JaQuori McLaughlin watched from the seat of his trunks as the last shot of last season nestled softly through the basketball hoop at UCSB’s Thunderdome.
He’d fallen backwards onto the court just as his fadeaway jumper beat both the buzzer and archrival Cal Poly, 69-67, to send the Gauchos to Anaheim with the No. 3 seed for the Big West Conference Tournament.
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the rest of the season just a few days later, however, and sent McLaughlin home to Gig Harbor, Wash. to wonder when he’d ever be back in Santa Barbara.
“We still don’t know the date,” McLaughlin said when contacted by phone this week, “but it’s supposed to be sometime this month.”
He hasn’t taken the last four months sitting down, however. McLaughlin, one of four seniors returning from a team that went 21-10, has taken the lead from afar in motivating his teammates.
“We’ve been staying in touch with Zooms, texting and Facetiming each other,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing for us, staying connected as a team, and especially in doing our individual workouts and teaching our culture to the new people coming in.
“The big thing for us has been keeping each other on task and accountable, knowing what we’re all doing, and staying focused.”
And it hasn’t been just basketball. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody last May stirred a soul-searching, team Zoom session about race relations. McLaughlin came up with the idea of producing a Black Lives Matter video to be shown on local television.
Eleven of the Gauchos’ 13 scholarship players are black.
“When we started talking about it, the guys all spoke about having had experiences of discrimination with the police, of having been subjected to racial slurs,” McLaughlin said. “A good amount of our team has gone through that.
“Coach wanted us to come up with ideas about how to get the word out and raise awareness in Santa Barbara. Most of us are at our homes right now, so we thought it would be good to make a video that could be shown to the community.”
Coach Joe Pasternack solicited contributions from Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow, Milwaukee Bucks star Kyle Korver and Basketball Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes. The 30-second video has been airing for the last week on KEYT NewsChannel 3, KCOY NewsChannel 12 and KKFX Fox 11.
“Jamaal’s son, Omar, played for me at Cal and Kyle trains here at P3 and at our gym,” Pasternack said. “We really wanted to get them involved in the first phase of our project.
“The next phase will be to get the police forces from UCSB, Goleta, and Santa Barbara to talk to the players. And the third phase will be to put something about Black Lives Matter on our uniforms.”
He’s unsure about when they’ll get to don their game uniforms. Although the Big West Conference moved all of its fall sports to 2021, it kept Nov. 10 as the starting date for men’s and women’s basketball.
“We have a new league commissioner (Dan Butterly) who is really fired up about basketball and I think he’ll do everything in his power to get us a full season,” Pasternack said. “But I do think it’s out of everybody’s control right now.
“Like people say, the virus is an invisible enemy. You just don’t know what’s going to happen in Santa Barbara, or statewide, or nationwide.”
He’s put together a nonleague schedule with home dates against the likes of Pepperdine, Texas-Arlington and Florida Gulf Coast. Road opponents include St. Mary’s and Loyola Marymount. But the NCAA is reportedly contemplating a late start to the basketball season with league-only schedules.
“It’s crazy that they moved fall sports like that, but I think our season will happen, and I’m anxious to get started,” McLaughlin said. “Definitely, this is going to be our best year yet.
“We have some very special players on this team and some really good, new talent coming in, so we should be able to put it all together.”
McLaughlin, a 6-foot-4 guard, received All-Big West honorable mention last year after averaging 13.4 points and 4.1 assists per game. He led the team in three-point accuracy at 40.7%.
Amadou Sow, a 6-9 forward, earned All-Big West Second Team honors for the second year in a row after averaging 14.1 points and 7.0 rebounds as a sophomore. Devearl Ramsey, who averaged 8.3 points and 2.5 assists as a junior point guard, is also back, as are seniors Robinson Idehen and Brandon Cyrus, and juniors Sékou Touré and Jay Nagle.
All that experience should help the Gauchos overcome the loss of its team workouts during the spring and summer because of the coronavirus, McLaughlin said.
“It’s going to be huge for us having this many team leaders — senior leaders, and juniors who came in with us three years ago,” he said.
Jakov Kukic, a 6-10 redshirt freshman, and several transfers add to UCSB’s firepower. Guard Ajare Sanni practiced with the team as a redshirt last year after starting as a freshman at the University of Pacific. Miles Norris, a 6-10 forward, won California JC Player of the Year honors as a sophomore at the City College of San Francisco after playing at Oregon during his freshman year.
The Gauchos have also added three transfers. Destin Barnes, a 6-6 forward who led Jacksonville in scoring at 12.1 points per game last year, will be immediately eligible as a graduate student. Junior guard Calvin Wishart of Georgia Southern and sophomore guard Josh Pierre-Louis of Temple will sit out this year as redshirts.
“I haven’t even met those three in person yet because of the pandemic,” Pasternack pointed out. “We recruited Destin, Calvin and Josh entirely by Zooms and Facetimes. They’ve never even been to Santa Barbara and they’re really itching to get here.
“We’re still waiting for the university to give us the full go-ahead. Our goal is to get them all here by August.”
The Zoom meetings about racial experiences did help bring the three newcomers into the fold, McLaughlin pointed out.
“Our team is so close,” he said. “and it was good for the new guys to see that by how we are able to open up to each other so well.”
UCSB was also strongly recommended by Jon Rothstein, the college basketball guru for CBS Sports, during a recent podcast.
“Other than New York City, Santa Barbara is my favorite place in the greater United States,” Rothstein said. “If I were a mid-major player, I think UCSB would be the best place to go to school. It’s an unbelievable place, with its weather and architecture … and McConnell’s Ice Cream.
“Joe has also done an unbelievable job in his first couple of years of turning Santa Barbara into one of the top mid-majors on the West Coast. Now it’s just a matter of getting to the NCAA Tournament.”
First things first, Pasternack said.
“My message to the team in our Zoom today was the same as it was when I first got here, which is to just honor the process every single day,” he said. “We control what we can control and nothing else. Do our workouts and take care of our academics.
“All the speculation is meaningless. Everything can change in an instant, just like last year’s Big West Tournament. Instead of speculating, let’s just get ourselves as ready as possible for when they do throw the ball back up into the air.”