Ajare Sanni wasn’t home for the holidays this week. No UCSB basketball player can stray from the Gauchos’ orbit during this season of COVID.
But their newest shooting star is just glad he’s not staying home from their road trips anymore. Last year’s redshirt basketball season was full of many Silent Nights for the sophomore transfer from the University of Pacific.
“The most difficult part, definitely, was staying home alone while everybody else was leaving for the road games,” Sanni said. “It was motivational for me, having to work out alone, but the most difficult time came when they were playing the games.
“I’d be wondering, ‘Oh man, what could I have done to help in this game?’”
Sanni, a 6-foot-3 guard from Houston, Tex., has done plenty for UCSB so far in this mutated season. He is the Gauchos’ second-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game even while coming off the bench to spell one of the three seniors who start in the backcourt.
He will take shooting percentages of 42.3% from three-point range and nearly 49% overall into Sunday’s 4 p.m., Big West Conference opener at UC Irvine.
He is the second of three sons in the tight-knit family of Jarvis and Vanessa Sanni.
“Everybody is at home in Texas, watching my games,” he said.
Younger brother Jaja followed in Ajare’s footsteps at Houston’s Clear Lake High School, earning District Most Valuable Player honors last year. He’s now a freshman on the team at Texas-San Antonio.
“He was supposed to redshirt, but since this year isn’t going to count, he’s playing a little for them,” Ajare said, referring to the waiver that the NCAA has granted to all players because of the coronavirus. “We talk every day, and I ask him how he’s doing at practice.
“I’m the older brother. I have to lead the way.”
His father set the example. Jarvis Sanni played two seasons at Arizona before transferring to Rice, becoming a star for the Owls with averages of 14.8 points and 9.4 rebounds during his senior year of 1997-98. His teammates voted for him to receive Rice’s Billy Wohn Leadership Award.
“Everything I know about basketball, my dad taught me,” Ajare said. “My dad is a big guy — 6-10 and 250. He played with Damon Stoudamire and some top-notch guards at Arizona. He knows the game. Whether it’s about the big man or the guards, it doesn’t matter.”
His father also played for the Fort Wayne Fury of the Continental Basketball Association — precursor of the NBA’s G League — before taking his game overseas to Belgium, Hungary, France and Germany. The Dutch that his son learned in Belgium was actually his first language.
“I grew up in Europe, going back and forth to the United States until I was in the fourth grade, so moving around isn’t a challenge for me,” Ajare said. “I loved it over there. It was so much fun and I learned so much, going to school there.
“I just lived the life, going to my dad’s games.”
When he came of age, Sanni would challenge his dad to their own games of one-on-one.
“It never really went my way,” he said with a laugh. “He’s 6-10, 250 pounds, and so it doesn’t really go well for a guard.”
It did teach him how to shoot from distance. Sanni won District Newcomer of the Year honors by the time he was a sophomore at Clear Lake High. He averaged 26.9 points as a junior, scoring as many as 44 in one game. He was voted All-State and was the unanimous pick as District MVP after averaging 25 points as a senior.
Former UCSB assistant coach Louis Reynaud knew all about him, having previously coached at Rice. The Gauchos recruited him hard. But Stoudamire — his dad’s old Arizona teammate — was the head coach at the Pacific, so he signed with the Tigers.
Sanni overcame a foot injury — plantar fasciitis — to become a starter in the last 12 games of his freshman season. He scored as many as 32 points in a game against Fresno State, making 7-of-11 three-pointers. He soon decided, however, that he didn’t belong in Stockton.
“I kind of wanted a change of scenery,” he explained. “I just didn’t think it was the right environment for me for four years.
“It had nothing to do with anybody — the players and the coaches were great. It was just my own personal choice.”
He remembered how much he liked the Gauchos and their coaching staff of Joe Pasternack and John Rillie during the recruiting process. It was an easy choice to pick UCSB as a landing spot.
“It just felt like a family atmosphere here,” Sanni said. “I knew that as a place to spend the next three years of school, this marked off all the boxes for me.
“It’s been a very smooth transition for me. The guys have been very welcoming.”
Star guard Max Heidegger, who’s now playing in Israel, made a point of taking Sanni under his wing.
“He taught me a lot about how to carry myself in this program,” he said. “He helped me out a lot. I knew he would be leaving by the time I started playing and that I would have to help fill his role. I knew I had to learn from Max.
“I’m really thankful for what he did for me last year.”
The first play of his first practice as a Gaucho remains one of Sanni’s fondest memories. Heidegger drove to one side, Sanni cut him off, and Mad Max stepped back to “hit a nasty three.”
“He hit this crazy shot on me, and then just looked at me and started talking smack,” Sanni said with a laugh. “That’s when I knew I was in a game at UCSB, going against Max every day.
“It was fun, going hard like that. I knew he was going to make me better. That one play.”
Heidegger also helped him through the agony of reinjuring his foot during last year’s redshirt season. The reoccurrence of plantar fasciitis kept Sanni off the court for nearly his first four months at UCSB.
“Max faced a lot of adversity with injuries himself and he handled himself very well with it,” he said. “He never made any excuses and he worked hard to come back.
“What he taught me was to never give up and to always give it your hardest. When adversity hits, you have to be ready for it.”
By the end of last January, Sanni was excelling for the Gaucho scout team. He regarded the matchups against all-leaguers Heidegger and JaQuori McLaughlin as real games.
“For one, I wasn’t playing in the team’s games, so the practices were my games,” he said. “Secondly, I was new here, so the scout team was how I could prove myself.
“You never want to go to a new program and be lackadaisical because you’re not playing. That’s not how to get respect. You have to earn respect.”
He’s already earned it against UC Irvine. Sanni won a West Coast Conference Player of the Week Award in 2019 after helping to beat the eventual Big West champions with a 23-point outburst.
“It was one of my best games at Pacific,” he observed. “I’m sure they’re going to remember me.”
He believes this Gaucho team is one of the best in the West.
“Coach Pasternack has brought in a lot of good players who come in every day to compete,” Sanni said. “Our practices are very, very competitive — even more so than the games.
“People call us as a mid-major, but we’re definitely a high mid-major, and we have a good coach here to prove that point.”
No matter what happens this season, he’s just glad that his biggest holiday wish came true.
“I’m just very grateful to have a season, and that our team and coaches and school have all taken the right precautions so we can play,” Sanni said. “Oh man, it would’ve been terrible to lose two years in a row.”
He’s ready to make some noise in 2021.