Big West Conference basketball reaches a crossroads tonight when UC Irvine visits UCSB’s Thunderdome, with the winner finding itself at the summit of a competitive league race.
The Anteaters, who have won eight straight league road games, will test the Gauchos’ 9-0 home record when they tip off at 8 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPNU.
“Talent-wise, they’re the best team we will have faced,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “I think they’re better than USF, and their talent – from top-to-bottom – is better than Washington’s.
“They’ve got three-point shooting, a post-up game, and they’re ranked as one of the best defensive teams in the country. Russell (Turner) does a great job of coaching them, too, and, they have the experience of having gone through this before.”
Irvine (17-5, 5-1 Big West) holds a half-game lead over the Gauchos (15-4, 4-1) atop the league standings. Its last conference road loss came at the Thunderdome a year ago on Jan. 20, 70-58. The Anteaters returned the favor at the Bren Center a month later, 69-49, and then edged the Gauchos in the semifinals of last year’s Big West Tournament, 61-58.
“Irvine has what any great team has: They’ve got experience and they’ve got great depth,” Pasternack said.
The Anteaters have balanced scoring throughout their nine-man rotation. Max Hazzard and Evan Leonard, a pair of junior guards who shoot 40 percent from three-point range, lead them with averages of 11.8 and 10.8 points per game, respectively.
“They’re as good a three-point duo as we will have faced,” Pasternack said.
Tommy Rutherford, a 6-foot-8 and 240-pound junior, was an All-Big West first-team forward last year while Jonathan Galloway, a 6-10 senior, won his second Big West Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Galloway is also a terror on the backboards, ranking 48th in the country in total rebounds (178, 8.1 per game). He’s second all-time at Irvine with 854 career rebounds.
Senior Elston Jones and freshman Colin Welp add to the Anteaters’ frontcourt depth.
Junior point guard Eyassu Worku and graduate transfer Robert Cartwright are Irvine’s playmakers, while 6-5 junior wing John Edgar provides a scoring punch off the bench.
The depth and experience have allowed the Anteaters to go 6-0 in games decided by five points or less.
“Last year, we didn’t have the experience and the poise in those situations to make the plays you have to make to win games like that,” Turner told the Orange County Register. “When you develop experience in college basketball, it matters.
“You have to go through a lot of things to learn the lessons to propel you to improvement.”
UCSB starts two sophomores – guards Devearl Ramsey (11.9 points, 3.7 assists) and JaQuori McLaughlin (11.3 points, 3.2 assists) — along with 6-9 freshman Amadou Sow (10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds).
“I think our guys have really been progressing,” Pasternack said. “Robinson Idehen (a 6-10 sophomore JC transfer) is coming off a really good week and has really gotten better. He has truly honored the process.
“Amadou has improved, too – our front court is getting better and better. We hope both he and Robinson can be consistent when we get to March.”
Seniors Jarriesse Blackmon, a 6-7 power forward, and Ami Lakoju, a 6-9 center, give the Gauchos front-court depth to match Irvine.
Ar’Mond Davis, a 6-6 graduate transfer from Alabama, leads UCSB in scoring at 14.6 points per game. In the Gauchos’ five league games, he’s shot 56 percent from three (14-for-25) and averaged 6.8 rebounds.
Max Heidegger, a returning All-Big West first team guard, showed the flash of last season during the second half of Saturday’s game at Long Beach State by scoring 10 points with two threes and six assists with no turnovers. He missed 11 games this season because of an assortment of injuries but has been nearly flawless handling the ball with 27 assists and only five turners in his eight outings.
“I don’t think we win that game at Long Beach if Max hadn’t performed the way he did, passing and shooting against their zone,” Pasternack said. “He’s become a real complete player, and what you saw on Saturday were his basketball instincts taking over.”
Heidegger’s big second half at Long Beach came on the heels of a loss at Cal State Fullerton in which he was held scoreless.
“As a whole, I think we learned from that game,” Heidegger said. “We strayed a bit from our identity of taking good shots and rebounding — that’s really our bread and butter.
“When we get back to that, like we did (at Long Beach), we’re a really hard team to beat.”
The Gauchos rank either first or second in the Big West for field-goal percentage (.467), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4), scoring offense (78.1 per game), fewest points allowed (64.7), field-goal percentage defense (.407), three-point defense (29.1 percent), and rebound margin (plus 8.1).
But then, Irvine is also either first or second in four of those same categories.
“They were picked to win our league,” Pasternack said, “and they’re in first place right now.”