A breath of fresh air in the 'Dome

T.J. Taylor
T.J. Taylor

November 8, 2011 

Everything was shining brighter at UCSB's Thunderdome on Saturday night.

Maybe it was all that new lighting installed in the rafters. Or maybe it was all those new basketball players down on the court.

Five energetic freshmen amped up the electricity in the exhibition game against San Francisco State, providing a nice contrast for a team that's been dominated for the last three years by the same four players.

"What I've seen so far is that this team has a lot of character," rookie guard John Green said after scoring a team-high 17 points in a 67-51 victory.

Or did he say the team has a lot of characters?

"All the guys get along, and we're funny," Green said of the newcomers. "We're always cracking jokes, for freshmen."

UCSB coach Bob Williams recruited an eclectic group. Green is already a year out of Oakland's Castlemont High School, having played last year for Westwind Prep Academy in Phoenix, Ariz.

T.J. Taylor came straight out of Oakland as a 17-year-old point guard.

Alan Williams came straight from Phoenix, Lewis Thomas from Western Australia, and Taran Brown from what coach Bob Williams calls Wyoming coal country.

Or did he say cold country?

"Alan and Taran walked into the hotel lobby together when we were in Montreal during our Canadian trip last September," said Bill Mahoney, an assistant athletic director at UCSB. "I asked them, 'How's the weather out there?'

"Al Williams said, 'Man, it's cold!' And Taran shook his head and said, 'No it isn't.'"

Gauchos coach Bob Williams was unsure of how those big five personalities would mesh when he recruited them from different corners of the globe.

"This group was just too good not to take," he said. "They're from pretty diverse backgrounds. But in terms of how they are as kids, and athletes, and all their upside, I keep getting happier as I get to know them."

The Fab Five, Next Generation, introduced itself to Gaucho fans on Saturday, with the 6-foot-8 Brown even starting in place of preseason All-American Orlando Johnson, who was resting a sore Achilles tendon.

"He was Mr. Basketball for the State of Wyoming, and there's a little bit of that big fish in a little pond syndrome going on when it comes to making an adjustment," Williams said. "But he's handled it all really well, he's a lot of fun to be around and he's an exceptional athlete.

"He's probably the most dynamic out of them all, which doesn't necessarily mean he'll be the best player of them all."

On Saturday, that appeared to be Green. The 6-foot-5 swingman came off the bench to score 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting and grab nine rebounds, both team highs, in just 19 minutes.

"He has an incredible nose for scoring," coach Williams said. "The great thing is, I don't think he's going to be fazed by the level. He's one of those guys who's going to get buckets no matter who we're playing against."

The other Williams, who packs more than 270 pounds on his 6-7 frame, threw his weight around on Saturday to get 10 points and seven rebounds in just 11 minutes. He was a presence during his 29 minutes on the bench, as well.

"Big Al's personality is every bit as big as he is," coach Williams said.

And Taylor, a 5-9 point guard, is a lot older than his 17 years (he won't turn 18 for three more weeks) would indicate.

"T.J. is just a natural leader, and he's the youngest of the group by far," his new coach said. "He's very charismatic. People just gravitate to him, which is what you like in a point guard, definitely.

"He's a really good, quick athlete with a phenomenal presence. I was sold by the time I walked out of his house during my recruiting visit. I loved his family, loved his grandma, and loved how he was with them all. I could tell that there was something special about them and about him."

And Williams loved how Taylor was with his teammates on Saturday with four assists in 17 minutes.

Williams The Elder has already decided that Williams The Younger, along with Green and Taylor, will play important roles this season. The question is what to do with the other two freshmen, Brown and Lewis, who come from much farther away.

Both are dynamic players, as well, but both also play positions manned by several veterans, making them much more valuable the following four seasons for a program that will be graduating five players next spring.

"We don't know if we're going to red-shirt them, I haven't met with my staff about it yet," Williams said. "You never know because of injuries. You do have to be safe and protect this year's team, but you also have to weigh in what's the best thing for a kid.

"You don't want to waste a year for a kid if he might play only five minutes a game."

Selfishly, he'd like to spend hours with the both of them this season.

"Lewis is a very serious student and highly motivated in the classroom, and he's one of those kids that you can talk to about anything, just like Chris Devine was," he said. "He reads all the time, and you can talk politics and history and all different kinds of things with him."

And Brown has already given the 58-year-old Williams a new experience in this, his 14th season at UCSB and 24th as a head coach.

"I spent a good two-to-three hours taking a tour of a coal mine during my recruiting visit there, and I'd never done that before," he said.

Williams The Elder has also never met a pair of parents like those of Williams The Younger. Big Al's mother is the new police chief of Oxnard, while his father Cory is still back in Phoenix serving as a judge while his younger son, Cory Jr., finishes high school.

"It's really important for them to be close to their sons, and it's just worked out unbelievably well with Al coming here," coach Williams said. "They'll want to be very involved."

Altogether, they add a completely new look to a team that's led by four very familiar faces.

"Our older guys are telling us that this team is very different because all the guys get along with each other," Al Williams said. "We hang around with each other. After practice, we all sit around the locker room, just cracking jokes, and it really shows on the court."

There wasn't a shadow of darkness to be found when the lights went on.