UCSB’s first Big West Conference basketball championship since 2010 is within the reach of a 160-mile bus trip to Riverside.
But you won’t catch coach Joe Pasternack looking down the road. That’s how accidents happen.
He wants his Gauchos to take it one play at a time when they travel to UC Riverside for games at 8 o’clock tonight and 7 p.m. Saturday. Tonight’s contest will be televised by ESPN2 while Saturday’s game will be carried on the network’s ESPN3 platform.
“People are asking if we’ve told the players that they can clinch the conference with two wins this week,” Pasternack said. “We absolutely don’t talk about it. We haven’t talked about it all year, so why change now?
“It doesn’t help you defensively against ball screens, or in challenging a three-point shooter, or in getting back on defense, and those are the things that it’s going to take to be successful. We told our guys on Monday that we have to have blinders on and complete tunnel vision and just focus on every single play.”
That tune has played well enough the last eight weeks for the Gauchos to have set a school record with 12 consecutive victories. UCSB (16-3, 10-2 Big West) hasn’t lost since dropping a pair of games at defending league champion UC Irvine on Dec. 27-28.
The Gauchos now hold a two-game lead over UCI (12-8, 8-4) with four games remaining. But the two this weekend at third-place UC Riverside (10-6, 5-3) figure to present one of UCSB’s biggest challenges, both literally and figuratively.
“They’re one of the top teams in the country in shooting three-pointers and they’re also one of the best rebounding teams,” Pasternack said. “It’s astounding how well they shoot the ball with their size.
“They beat Washington and took USC, the probable Pac-12 champion, into overtime and should’ve beaten them. They’re a huge challenge for us at their place.”
The Highlanders rank sixth nationally in three-point percentage (.394) and 20th in threes per game (9.9). But they also rank 11th in both field-goal percentage defense (.392) and defensive rebounds per game (28.9).
“They have the talent, the size, the shooting, the offense and the defense,” Pasternack said. “(Arinze) Chidom is one of the best four-men in the conference — he’s a first-team, all-league guy.”
Coach David Patrick stacked his roster with high-level transfers before turning the job over to assistant Mike Magpayo, a UCSB graduate, just before the season started. Patrick is now an assistant coach Arkansas.
Chidom, a 6-foot-9 and 240-pound senior from Washington State, leads the Highlanders with averages of 13.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Senior Jock Perry, a transfer from St. Mary’s, is even bigger at 7-1 and 250. He averages 11.1 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Both of UCR’s big men are prolific three-point shooters, with Chidom making 39% of his attempts and Perry hitting 42%. Point guard Zyon Pullin, a 6-4 sophomore, averages 11.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 43% from three.
“They’re making nearly 10 threes a game and they’re doing it from all five positions,” Pasternack said.
But UCSB’s improving, man-to-man defense now ranks 51st nationally in field-goal percentage allowed (.407) and 15th in scoring defense (62.2 points per game). Preventing second-chance shots has been a prime factor in that improvement.
“All summer long, we talked on Zoom about how our league’s history shows that one of the top two defensive rebounding teams win the league every year,” Pasternack said. “Our defense wasn’t that good early because of the practice we lost (to the COVID-19 pandemic) during spring and summer.
“But we’re 14-0 now when we win the rebounding wars, and the guys are taking pride in it.”
UCSB’s rebound margin of plus-5.7 ranks 37th nationally as well as third in the Big West behind UCI (8.8) and Cal State Bakersfield (8.4), and just ahead of UCR (5.0).
The Gauchos’ offense has ranked at the top of the national charts all season. Their average of 77.8 points per game leads the Big West and is 52nd in the NCAA. UCSB is also 10th in scoring margin (15.7), 12th in assists per game (17.4), fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.58), 18th in field-goal percentage (.494), and 48th in three-point percentage (.371).
Miles Norris, a 6-10 junior transfer, scored a career-high 27 points in Saturday’s win over Cal State Bakersfield when the Gauchos pulled the rare feat of assisting all 20 of their baskets.
“I’ve never been with a team that’s both as talented and as unselfish as this one during my 20 years in coaching,” Pasternack said. “I’ve never seen a team that cares as much about each other and wants each other to be as successful, and cheers for each other as much.
“It starts with Devearl (Ramsey) and JaQuori (McLaughlin). Their assist-to-turnover numbers are proof of that, and it’s become contagious with the rest of the team. Everyone is making the extra pass.”
Ramsey ranks second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.22) while McLaughlin is 34th (2.84). McLaughlin also ranks 34th in assists per game (5.4). Ramsey’s 4.0 has them challenging the two-headed Gaucho team of 1987-88 in which Brian Shaw (6.1 assists) and Carlton Davenport (3.7) combined to average 9.8 per game.
McLaughlin, a 6-4 senior, leads the Big West in assists and is second in scoring (15.9 points per game). He ranks 16th in Heatcheck.com’s Gold Star ratings, a system that grades the most impactful players in college basketball.
But three other Gauchos are averaging in double-digits: forward Amadou Sow (11.8), guard Ajare Sanni (11.8), and forward Norris (10.2).
When Cal State Bakersfield double-teamed McLaughlin on Saturday, he began picking the Roadrunners apart with his passes. He took just two shots but still led UCSB to one of its most impressive wins, 63-44, by assisting seven baskets.
But Pasternack cautions his Gauchos against looking behind just as much as looking ahead.
“We have had our dips and our letdowns,” he said. “The key is to figure out how to play with focus for 40 minutes.
“As a coach, you’re always searching for that perfect game.”
This weekend will be the perfect time to find it.