to them.”
Only senior guard Max Heidegger’storrid second half, which saw him score 27 of his 31 points and knock down seven 3’s, kept UCSB in contention. Heidegger’s explosion aside, it was a dispiriting result for a Gaucho team that had been riding a three-game win streak.
On Saturday, UCSB will get the chance to bounce back from last week’s loss and land a serious blow against one of the team’s main Big West rivals. Thursday’s game pushed UCD past the Gauchos and up to second place in the conference at 6-5 and 12-15 overall.
Pasternack has been working his charges hard in practice this week in order to right the ship, and Thursday and Saturday’s games will test the effectiveness of his efforts.
“Our guys have worked extremely hard,” Pasternack said. “It’s ‘next game.’ That’s the mentality. We lost a game, didn’t play well. They played really well, and now it’s on us to really lock in here and get ready for Thursday night.”
The regular season is rapidly approaching its close, and the number of opportunities to move up the bracket for the Big West tournament is dwindling. The Gauchos get two opportunities this week to make a move up the standings and avenge a pair of losses — opportunities the team likely can’t afford to waste.