UCSB looms as a two-headed monster as it descends upon Las Vegas this morning for the Air Force Reserve Big West Conference Men’s Basketball Championships.
The senior point-guard tandem of JaQuori McLaughlin and Devearl Ramsey draws comparisons to the playmaking combination of Brian Shaw and Carlton Davenport which took the Gauchos to their first NCAA Division 1 Tournament in 1988.
Top-seeded UCSB (19-4), which will play today’s 11 a.m. quarterfinal game against No. 9 Long Beach State (6-11), would earn only the sixth Division 1 tournament bid in school history by winning this week’s event at the Michelob ULTRA Arena on the Mandalay Bay Property.
“We’re ready for this,” said Ramsey, who received All-Big West honorable mention on Monday. “We’ve been training for this since September when we first got back here.
“So it’s going to be fun to finally get out there and play in a conference tournament. I’m happy. I’m happy to play.”
McLaughlin won Big West Player of the Year honors after ranking fourth in the league for scoring (15.6 points per game) and second in assists (5.4). His assist-to-turnover ratio of plus-2.6 rates 28th nationally. His adroit passing and desire to involve his teammates have been a big reason for UCSB’s success, coach Joe Pasternack said.
“JaQuori has had such an impact on our team,” he said. “He’s just a great decision-maker … He’s made us such an unselfish team.”
Togetherness, McLaughlin said, is the only way UCSB can get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
“I think it’s just about how close we are as a team,” he said. “It really helps chemistry-wise on the court and in practice, always being able to hold each other accountable.
“I’ve been here for three years and they have been a special three years, working and grinding and making new friends on the team — brothers for life.”
Shaw, the first of UCSB’s seven Big West Players of the Year, and Davenport combined to average 9.8 assists per game while blazing the path to the school’s first NCAA Tournament in 1988. McLaughlin and Ramsey have come close to that at 9.2. Their combined turnover average of 3.1 rates even better than Shaw-Davenport’s 5.2.
Ramsey has been as sure-handed as he is quick, ranking fifth in the nation with an assist-to-turnover ratio of plus-3.78 (87 assists, 23 turnovers).
“He really gets us going,” Pasternack said. “He’s our point guard. His ball pressure has been amazing and has been a huge catalyst for our defense.”
Both players transferred to UCSB as sophomores. The 6-foot-4 McLaughlin, who won Washington’s Mr. Basketball award as a high school senior in Seattle, set a freshman record for three-point shooting at Oregon State. Ramsey came to the Gauchos from Nevada.
Pasternack, whose four-year winning percentage of .720 ranks tops in UCSB coaching history, has recruited impact transfers every season, beginning with Leland King (Nevada) and Marcus Jackson (Rice) in 2017-18.
The parade has continued the last three years with Ar’Mond Davis (Alabama), Robinson Idehen (Western Kentucky), Brandon Cyrus (DePaul), Matt Freeman (Oklahoma), Ajare Sanni (Pacific), Miles Norris (Oregon), Josh Pierre-Louis (Temple), Destin Barnes (Jacksonville) and current redshirt Calvin Wishart (Georgia Southern).
“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve hit it right on the character of the kid,” Pasternack said. “It just doesn’t work to say, ‘Let’s get some transfers.’
“They have to be of the right character: a high-character young man who wants a second chance, and instead of being the seventh man, to be a starter. We’ve been very fortunate … all those guys have done an amazing job on the court, but also off the court.”
Consistent defense and rebounding have helped UCSB weather several cold spells. The last two weeks have been the most frigid for the Gauchos, who’ve shot just 27% (20-for-74) from the three-point line in the last four games.
“The past week or so I don’t think we’ve been in tune offensively,” Pasternack said. “We’ve got to start clicking on all cylinders like we were midway through conference.
“We have to reset now like it’s November. Every team has hope … Everyone is 0-0. What happened during the regular season doesn’t matter. It doesn’t give you points on Thursday at 11 a.m.”
They’ll face a Long Beach team that has had its season stopped and restarted three times by COVID-19 issues. That included the cancelation of its Feb. 5-6 games at UCSB.
Leading scorer Michael Carter III was kicked off the team on Saturday by coach Dan Monson, but it seemed to have a positive effect on the team when it routed Cal State Northridge 85-63 in Tuesday’s first-round game.
“Guys just did their jobs,” Monson said. “It’s amazing how good we can be and play our best game when everybody does their job.”
He cautioned, however, that the Gauchos are “a whole different animal” than Northridge.
“It’s been a difficult year, and we picked the right day of the season, by far, to have our best game,” he said. “We’ve got to build off today.
“We didn’t play (the Gauchos) during the regular season and they had an unbelievable year. They’re the most talented team in the league and the best team in the league, and they proved that. All those regular-season accolades, they deserve. But this is a new season, a new look.
“I’ve been the No. 1 seed before and there’s a lot of pressure on that.”
Pasternack said at the beginning of the season that Long Beach was one of the league’s most talented teams, and he wasn’t changing that tune this week. The Beach is led by 6-1 senior point guard Isaiah Washington (13.7 points, 4.4 assists), 6-6 junior Chance Hunter (12.0 points, 5.9 rebounds), and 6-8 Joe Hampton (10.8 points, 4.3 rebounds).
Jadon Jones, a 6-5 freshman, had a breakout game of 19 points and 11 rebounds against CSUN.
“It feels good, but we know it’s not over,” Jones said. “We have a lot more to accomplish.
“If you were to have walked into the locker room after the game, it was quiet. There was no celebrating. We were locked in. We know we have Santa Barbara coming up, and like coach said, it’s a different animal.”
Pasternack wants his defenders to remain ferocious. Long Beach committed 20 turnovers on Tuesday and it’s averaged a Big West-worst 16.9 on the year. The Gauchos’ average of 7.52 steals ranks a close third in the league to UC Davis and UC Irvine.
Ramsey and McLaughlin both rank among the league’s top six in steals, with averages of 1.7 and 1.64 respectively. And Ramsey is raring to go after feeling that his first two Big West Tournaments were stolen.
“I got hurt the first year, and then last year it got canceled,” he said. “So this year, I’m hoping everything goes well and we can finally get out there and play.”