UCSB basketball is off to its best start in 31 years, but the best news is that this season’s Gauchos are built for the long haul.
A deep bench has helped them weather injuries and foul trouble, rolling into tonight’s home game against Long Beach State with a six-game winning streak. Tipoff at the Thunderdome is at 7 p.m.
“We have a lot of talented players who work hard at practice, so we’re ready for everything,” said Robinson Idehen, UCSB’s backup center. “If one player goes down, then another has to step up, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
The Gauchos (12-4, 1-0 Big West Conference) have won 11 of their last 12 games. They haven’t had a better start since winning their first 11 games of the 1988-89 season.
They’ve been winning despite the absence of star guard Max Heidegger, a senior who earned first-team All-Big West honors as a sophomore. He’s sat out the last 10 games with his third concussion in two seasons.
Heidegger has participated in the team’s last five practices but won’t play until he’s in game shape, coach Joe Pasternack said.
Brandon Cyrus, a 6-foot-5 junior transfer from DePaul, has started in Heidegger’s place, adding a hard-nosed defender to UCSB’s lineup. The Gauchos are coming off 19-point win at Cal Poly in which they allowed season-low totals of 45 points and 28.3% shooting.
Sékou Touré, a 6-5 sophomore, has also provided strong defense while averaging nearly 20 minutes per game off the bench.
“Brandon Cyrus is something that we haven’t had in the last couple of years,” Pasternack said, “and that’s in bringing a real toughness to our team in crashing the offensive glass, driving the ball, and defending as tough as he has.
“Sékou has an amazing nose for the ball. He always has, since high school.”
Idehen, a 6-10 junior, leads the Big West in offensive rebounding despite averaging only 13.6 minutes per game. He played 20 minutes against Cal Poly, getting a career-high four blocks, when starter Amadou Sow got into early foul trouble.
“To have that two-headed monster is huge,” Pasternack said. “Robinson, once again, saved the day — in the first half especially.”
Idehen said he benefits by going against Sow in practice. Sow, a 6-9 sophomore, made the All-Big West second team as a rookie and is averaging 14.1 points and 6.8 rebounds this season.
“The only time we’ve been on the same team (in practice) is once or twice,” Idehen said. “Other than that, we’ve been on separate teams, and we go at it every time. That helps.”
Pasternack did give Sow a stint at power forward on Wednesday while keeping Idehen on the court.
“We got to play both of those guys together for three minutes, and we want to do that moving forward,” he said.
The next step comes in tonight’s game against a Long Beach team that is stacked with transfers who are still trying to mesh. The 49ers are just 5-12 overall but they’ve beaten the Gauchos in their last four trips to the Thunderdome.
“Long Beach has played a very, very tough schedule, as they always do, and I respect that,” Pasternack said.
Dan Monson, the dean of Big West coaches, is in his 13th year at Long Beach. His 49ers have shown promise, falling just short of an upset at UCLA, 69-65, and beating Big East Conference power Providence, 66-65.
A roster full of nine newcomers, however, has led to inconsistency and a road record of 0-8. That includes Wednesday’s 95-77 defeat at Cal State Northridge in their Big West opener.
Their biggest issues have been on defense where they give up 46.1% shooting overall, 34.9% from three, and nearly 80 points a game.
Pasternack, however, expects a major challenge tonight.
“Long Beach State is very well-coached, they play very hard, and they’re very talented,” he said. “When you have those three areas, that’s a team to be reckoned with.”
Chance Hunter, a 6-6 sophomore transfer from Cerritos Community College, leads Long Beach with a 13.9-point average on 41.1% shooting from the three-point line. He’s also grabbing 5.1 rebounds per game.
Two transfers lead the 49ers in scoring. Michael Carter III, a 6-5 sophomore, is scoring at a 12.5-point clip. Colin Slater, a 6-1 junior transfer from Tulane, is at 11.2 points while shooting 40.4% from three.
“They have some really good players,” Pasternack said. “Michael Carter is a Pac-12 player who played for Washington. And I know Colin Slater well – he’s from Tulane and he’s a terrific guard.
“They’ve got some really talented freshmen in the front court in Romelle Mansel and Joshua Morgan.”
Morgan, at 6-11, leads Long Beach in rebounding at 5.8 per game and is also tops in the Big West in blocked shots with nearly two per game.
UCSB has been led in scoring in four of its last five games by junior guard JaQuori McLaughlin. He ranks among the Big West leaders in points (15.3 per game), field-goal percentage (.500), three-point percentage (.439), and in assist-to-turnover ratio (64-to-28).
But for Pasternack, it all begins with rebounding and defense.
“We’ve overcome a lot of adversity with injuries and other issues, but we don’t have a large margin of error in any of the games we play,” he said. “I was proud of how we defended and rebounded the other night.
We have to do that for 40 minutes, and we haven’t quite done that yet. That’s why I think our ceiling is higher than it is right now.”