Basketball websites picking Gauchos to win Big West Conference
In a year that a pandemic has rendered unpredictable, UCSB is getting picked to win the Big West Conference men’s basketball championship.
Two of three college basketball websites have chosen the Gauchos to finish first while another picked them second behind defending champion UC Irvine.
UCSB opens its season in three weeks, on Nov. 27, when Florida Gulf Coast visits the Thunderdome for the Santa Barbara Slam. Florida A&M will also play the Gauchos in the round-robin event on Nov. 29. Spectators won’t be allowed for at least the first part of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The predictions, that’s all for the fans and the media and the boosters,” UCSB coach Joe Pasternack said. “We’re totally process-oriented. That’s all we can control and be worried about.
“We’ve had a lot of guys banged up, but they’ve gotten through it. Our guys are really competing in practice on a daily basis, and that’s all I can ask.”
It is a highly competitive environment with three returning starters among their seven lettermen. They include a pair of All-Big West honorees: 6-foot-9 junior Amadou Sow and 6-4 senior JaQuori McLaughlin.
Sow averaged 14.1 points and 7.0 rebounds as a sophomore to receive second-team recognition for the second straight season. McLaughlin received honorable mention after averaging 13.4 points and 4.1 assists as a junior. Senior Devearl Ramsey (8.3 points and 2.5 assists) is also back for his third season as the starting point guard.
Although Three-Man Weave picked Irvine to repeat as league champion, it did select Sow as the Big West’s Preseason Player of the Year, describing him as “a savvy, low-post scorer and freakish leaper.”
Both Sow and McLaughlin were first-team picks on the Preseason All-Big West Teams of all three web sites. Miles Norris — a 6-10, former Oregon recruit who won California JC Player of the Year honors last year for CC of San Francisco — was chosen as Newcomer of the Year by College Basketball Central.
Last Word on Sports tabbed the Gauchos as Big West favorites and Sow as its Player of the Year while noting that he is still developing his game: “It is scary to think about the fact that those numbers will improve. Simply put, Sow is the best player on arguably the best team in the league heading into 2020-21.”
College Basketball Central picked UCSB over Irvine but tabbed Anteater forward Collin Welp as its Preseason Player of the Year. Welp and center Brad Greene are the top returning players on an Anteater team that must replace its entire backcourt.
“This feels like the season where UCSB finally breaks through,” Last Word On Sports wrote. “The Gauchos have been chasing UC Irvine for the last two seasons, but they seem to have the upper edge heading into 2020-21.
“Sow and McLaughlin are a dynamic duo… Furthermore, the addition of junior college transfer and former Oregon recruit Norris will provide a huge boost in the paint.”
But two Gauchos getting little mention — 6-10 senior Robinson Idehen and 6-3 sophomore transfer Ajare Sanni — have been impressive in early workouts.
Idehen, who has served as Sow’s backup at center the last two years, missed the first week-and-a-half of practice with an ankle injury but has been making up for lost time.
“He’s just the epitome of what we want in a UCSB basketball player,” Pasternack said. “He does what he’s supposed to on and off the court and is just a great representative of our program, of himself and his family.
“He plays so hard, every single play, and it’s unconditional. It’s not about how many minutes he gets or how things are going for him personally. He’s an every-possession guy and just a joy to coach.”
Sanni, who averaged 8.6 points on 38.7% shooting from three-point range as a freshman at Pacific, practiced with the Gauchos as a redshirt last season.
“His dad played at Arizona and Rice, and also played professional basketball, so he has really good genes,” Pasternack said. “He has a great family and was raised the right way.
“He’s a really, really good shooter and scorer. Every day, he’s been the leader in three-point shooting with the stats we keep.
“We’re just trying to make him a complete player. For his future, we think that’s very important, so he’s been working hard on his defense. We need him to repeat that high level every day, and I’m really proud of him for how he’s honored that process.”
Norris and Destin Barnes, a 6-7 graduate transfer from Jacksonville, are two of UCSB’s most impactful newcomers.
“We’ve had 13 practices but it takes time for new players,” Pasternack said. “Miles has played for two other coaches in college and Destin has played for three other schools and coaches.
“I’m just using those two as an example, but it takes time to adjust and learn our system of play. I think it’s more of a learning phase right now for them on our terminology and how we do things. They’re going to continue to get better.”
The Gauchos have remained healthy even as the student community of Isla Vista has become a hot spot for the coronavirus. They test twice a week for COVID-19 and Pasternack said that will be increased to three times a week.
“It’s probably the thing that keeps me up most at night, just the concern for your players,” Pasternack said. “They’re doing the best that they can, 24/7, and they almost have to be perfect for five months.
“They’re all living alone and we give them a meal after practice — a grab-and-go — so they don’t eat together.”
They still hold their team meetings on the internet with Zoom.
“All you can do is educate them the best way possible, relentlessly,” Pasternack said. “Every day there are examples of other programs being shut down because of the coronavirus.
“Parties are being held in IV — we call them COVID parties — but we’ve had our guys sign a social contract with each other so that they’re accountable to each other. All we can hope is that they’re as self-disciplined as possible with the pandemic rearing its ugly head.”