Preseason title contenders UCSB and Cal State Northridge will try to pick themselves up off the mat tonight after a couple of early-season knockdowns in Big West Conference men’s basketball.
The Gauchos and Matadors, both of whom have lost twice in the first two weeks of league play, will face off at the Thunderdome at 7 o’clock.
The coaches aren’t calling tonight a knockout round, however.
“College basketball is a long season,” said Joe Pasternack, whose Gauchos (12-6, 1-2 Big West) are coming off their first back-to-back defeats since mid-November. “We’ve only played three games in conference … We’ve got 13 to go.”
CSUN coach Mark Gottfried has the same viewpoint.
“The good news is it’s 16 games in the league,” he said. “They all count the same, even though some feel like they count more than others.”
Both teams are searching for the right chemistry after the recent return of their star players: Lamine Diane for the Matadors and Max Heidegger for the Gauchos.
CSUN (7-13, 2-2 Big West) has been much improved, although still erratic, since Diane became eligible just before Christmas. The Matadors posted an impressive 80-68 win at UC Riverside last Thursday before faltering on Saturday at home against UC Davis, 66-62.
Diane, who won Big West Player of the Year honors as a freshman last season, has averaged 27.4 points on 50.8% shooting, 10.9 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in his seven games back. He became the fastest player in school history to reach 1,000 points for his career, having achieved the feat last week in just his 40th game.
“He’s the toughest cover that I’ve ever faced in 20 years as a college basketball coach,” Pasternack said. “He can score on the post, he can score from the elbow, he gets to the free-throw line (an average of 12.1 times per game), and now he’s even making three-pointers (six in seven games).”
Terrell Gomez is the Matadors’ most dangerous outside threat. The 5-8 junior, like Diane, was an All-Big West first-team pick last year. He’s scoring 20.9 points per game this season while leading the conference with 72 three-pointers on 41.1% shooting.
Gottfried considers Gomez to be so indispensable that he never subbed him out of Saturday’s Davis game. He averages 37.0 minutes per game.
“He’s the best shooter from three and the best scoring guard in our league,” Pasternack said.
Heidegger was the best three-point shooter in UCSB history when he made a record 95 bonus bombs as a sophomore, averaging 19.1 points. But three concussions – the most recent one suffered on Nov. 27 against Portland State – have kept him out of 19 games in the two seasons since then.
He returned two games ago after missing the previous 10, scoring 21 points on 8-for-15 shooting in Saturday’s loss at Hawaii.
Heidegger, who’s averaging 13.8 points per game, gives the Gauchos their fourth double-figure scorer. Junior guard JaQuori McLaughlin leads the way at 15.2 while shooting 43.1% from three. Amadou Sow, a 6-9 sophomore, is at 13.8 with a league-best shooting percentage of .554. He’s also second in rebounding at 6.7 per game.
Matt Freeman, a 6-10 graduate transfer, is averaging 10.1 points on 42.3% shooting from three. But outside of McLaughlin and Freeman, the Gauchos have shot a paltry 26.7% from distance (54-for-202). They are coming off their worst three-point shooting night of the season (2-for-15 at Hawaii).
Heidegger has been coming off the bench since his return, but Pasternack is contemplating a lineup change for tonight.
“We’re evaluating our whole team with Max and all the other pieces,” he said. “We’ve been talking about playing different lineups in both the front court and back court.
“I expect to have some changes in the game against Northridge so we can put our best team out there and work to become our best by March. That’s the bottom line.”
The second of half of games is one of UCSB’s biggest issues. It has led at halftime in four of its six losses, including in last Saturday’s game at Hawaii.
The second half of the season is what really counts, Pasternack observed.
“Nobody is throwing in the towel here,” he said. “We’ve lost two games in a row, and that’s for the fans and media to judge, but the basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint.
“Our goal is to improve and become the best basketball we can be in March.”