Coach Joe Pasternack is anxious to celebrate the deep, experienced and committed UCSB basketball team that he’s been drilling the last three months.
But he’d hoped to hold off the hoopla for just one more day.
Nobody was happier to finish second to UC Irvine in Thursday’s Big West Conference Preseason Media Poll than the Gauchos’ third-year coach.
“Irvine deserves to be picked first,” Pasternack insisted as his players warmed up for their afternoon practice. “They won 31 games last year and won an NCAA Tournament game, and they have three starters back.
“They’ll be a great team once again this year.”
The media actually gave UCSB as many first-place votes as Irvine, with each school being put atop 15 ballots. But the Anteaters edged the Gauchos in total points, 258-256.
They were followed, in order, by Cal State Northridge, Hawaii, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, UC Riverside, UC Davis, and Cal Poly.
UCSB actually outnumbered Irvine 2-to-1 on the six-player, Preseason All-Big West Team. Both senior guard Max Heidegger and sophomore forward Amadou Sow made the squad.
CSUN also placed two players — sophomore forward Lamine Diane and junior guard Terrell Gomez — while senior guards Evan Leonard of UCI and Dikymbe Martin of UCR rounded out the team.
Pasternack has sung UCSB’s praises around town, impressing a few of us in the press to vote them No. 1.
“Nov. 6 is our opening game (against Jackson State), and my challenge to the community is to make this your team,” he said. “Make this Santa Barbara’s home team and come out and support these guys.
“We have future NBA talent on this team that will be great to watch. Hopefully we can get the Thunderdome sold out for Nov. 6.”
The university put money where his mouth has been, recently updating the Thunderdome’s reserved section with new, plush theater seating. Additional arena upgrades are on the drawing board.
“We’re in the midst of fundraising to renovate the whole arena,” Pasternack said.
A state-of-the-art video board measuring 50-feet, six-inches by 15 feet, four inches was already unveiled for last year’s Big West Conference opener. The fan experience at the Thunderdome hasn’t been this electric since the Thundermeter blew a fuse during the loud, proud days of the early 1990s.
Pasternack has taken his “Santa Barbara’s team” theme so far that he’s replaced the “UCSB” on the front of their jerseys with “Santa Barbara.”
But the last thing he wants is a target on the back.
My seat on press row might’ve been reassigned to one of the restrooms if my vote had actually put the Gauchos over the top.
Big West predictions have varied from one preseason magazine to the next. Athlon and Blue Ribbon Yearbook both put UCSB over UCI. The Three-Man-Weave website picked the Anteaters over the Gauchos.
Pasternack did get a true preview of his team during a full-scale, closed scrimmage last Saturday at Santa Clara. Although NCAA rules forbid publicizing the game, leaks into the media said that the Gauchos won, 80-76.
“It was helpful to really see our deficiencies against another team and be able to go back to practice this week and attack them,” Pasternack said. “We have another big test this Saturday (at Arizona State) and I’m sure we’ll get exposed again.”
The Achilles heels, he said, were transition defense and free-throw shooting. Sources say UCSB made just 23-of-38 foul shots. Six Gauchos, however, reportedly reached double-figure scoring, with five of them making at least one three-pointer. The 6-foot-9 Sow was among them.
“Amadou has really expanded his game with his ability to shoot the ball,” Pasternack said. “If he can be a threat out there, and make you guard him outside, it’ll make him an even more explosive driver.”
Matt Freeman, a grad transfer from Oklahoma, reportedly lit up the Leavey Center with a flurry of threes. The 6-foot-10 New Zealand native also livened up Thursday’s workout: He bear-hugged the Gauchos’ other transfer, Brandon Cyrus, after the 6-foot-5 junior from DePaul reversed a slam dunk.
“With all the fifth-year grad transfers we’ve had — this is our fourth — it’s interesting to see their demeanor,” Pasternack said. “Matt really gets along with all the players. They really like him.
“He’s a team guy, and he’ll hopefully help us stretch the floor this year.”
Cyrus will help them defend it, he added.
“Having a guy like Brandon, who’s started in the Big East, has definitely made us better in that area,” he said. “He gives us a dimension that we haven’t had.”
Their experience adds to a roster that returns seven of last year’s top nine players: Heidegger, Sow, guards Devearl Ramsey, JaQuori McLaughlin, and Sékou Touré, and forwards Robinson Idehen and Jay Nagle.
Santa Clara’s coach told Pasternack that his Gauchos had been the tougher team last Saturday. It was a point the UCSB coach reiterated in the locker room before the start of Thursday’s workout.
“I told them that our goal after every game is for the opposing coach to say, ‘That’s the hardest team — the hardest-playing team — and the toughest team that we’ve played against,’” Pasternack said.
UCSB, which will play its Blue-Gold Game a week from Saturday, opted to play the Santa Clara and ASU scrimmages instead of exhibition games against lower-division schools.
“We play at UCLA early (on Nov. 10), and we have some tough early games that are going to expose us, too,” Pasternack said. “That’s what’s going to get us ready for conference.
“You get nothing out of playing a D3, and your players think you’re better than you really are.”
And that kind of hype is merely tripe this time of year.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org