By winning the 2023 Big West Championship, the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos clinched a spot in the 2023 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. On Selection Sunday, it was announced that UCSB was a 14-seed in the South Region and will travel to Denver, Colorado to take on the No. 3 Baylor Bears.
This is the Gauchos’ second appearance in the tournament in three years and the first since capacity restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were lifted. In the 2021 edition of the tournament, UCSB fell to the Creighton Bluejays in a heartbreaking 63-62 loss.
“Every time you play in the NCAA tournament you learn little lessons,” said Head Coach Joe Pasternack. “I thought our guys did a great job [in 2021]. It was much different than any NCAA tournament that I’ve ever been associated with because we were in a ‘bubble’ and couldn’t leave the hotel. It was pretty surreal, but we have a totally different team this year.”
The team this year that Pasternack spoke of is playing some of its best basketball of the season. After losing three straight games in February and sole possession of the top seed in the Big West regular season standings, UCSB has rattled off consecutive wins against quality opponents. This high-level basketball is what allowed the Gauchos to punch their ticket in the NCAA tournament.
“We had a great finish to our season, winning seven games in a row,” said Pasternack. “[We] are playing our best basketball at the end of the year. That’s what you always hope for as a coach. We’ve endured a lot of adversity and injuries. We’re just excited to get to Denver and enjoy March Madness.”
A main reason for this late-season success has been sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell. After Mitchell was named the Big West Player of the Year, his dominant play did not let up as he led the Gauchos to the Big West Title and was named MVP of the tournament.
“I’m excited to play in this tournament,” said Mitchell. “It’s been a dream for me. Playing Baylor is also a great experience for us.”
Mitchell is right in saying playing the Bears is a great experience for him and his team. Baylor had a great year and was consistently ranked in the list of the top 25 best men’s basketball squads all season.
“Baylor, I mean, first off, coached by a Hall of Famer Scott Drew, a lot of respect for him, always have had,” said Pasternack. “And what he’s done from when he took over to now is unbelievable. The talent on Baylor is incredible. I don’t think it’s just the three guards. I know they get all the hype, but [Jalen] Bridges, what a terrific talent he is, and all three guards I think are all NBA-caliber guards. They’re the No. 2 offense in the country.”
Although the Gauchos respect Baylor, they are not afraid of them. Even as the 14 seed, UCSB knows they can make some noise.
“I don’t think any team cares about seeding,” said Mitchell. “It’s the NCAA Tournament, it’s a big stage, anyone can win. We’re just focused on playing our game, having fun, and just competing with the biggest teams.”
The matchup between UCSB and Baylor will be the first tournament game held in Denver this year. Tip-off is at 10:30 a.m. PST on March 17. If the Gauchos pull off the upset, they will play again on March 19 where they will take on the winner of Creighton vs. North Carolina State.
By the Numbers:
- This Baylor squad led by Drew has excelled in previous years in the tournament, taking home the NCAA Division I championship in 2021.
- Baylor is backed by some of the best offensive guards in the country with Keyonte George, Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer averaging a combined 46.2 points per game.
- The UCSB squad is led by Pasternack, who has brought the Gauchos back to March Madness for the second time in three seasons.
- Another player to look out for Baylor is forward Bridges, who averaged 10.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game during the season. Bridge’s breakout game came in the Big 12 Tournament, where he was able to score 28 points against Iowa State, on above 90 percent shooting from the field.
- The Gauchos are led by their point guard, Mitchell, who is the reigning Big West Player of the Year and Big West Tournament MVP. During the season Mitchell averaged 16.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.
- The Gauchos are ranked as the No. 105 team in the country according to the KenPom rankings, while the Bears are ranked No. 14.
- Each team plays a slow-paced game, with the Gauchos ranking No. 302 in pace of play and Baylor ranking No. 217.
- The Bears have faced tough competition this season, putting together a 11-10 record against Quadrant 1 teams. The Gauchos’ biggest challenge will be the lack of top-level teams they’ve played this season, having no games against Quadrant 1 opponents.
- If the Gauchos want to stay in the game, they’ll have to slow the Bears’ No. 2 nationally ranked KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency. The Bears will look to shut down Mitchell, who averaged 20.4 points per game in his last five games.
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