Time may not heal all wounds, but a 12-day layoff was just what the doctor ordered for the UCSB men’s basketball team.
The Gauchos, who played several walking wounded and held back hobbled Temple transfer Josh Pierre-Louis in their Jan. 1-2 double-header with Cal State Fullerton, will return to the Thunderdome for 5 o’clock games tonight and on Saturday against UC San Diego.
Spectators will not be allowed because of COVID-19 protocol.
“It really did help — we’re still a little banged up,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said of the hiatus. “That happens in a basketball season. It was also good to get this time to work in practice.
“But our conference preseason was only five games, and since I’ve been here, we usually play something like 15 nonconference games. It’s really hard to replicate game reps and we’re just nine games into our season. What we really need are game reps more than practices.”
He’s hoping the workouts will help remedy Amadou Sow’s sluggish start to the season. The 6-foot-9 junior, a second-team All-Big West Conference pick the last two years, is averaging only 10.1 points on 42.5% shooting. Last year, Sow scored at a 14.1-point clip on 54.7% shooting.
“If anybody benefited from the last week-and-a-half, it was Amadou,” Pasternack said. “He got a chance to look at his shots, his rebounding, and his defense. He’s gotten better and has shown some pop.
“He has been banged up — that’s been a big part of his struggles — and he has gotten healthier.”
UC San Diego (2-1), a Big West newcomer that’s transitioning from Division 2 to Division 1, will be making its conference debut tonight. The Tritons had their first two league double-headers (Jan. 1-2 against Cal Poly and Jan. 8-9 against Cal State Northridge) canceled by positive COVID tests within their opponents’ programs.
They did arrange to play host to defending Big West champion UC Irvine last Saturday. The game was considered a non-league contest since they are scheduled to visit Irvine on Feb. 26-27.
San Diego, which went 30-1 as an NCAA Division 2 power, led the Anteaters for the first 25 minutes of Saturday’s game before losing, 79-65. Freshman guard Bryce Pope scored a team-high 21 points while 6-foot-8 Toni Rocak, the brother of UCSB freshman Niko Rocak, added 20.
“I don’t care who you’re playing, if you win 30 games, you have an unbelievably good program,” Pasternack said. “They are an incredibly well-coached team and they execute at an unbelievably high level.
“They were up on Irvine for much of that game before Irvine willed their way to that win at the end.”
Eric Olen has compiled a win-loss record of 159-56 in his seven years as the Tritons’ coach.
Rocak, a transfer from Regis College, has come off the bench to lead San Diego in scoring at 13.3 points per game. Pope and Jake Killingsworth, a 6-5 graduate transfer from Columbia, have combined to make 14-of-29 three-pointers (48.3%) in their three games.
“They shoot 30 threes a game,” Pasternack pointed out. “This game presents a different challenge than the other ones we’ve played.”
The Tritons also have a veteran playmaker in 6-3 senior Mikey Howell (9.5 points, 4.5 assists), who is back in the lineup after missing the Irvine game with a non-COVID illness. He set a single-season school record last year by averaging 6.9 assists per game and is within 10 of third place on the school’s all-time list.
The Gauchos have benefitted from the play of their own senior playmakers, JaQuori McLaughlin and Devearl Ramsey. McLaughlin, UCSB’s leading scorer with a 16.9-point average, also leads the Big West and ranks 21st nationally with his assist average of 5.9 per game.
As a team, the Gauchos are fourth nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.8. McLaughlin ranks eighth individually at 4.7 while Ramsey is 19th at 3.75.
“We are taking care of the ball and sharing it well,” Pasternack observed. “I think we’re in the top 10 in the country for assists-to-field goals made.
“Where we really need to get better is rebounding the basketball. We’re not rebounding or getting second shots like we have in past years. From a defensive standpoint, we’re going to have to rebound and take away the three tonight. We really have to be better in those two areas this weekend.”
UC San Diego won’t be the only Big West team playing its first league game. CSUN, which has been sidelined by either COVID or its bye week, will travel to Long Beach State for its debut tonight.
UC Davis, which has been forbidden by Yolo County health officials to play or practice indoors for the last six weeks, had that order rescinded on Thursday. The Aggies will be the last Big West team to make their league debut when they play UC San Diego next week.
UCSB hasn’t had a game canceled since it opened its season on Nov. 29.
“I wish I could tell you that we have some kind of magic sauce, but I think it’s all been luck,” Pasternack said. “We do have some guys who are really disciplined, and they care about playing and about each other.
“It’s a huge sacrifice for student-athletes to stay away from other students, and our guys have sacrificed. But there’s also a lot of luck involved.”