Joe Pasternack’s deepest and most experienced UCSB basketball team will tip off today in one of the school’s latest starts in a quarter century.
The Gauchos will face Saint Katherine, an NAIA school from San Marcos, in a 4 p.m. game at the Thunderdome. Spectators will not be allowed for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been getting monotonous, just playing against each other,” said Pasternack, who is beginning his fourth season as UCSB’s head coach. “Losing the first three games off our schedule was a tough blow for our guys. It’s definitely time to play somebody in different-colored jerseys.”
Three returning starters are among Pasternack’s seven lettermen. They include two-time, All-Big West Second-Team forward Amadou Sow and honorable mention guard JaQuori McLaughlin.
Sow, a 6-foot-9 junior, led UCSB in both scoring (14.1-point average) and rebounding (7.0) last year. He shot 54.7% overall while having developed a three-point shot, making 38.1% from distance.
“Amadou is a guy who just loves the game and wants to continue to get better,” Pasternack said. “I do think he’d be the first to say that he needs to get a lot better and just continue to evolve.”
McLaughlin and Devearl Ramsey, the Gauchos’ starting guard tandem for the past two seasons, are also back and primed for their senior seasons.
McLaughlin is coming off a 13.4-point, 4.1-assist season in which he shot 40.7% from three-point range. He and Sow were both picked to this year’s All-Big West Preseason First Team. Ramsey averaged 8.3 points and 2.5 assists as a junior.
“Those two guys are obvious first-team, all-league-type players,” Pasternack said. “We expect them both to have really, really big years and they expect that out of themselves.
“The good news is that we have a lot of other talented players, so we don’t have to rely solely on those two players.”
That depth — with 12 players competing for significant playing time — has become increasingly crucial with the recent changes to the Big West schedule. The coronavirus has prompted the conference to schedule games between the same opponent on consecutive nights and at the same site. UCSB will open at defending champion UC Irvine on Dec. 27 and 28.
The Gauchos’ coaching staff has been compiling detailed statistics on each player’s performance during every practice in a system it calls “the Gold Standard.”
“It’s made practices competitive every single day,” Pasternack said. “We have a film session today in which we’re able to refer back to the previous practice for each guy. If you have a negative point value at the end of practice, that’s a problem.”
Defense and rebounding have become points of emphasis for a team that has abundant scoring options. UC Irvine has dominated those two areas while cruising to back-to-back, Big West regular-season championships. Although Pasternack has averaged 22 victories a year during his three seasons at UCSB, the Gauchos have finished second in the league race each time.
“We’ve studied what’s happened in the conference the past five years, and it’s the teams that do those two things — defend and rebound — who win the league,” he said.
Four of the Gauchos’ top reserves are back from last year: 6-10 senior Robinson Idehen, 6-5 graduate student Brandon Cyrus, 6-9 junior Jay Nagle, and 6-5 junior Sékou Touré. All four are in their third years at UCSB.
Jakov Kukic, a 6-10 and 230-pound freshman from Croatia, is also back after having redshirted last season. UCSB has also added some veteran help from the transfer market.
Miles Norris, a 6-10 forward, was a freshman on Oregon’s NCAA Sweet 16 team of 2019 before earning California JC Player of the Year honors last year for the City College of San Francisco. He led the Rams to a 30-0 record while averaging 16.0 points, making 41.4% of his three-pointers, and 6.1 rebounds.
“Miles is still a really young kid learning the game, but he does have a lot of potential,” Pasternack said. “Potential is not production, so he has to continue to learn the game of basketball to get better and better — and he has a great attitude to do that.”
Two other transfers — 6-3 Ajare Sanni from the University of Pacific and 6-7 Destin Barnes from Jacksonville — come in with starting experience.
Sanni, who drilled with the Gauchos last season as a redshirt, averaged 8.6 points and shot 38.7% from three as a freshman at Pacific in 2019. Barnes, who is eligible immediately as a graduate student, led Jacksonville last year with a 12.1-point average and 62 three-pointers.
“Ajare has gotten stronger and gained some weight,” Pasternack said. “He’s a prolific scorer. These practices are great for him to continue to grasp our system, since last year he was just part of the scout team.
“Destin is actually doing a wonderful job. To have someone with his experience, who’s already produced double figures in college basketball, is really, really helpful. He’s a mature young man who’s serious about his academics. He came here to get a graduate degree at UC Santa Barbara, and we’re fortunate for that.”
Josh Pierre-Louis, a 6-4 sophomore, recently received a waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility after transferring from Temple. He had several big games for the Owls as a freshman, including a 15-point outburst which helped beat USC, 70-61.
Fellow transfer Calvin Wishart, a 6-2 guard from Georgia Southern, is also asserting himself even though he will be redshirting.
“He’s doing an amazing job in practice every day and really raising the level of the team,” Pasternack said of Wishart. “He’s just an unbelievable competitor and can really play.”
Adding to the mix are three recruited walk-ons: guards Kyle MacLean from Westlake High and Gage Gomez from Arroyo Grande, as well as 6-9 Nico Rocak from Switzerland by way of Exeter Academy.
“Our guys have been waiting a long, long time to be able to get onto the court and get into layup lines,” Pasternack said. “They’re all chomping at the bit, especially after watching college basketball get started this week.”