UCSB coach Joe Pasternack is asking a new variation of that old “If-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest and no-one-is-around-to hear-it” question.
If his Gauchos win a championship in an arena without spectators, does it make any noise in the college basketball world?
Pasternack has posed that question to several of Santa Barbara’s movers and shakers after coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance and a record-setting fourth consecutive season of 20-plus wins.
“Our whole goal is to build momentum, but there just hasn’t been much enthusiasm because of COVID,” he said. “When I think of this year, the Thunderdome would’ve been sold out if it hadn’t been for COVID. It would’ve been packed.”
UCSB (22-4) was sole champion of the Big West Conference regular season for the first time since 2003. It also won its first league tournament title since 2011 and battled 19th-ranked Creighton to the final seconds before losing a 63-62 thriller in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It was an amazing season,” Pasternack said. “I’m so proud of these guys for what they accomplished through unbelievable adversity. I think everyone will remember this season for the rest of their lives — it will go down into history because of COVID.”
The Gauchos went the entire season without even one shutdown from the coronavirus.
“It was a credit to these guys,” Pasternack said. “Obviously, a lot of luck goes into this, but signing that social contract that the team came up with was a big part of it.
“Our seniors were fabulous leaders. These guys had a common goal and they relentlessly pursued the common goal every single day and honored the process better than any team I’ve ever been around.
“Unfortunately, we came up short in the Creighton game, but I don’t think that game defines our season.”
He had breakfast on Monday with Herb Simon, a local resident who owns the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, to brainstorm ways to build off this year’s success.
“He’s been nice enough to kind of open up the Pacer organization for me to pick his brain,” Pasternack said. “He’s been amazing.
“I’m a guy who continually wants to learn and get better, and there are a lot of people in this community who’ve been so successful in their jobs who’ve been great resources for me.”
Some of them have put money where their mouths are to improve the program. The Thunderdome is undergoing a transformation which began during the 2019-20 season with a new, state-of-the-art video board.
“Jay Glazer, one of our boosters, donated a practice facility court that’s just getting finished right now,” Pasternack said. “We’ve also been very fortunate to have Jeff Henley donate $3 million to put chairbacks throughout the entire Thunderdome. They should be getting put in this spring.
“We’re really fortunate to get all this unbelievable support from the community.”
He will have to rebuild his backcourt. Big West Player of the Year JaQuori McLaughlin and his all-league honorable mention sidekick, Devearl Ramsey, are expected to take their shots at professional basketball.
Pasternack isn’t sure where McLaughlin stands with NBA scouts.
“GMs couldn’t come to practice or to the games because of COVID, and there was no Portsmouth,” he said, referring to the college all-star invitational that is played in front of representatives from every NBA team. “That’s a tough thing to overcome.
“It’ll come down to workouts in front of their eyes. The NBA Draft is going to be a month later. Everybody is pushed back a month.”
The recruiting season has also been pushed back by the COVID-19 pandemic. The dead period has been extended to June 1 and could be reset to even later in the summer.
But Pasternack hasn’t been resting on his laurels.
“We’re having Zooms relentlessly with recruits just to keep all options open right now,” he said. “We’re on some really good players, so we’ll see what happens, even if we don’t know exactly how many scholarships we’re going to have.
“We’re really keeping all options open right now. We really don’t know what our team is going to look like, so we’re recruiting every single position.”
He does expect to return three-time all-leaguer Amadou Sow in the front court. Senior center Robinson Idehen is applying to graduate school at UCSB and may take advantage of the NCAA waiver which allows seniors to return for an extra year.
“Last week was spring break and we gave them the time off,” Pasternack said. “We’ll really dig into it this week with all our guys and see what their plans are.”
He has already signed two elite high school guards — Cole Anderson from Fresno and Ajay Mitchell from Belgium — and has several underclassmen ready to step into prime-time roles.
“Calvin Wishart sat out this year and he’s going to be a terrific guard for us,” he said of his transfer from Georgia Southern. “He had hip surgery in January and he’s just coming back right now.”
Ajare Sanni, Sékou Touré and Josh Pierre-Louis all played key roles off the bench last year.
“Ajare was the Sixth Man of the Year (in the Big West Conference),” Pasternack pointed out. “He’s a sniper, shooter, double-figure scorer. He’s got to get a lot stronger and improve his skills.
“Sékou has worked hard and knows our system, and he can defend. He came into that Riverside game when we didn’t have Ajare and Josh and really made some great plays for us.
“And then Josh is the best athlete I’ve ever coached. We just have to harness his talent and improve him. He loves the game. I think the sky’s the limit for him.
Pasternack believes that’s also true for his entire program.
“I think we’ve established a winning culture,” he said. “Unfortunately, the culture is not static. We have to continue to honor our process and culture.
“You can’t get comfortable or, as quickly as we’ve built this, it can totally go away. It’s been very difficult to do what we’ve done for the last four years. Four straight 20-win seasons. We don’t want to have any drop-offs.”