The stars were in alignment for UCSB basketball the last decade.
Half of the school’s top-10 scoring list consists of Gauchos who graduated within the last eight years. It would’ve been six of the top 10 if injuries hadn’t cost Max Heidegger 24 games the last two seasons.
Four of the nine Gauchos who made it to the NBA have also come during those last eight, great years.
It makes the following five — UCSB’s newest All-Decade Team, listed with height and graduating year — a tough squad to make, indeed.
CENTER — ALAN WILLIAMS 6-foot-8 (2015): He was nicknamed “Big Al” for his beefy frame, but those who knew him best called him “Big Sauce” for his spicy, free spirit.
Williams developed into UCSB’s all-time leader in rebounds (1,125) and is second in scoring (1,732 points) to Orlando Johnson. He spent many nights sleeping on the couch of Johnson’s apartment during his freshman year, soaking up the senior’s words of wisdom.
“He’d say, ‘You’re going to be the face of this program one day, so you’ve got to maintain that look of maturity,’” Williams said. “I listened to those seniors, even though I fought it at times, and everything they taught me is stuff that I’m going to use now for the rest of my life.”
Williams, the Big West Conference Player of the Year in 2014, averaged a double-double in each of his last two years while leading the nation in rebounds both seasons. Sports Illustrated called him “The Beast of the Beach.”
“He has the best hands of any big man I’ve ever seen and he catches everything,” coach Bob Williams said. “He’s got a nice, feathery shooting touch, and he’s got a great post-up body, too.
“He’s obviously the best big man we’ve ever had. Whatever Al has worked at, he’s gotten better at.”
He’s gotten good enough to play 67 games in parts of four NBA seasons with Phoenix and Brooklyn.
FORWARD — JAMES NUNNALLY, 6-7 (2012): Johnson was redshirting at UCSB during the 2008-09 season when he watched Nunnally score 22 points as a freshman against eventual national champion North Carolina.
“He’s going to be pretty good,” Johnson said at the time.
He and Nunnally became the top one-two punch in school history when they combined for 1,194 points during their NCAA Tournament season of 2010-11.
But Nunnally, who ranks fifth all-time at UCSB with 1,685 points, admitted to carrying “a big chip” on his shoulder for having been thrust into Johnson’s shadow.
“I feel like I’m as good as anybody in the country,” he once said. “I feel like I deserve the respect, and I’m going to go get it.”
That led to some bad chemistry late in the 2011 season. UCSB lost four of five games, prompting coach Williams to hold his own bonfire of the vanities.
“Coach had us write down everything we hated about anybody on the team, or him, on a piece of paper, and we burned it in the trash,” Nunnally said. It resulted in a winning streak that took the Gauchos all the way to the NCAA Tournament.
“He came out of that completely different, and he carried that into the Big West Tournament,” Williams said of Nunnally. “He became unselfish, making the extra pass. He became aggressive defensively and in rebounding the ball.”
Nunnally has played 28 games in parts of two NBA seasons with Atlanta, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Houston. He’s also been voted as the MVP of Italy’s top pro league.
FORWARD — MICHAEL BRYSON, 6-5 (2016): He was one of the most prodigious jumpers in school history, finishing second in the NBA G-League’s Slam Dunk Contest in 2018. But he also could shoot.
Bryson set a Gaucho record for career 3-pointers (241) that teammate Gabe Vincent surpassed two years later by just two three-balls. Bryson, who was twice named to the All-Big West First Team, ranks sixth on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,620 points.
But he also came to UCSB to study philosophy. He put it to good use after the Gauchos went just 11-20 during his freshman year.
“I wouldn’t ask for anything different,” the cerebral Gaucho said a few years later. “It definitely allowed us to grow and it created a hunger that was very important.”
Bryson admitted that coach Williams could get annoyed by the arguments he posed.
“I always have a reasoning or an explanation for something,” he said. “But I love it. I love philosophy. I came here and it definitely opened my eyes and my mind to different perspectives, different mindsets, and the way to attack situations differently.”
GUARD — ORLANDO JOHNSON, 6-5 (2012): He reigns as UCSB’s all-time leading scorer with 1,825 points despite having played his freshman year at Loyola Marymount.
But his impact in leading the Gauchos to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments (2010 and 2011) for the first time in school history went way beyond statistics. Coach Williams described Johnson, the 2010 Big West Player of the Year, as the “big brother to the whole team.”
“He likes to take care of people,” he explained.
Johnson’s nurturing nature came from having been raised by his own two brothers. His mother was murdered when he was a toddler and his grandmother died when he was just 11.
His brothers instilled a work ethic that sometimes got Johnson into trouble. He was once kicked out of practice when he tried to sneak into a drill despite being on the injured list. Johnson’s ownership of the team was legendary.
“He just refused to let the team ever have a bad practice,” coach Williams said. “If we were having a down practice, he was the one who changed that. He was the one who set the tone.”
When Johnson told Thunderdome manager Donnell Dixon how badly he wanted to make it to the NBA, Dixon gave him a key to the arena door and said, “When they call your name in New York, and you get drafted in the NBA, you give me that key back.”
Johnson did just that after being picked in the second round in 2012. He’s played 103 games in parts of three seasons with Indiana, Sacramento, Phoenix and New Orleans.
GUARD — MAX HEIDEGGER, 6-3 (2020): He set a school record as a sophomore with 95 3-pointers while averaging 19.1 points per game. He earned his nickname of Mad Max, however, by how fearlessly he’d drive through the key.
He became only the seventh Gaucho in history to make the All-Big West First Team multiple times after averaging 16.0 points this last season. He finished with 1,347 points for his career.
“Max is as good of an offensive player as I have ever coached in my career,” said coach Joe Pasternack, whose previous schools included Pac-12 powers Arizona and California. “He is just such a tough kid. He loves and thrives on the big moment.
“Every day, he just amazes me with what he does.”
He was also amazed by what Heidegger endured. A knee injury, three concussions and a badly sprained foot and ankle kept him off the court for long stretches the last two years.
His luck was so bad that his third concussion occurred last season when his head hit a metal handrail that had just been installed for safety reasons.
“I wanted to play for my brothers — play for my teammate and my coaches — but certain things would happen,” Heidegger said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has loomed as the latest obstacle, canceling several workouts that he’d been offered by NBA teams. He still hopes to follow in the footsteps of Vincent, his former Gaucho teammate who has played in nine games this season with the Miami Heat.
“I want the chance to pursue the dream as long as I can,” he said.
Vincent, who ranks ninth on UCSB’s all-time scoring list with 1,441 points, is part of an All-Decade Second Team that spans the entire 10 years — from 2010 graduate James Powell, to 2015 graduate John Green, to 2018 graduate Leland King, and finally to current Gaucho Amadou Sow of the Class of 2022.
Sow, a two-pick time to the All-Big West Second Team, will get his chance for first-team honors this spring — as well as in 2030 with UCSB’s next All-Decade Team.