One of the strangest basketball seasons also became one of the most successful for UCSB and Gaucho senior JaQuori McLaughlin.
“It definitely was a different experience,” he said, “playing this whole season under the threat of COVID and without any fans in the stands … and then with how far we went as a team.”
But that made it an appropriate season, as well, for a player who finally emerged into the national spotlight after so much toil in solitude.
McLaughlin, who received Associated Press All-America honorable mention earlier this month, received more national recognition this week when CollegeInsider.com named him to its All-America Team. It also listed him as a finalist for the Lou Henson Mid-Major National Player of the Year Award. The winner will be announced on April 1.
“He can shoot the three, he can drive the ball, he’s got an unbelievable pull-up jumper, he can defend the best player on the other team,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said of his 6-foot-4 playmaker. “And what many people don’t know about him is how much he loves the game. He’s consumed with the game.
“He doesn’t party. He doesn’t care about anything else except being an NBA player, and I really believe that he will be one.”
McLaughlin, the Big West Conference Player of the Year as well as its Tournament MVP, ranked among the league leaders in scoring (16.0 points per game), assists (5.2) and steals (1.5). He was one of the conference’s best shooters overall (48.8%), from the three-point line (40.8%), and from the free-throw line (83.2%).
Those numbers were big parts of the equation in the 22-5 record compiled by a Gaucho team that won both the Big West regular season and tournament championships.
“It is what I expected from the team that we had, with the new guys we got, the guys we already had, and the chemistry we had,” he said. “During the first practice, I could tell how great our team could be.
“We set those goals before we started out on the season and I was confident we could complete them.”
But the number in which he took some of the most pride was a 0: UCSB’s number of positive COVID-19 cases and canceled games. He and fellow co-captain Devearl Ramsey had their teammates, coaches and staff all sign a contract in which they vowed to socially distance themselves from others.
“I feel we gave it our all every day in practice, just coming prepared and being willing to fight for the guy next to you,” McLaughlin said. “That was especially true off the court with COVID, and with the statement that the players and coaches signed.
“We gave it our all, and I’m proud of my teammates for that. Things didn’t go our way at the end, but we have a lot to be proud about as a team.”
The 12th-seeded Gauchos lost a 63-62 heartbreaker to fifth-seeded Creighton in Saturday’s first round of the NCAA Tournament when a last-second shot rimmed out of the basket at Lucas Oil Arena in Indianapolis. But it diminished nothing in McLaughlin’s mind.
“It’s been a great season for me and my teammates,” he said. “We started in the summer on Zooms, on the tennis courts. We put in a lot of work as a team, so it was great to get to that point.
“It didn’t end like we wanted it to, but I love this team. They’ll be my brothers for life.”
McLaughlin, the son of a coach, won the Mr. Basketball Award for high school basketball in the state of Washington before signing with Oregon State. He played one season for the Beavers, setting the freshman record for three-pointers, before transferring to UCSB. It’s a decision he’s never regretted.
“It was definitely worthwhile, having the opportunity to go to UCSB and be around these teammates and coaches and staff,” he said. “I had some great professors and advisors, and a great trainer in Jackson Smidt and, when I got here, a great strength coach in Eric Schmitt.
“I’m really grateful for the support system I’ve had here. The whole Gaucho community was great, and they all welcomed me with open arms. I felt a real family atmosphere.”
He finished work on his sociology degree last quarter and will walk graduation this June. His stock has skyrocketed recently in NBA front offices although he has yet to be listed in any of the mock drafts.
“I’m talking to agents but I’ve made no decision yet — I’m going to be patient with who I go with,” he said.
Pasternack, who has been busy on the recruiting trail ever since he left Indianapolis, admits that it will be difficult to fill McLaughlin’s shoes.
“We have to find that one guy, the right guy, to replace JaQuori,” he said. “He’s been our leader this entire year.”
But McLaughlin feels that he’s left the team in good hands.
“They have some great players coming back with Ajare (Sanni) and Josh (Pierre-Louis), and of course with Amadou (Sow) and Miles Norris,” he said. “If Robinson (Idehen) comes back, they’ll have even more great players.”
And he feels good about passing on the torch of playmaker to Calvin Wishart, a Georgia Southern transfer who sat out this season as a redshirt.
“He’s super-crafty and smart, and a great finisher around the rim,” McLaughlin said. “I know we also have some really good freshmen coming in, too. It shows a great future for the Gauchos and Gaucho nation.”