Joe Pasternack turned from coach to medic as soon as the smoke had cleared from UCSB’s heart-breaking, 63-62 defeat to Creighton at the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
He sought to put March Sadness behind his Gauchos by addressing the wound suffered by Amadou Sow from the point-blank shot he’d missed during the game’s final two seconds.
“I brought Amadou to my hotel room,” Pasternack recalled. “I just said to him, ‘No. 1, you’re a great player, and that shot didn’t lose the game for us. It’s a 40-minute game.
“‘And No. 2, you had an unbelievable year — you’re a first-team, all-league player and I think you’re going to be an NBA player someday — and now it’s all about you moving forward. So let’s go get better.’”
The getting better has already started in spring workouts — a routine that the COVID-19 pandemic had stolen from Sow and his teammates last year.
Pasternack, who reached the 20-win mark for the fourth-straight season while finishing with a 22-5 record, thinks UCSB’s best days are ahead of it even though starting guards JaQuori McLaughlin and Devearl Ramsey are both headed for professional basketball.
“We’re returning our entire front court,” he said, noting a group that is headed by the 6-foot-9 Sow. “I think Miles Norris will be a first-team, all-league player, as well.”
Sow averaged 13.0 points per game on 56.9% shooting and nearly 80% from the free-throw line. He also ranked among the Big West’s rebound leaders with an average of 7.5 per game.
He’s got a healthy grade-point average, as well. Sow, who came to Napa’s Prolific Prep as a teenager from the West African nation of Mali, has been a quick learner.
“English is Amadou’s third language, and yet he was named as UCSB’s Big West Scholar-Athlete of the Year,” Pasternack pointed out. “He’s scored a GPA of over 3.0 for three straight years, and that’s pretty special for someone who’s had to learn our language.
“Developing student-athletes like Amadou — who are not only the best players but also the best student-athletes — is something we really strive for as a program.”
He’s looking to expand Sow’s game before next season. The soon-to-be senior focused mostly on his post offense this season, attempting only a dozen three-pointers after having made a healthy 16-of-42 (38.7%) as a sophomore.
“Amadou has done an amazing job this spring of working on his skills both offensively and defensively which will allow him to play some four (as a stretch power forward) next year,” Pasternack said. “He’s doing an unbelievable job of improving his perimeter skills, and that’s going to help him in the long-term in becoming a pro.”
Norris, a 6-10 forward, averaged 9.6 points while shooting 49.2% overall and 39.4% from the three-point line. He was also UCSB’s second-leading rebounder at 4.6 per game.
Also back are a pair of 6-10, front-court backups: Robinson Idehen and Jakov Kukic.
“Robinson announced that he’s returning, and his aim is to go to graduate school,” Pasternack said. “And Jakov is very hungry and I think will be an outstanding player in our league. He’s got some toughness and can rebound and score in the paint, and he’s an excellent passer.
“We have exciting players.”
Three of the most exciting Gauchos were last year’s top three reserve guards: Big West Sixth Man of the Year Ajare Sanni (11.5 points, 41.1% from three), Josh Pierre-Louis (5.7 points), and Sékou Touré (2.9 points).
They’ll be joined by Georgia Southern transfer Calvin Wishart, the heir apparent at point guard, and incoming freshmen Cole Anderson from Clovis West and Ajay Mitchell from Belgium. Anderson recently scored 51 points in a game while making 13 three-pointers.
Transfer Zach Harvey, a 6-5 wing player who averaged 6.4 points for Cincinnati last year, will give UCSB another perimeter threat.
“We have one scholarship left to give,” Pasternack pointed out. “We’re just kind of scouring all the avenues to add a player. We’re not looking to fill any particular position, just whomever is the best fit for us.
“Fitting our culture is really important.”
He would like to expand his culture club. The buzz around town has been loud in the aftermath of UCSB’s run to the Big West championship and an NCAA Tournament berth.
“The interest has really skyrocketed,” Pasternack said. “It’s amazing the number of people who watched not only our Big West championship game against Irvine but also the NCAA Tournament. There was a lot of excitement leading up to that, with even President Obama getting involved (by picking UCSB over Creighton in his bracket).
“A lot of experts picked us even though we were a lower seed.”
And now he’s hoping that more of Santa Barbara picks his Gauchos as their team. UCSB launched a season-ticket drive this week (ucsbgauchos.com/tickets/2021-22_Basketball_Ticket_Info_Request).
“When we arrived here, we had a vision of making it more exciting for the fans, so we put in one of the largest, clearest video boards in the West,” Pasternack said. “We were also fortunate enough to get a donation to put chairback seating throughout the entire Thunderdome.
“We’re taking it to another level now.”
The battle in Indianapolis may have been lost, but the Gauchos are marching on.