UCSB’s opening night for the new Season on the Brink takes place today at UC Irvine.
The role of Bobby Knight, the tempestuous coach of basketball’s well-documented 1985-86 Indiana Hoosiers, is being played this year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus has the Big West Conference, along with the rest of college basketball, living on the edge this year. The league was supposed to open today with five games, but all but the Gauchos’ 4 p.m. contest at Irvine have been canceled because of positive COVID tests within their programs.
UCSB coach Joe Pasternack makes no guarantees that the Big West won’t be 0-for-5 by game-time tonight.
“We’re not there yet,” he said on Christmas night. “Every single practice, every single game we play, is like gold because you have no idea if you’ll be shut down the next day. We’re living day by day.”
Each shutdown is for 14 days, and the games within that period won’t be made up. It’s made Pasternack realize that the first big result at Irvine’s fan-less Bren Center will come 15 minutes after the Anteaters (3-4) and Gauchos (4-1) take today’s COVID tests.
“That’s how fast we find out, that’s the technology right now,” he said.
Irvine and UCSB were picked to finish 1-2 in the Big West, but the fragile nature of this season renders all forecasts as mere folly.
“It’s really hard to predict anything right now,” Pasternack said. “It’s really hard for my mind to move past tomorrow because of what’s happening all over.
“In basketball, every day another team is getting shut down.”
The most shocking development came when Keyontae Johnson, the Florida star who collapsed during a game last week, was diagnosed with acute myocarditis. The condition is widely feared to be the result of his own COVID-19 infection.
A day later, the players on the Duke women’s basketball team voted to shut down the rest of their season.
“They’re a perennial power,” Pasternack said. “You see a big-time program doing that and it’s a statement.”
The irony is that the Gauchos’ depth positions them well for such a season. The Big West responded to the COVID situation by rescheduling the two-game series between each team to be played at the same site on consecutive nights. UCSB and UCI will play the second game of their own doubleheader on Monday at 4 p.m.
Guards Ajare Sanni and Josh Pierre-Louis, and forwards Robinson Idehen and Destin Barnes, all play prominent reserve roles for the Gauchos.
“We have a good bench,” Pasternack said, although he cautions that the team is still a work in progress.
“The new guys — Miles (Norris, a starting forward) and Destin and Josh, those three new guys in particular — are just getting experience with our system,” he said. “Naturally, I think they’ll be at their best in February and March. Our team will be at its best by then.
“We’ll keep grinding along and play as well as we can right now.”
Irvine, which won an NCAA Tournament game in 2019, ran away with the Big West’s 2020 regular season. The coronavirus outbreak, however, canceled the Big West Tournament just as it was about to start.
This year’s Anteaters have been beefed up by the return of their front court: 6-foot-9 and 225-pound Collin Welp and 6-11, 270-pound Brad Greene.
“Those two guys are old, mature players, and arguably first-team all-league players,” Pasternack said. “(Coach) Russell Turner has been there for 11 years. The best programs in the country aren’t one-hit wonders, they’re there year in and year out, and Irvine has been that model of consistency.
“We hope to get to that point. We have the most utmost respect for Irvine.”
Defending, rebounding and disciplined offense have been the tonic of Irvine’s success. The Gauchos mixed in those three attributes during their last game, bouncing back from a loss at Loyola Marymount with a road win at Pepperdine, 75-63.
Pasternack was particularly happy with how two-time, all-league forward Amadou Sow, the team’s third-leading scorer at 12.5 points per game, defended ball screens and doubled his rebound average by grabbing 12 missed shots.
“That’s who he has to be,” he said. “I think our whole team responded well. Defense and rebounding win championships.
“When you go on the road to play a team like Irvine, it’s going to be a battle.”
UCSB’s offense — which starts an all-senior backcourt of JaQuori McLaughlin, Devearl Ramsey and Brandon Cyrus — has clicked from the start. The Gauchos rank second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.13-to-1) and fourth in assists per game (22.0).
They’re also listed in three other top-20 rankings: field-goal percentage (sixth at 54.2%), 14th in scoring margin (plus-25.2), and three-point percentage (20th at 40.4%).
“The best thing we’re doing now is sharing the basketball,” Pasternack said. “We’re really making the extra pass — trading a good shot for a great shot. I think that’s why our three-point percentage is so high.
“Jaquori and Devearl are doing a great job of that.”
McLaughlin leads the Big West with an assist average of 6.0 per game and is fourth in scoring at 18.0. He’s shooting 47.6% from three-point range and 55.3% overall. Ramsey averages 8.6 points on 58.3% shooting from three and 3.8 assists. The two senior playmakers have a combined assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.78-to-1.
The whole team has gotten involved, including two transfers who rank among their best outside shooters. Sanni (42% from three, 12.8 points per game) and Miles Norris (54.5%, 9.4), are both handing out 2.2 assists per game.
“Miles has probably been even a little too unselfish,” Pasternack said. “He’s just trying to find his way in our system. That takes time. His best days will be in February and March when he feels even more comfortable here.”
It all leads to the Big West Tournament, which has been moved from Anaheim’s Honda Center to a bubble setting at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort because of the coronavirus.
“Dan Butterly, the league’s new commissioner, has been really innovative,” Pasternack said. “So many times, people just go through the motions, but he really cares and is trying to make this a big-time league.
“So kudos to him for being a true leader during these crazy times.”
The surprising play of Cal State Northridge, which also beat Pepperdine this month, and the emergence of UC Riverside, which defeated Washington, should make the tournament a wide-open affair.
“Everybody thinks it’s us and Irvine, but the league is really up for grabs,” Pasternack said.
The Big West Tournament winner will move on to Indianapolis, where all of the NCAA’s March Madness will take place in another bubble.
Only one thing is certain: It’ll be a wild Big West ride for whomever reaches that Hoosier ending to this Season on the Brink.