'Tis the season for Bryson to be jolly

Michael Bryson (Photo by Tony Mastres)
Michael Bryson (Photo by Tony Mastres)

By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press

UCSB's Michael Bryson has one of those happy faces that sometimes only a father can't love.

Even a bad call on the basketball court won't turn it upside down.

"My dad will tell me, 'It's a terrible call, you know it's a bad call, and you always smile,'" the Gauchos' 6-foot-4 sophomore guard pointed out. "He'll say, 'I'd rather you get mad.'"

And hearing that just makes Bryson smile even more.

"They're not going to change the call, so why get mad?" he said. "I just laugh at it. It's a funny thing."

Bryson didn't go mad last year when the balls weren't bouncing his way, either. He kept his cheer during the holiday season even while in the midst of a 3-for-25 shooting slump.

But he was on a mission when he returned from Christmas early to get back into UCSB's workouts.

"Holiday time is work time," Bryson said. "We had to be back on the 25th because we had a game two days later, I believe. It was during this winter break that I got it turned around and everything became simpler.

"We're here to play basketball, so it is a wonderful time of the year."

It has clearly turned into A Wonderful Life this season for the George Bailey of Gaucho basketball. He's averaging 12.8 points per game while shooting 48.8 percent from the 3-point line, third best in the Big West Conference. He earned the league's Player of the Week Award after his 21 points led UCSB to Sunday's 72-61 win at the University of San Diego.

The Gauchos (5-3), who upset Cal in their previous game, will go for their third-straight win when they face Troy at 4:30 p.m. today in their opening game of the Basketball Travelers Classic in snowy Logan, Utah.

"I don't have a lot of things to not be happy about, I'd say," Bryson said when asked about his cheery demeanor on the eve of UCSB's departure. "I might as well enjoy it while I'm here.

"I mean, Santa Barbara is a beautiful place. It's kind of hard to be upset when it's a nice, spring day like this during the winter."

A warm, nurturing environment provided by parents James and Audra, his coaches and his teammates helped Bryson keep that sunny disposition during last year's cold start to a gloomy, 11-20 season. It's a close group, coach Bob Williams said, with Bryson "in the hub of it all - a guy who gets along with everybody."

"I really felt it when I first came here," said Bryson, who picked UCSB over St. Mary's and hometown school Sacramento State. "The guys here are just amazing. T.J. (Taylor) and Alan (Williams) and John (Green), when they had me on the visit here, they were really great.

"They were very welcoming and really made me feel like this was a place where I could be comfortable."

He was still only 17 when he arrived from Sacramento and admittedly had a lot to absorb in both the classroom and basketball arena.

"It was definitely a struggling year for me," he said. "I was going through back problems at the beginning that were limiting what I could do. We started losing games, and I felt like I should be doing more.

"My parents really helped me through it and kept me going. I talk to them every day. I talk to my mom multiple times on game day. She kind of helps to calm me down and make sure I'm OK, and gets my head on straight."

Coach Williams knew Bryson would eventually straighten out his shot.

"He knew we needed him, he knew we believed in him and he knew he was capable of playing much better than the way he played early," he said. "Until league play started, we never got a glimpse of him hitting two-or-three 3's in a row, like we saw when he was in high school.

"But we knew he was capable."

He became sold on Bryson during the summer before his senior year while watching him make nine 3-pointers during an AAU tournament game. He was actually there to check out the point guard for the opposing team.

"Coaches from every big-time school started moving toward the court during that game because he was just going off," Williams said. "He was hitting pull-up 3's off screens, hitting them after stop-and-spinning at the 3-point line and hitting them in transition. He was putting on quite a show.

"I liked him plenty after that game. I liked him even more after watching him compete and defend, and seeing how much he cared about winning."

Bryson did everything he could to keep UCSB from taking that 20th loss last year, scoring a school-freshman record 29 points in its Big West Tournament opener against eventual champion Pacific. The Gauchos, who trailed 40-25 at halftime, wound up losing just 71-68 after Bryson hit six of his seven 3-pointers and scored 22 of his points in the final 20 minutes.

"Big games are always fun," he said of his big night. "When you get onto that big stage you get those jitters inside, and I love it."

He gave several previews of that big finish during the latter part of the Big West season, averaging 12.7 points in UCSB's last 11 games to get his final average up to 8.4. Everything in his game was on the rise, whether it was his soaring, alley-oop dunks or his high-arching shots.

"He's a high-flyer," Williams said of Bryson's leaping ability. "His shot is beautiful, too, and there's a sense that when he does get it going, it doesn't really matter if he's toeing the 3-point line or four feet behind it: He thinks it's the same shot.

"There's a real pizzazz to his game."

The thing about Bryson is that he doesn't dwell in the past, whether it's of having made 7-of-11 3's against Big West champion Pacific or 1-of-7 in a loss to last-place UC Riverside.

"I was always told to let things go, especially on the court, because once a play is done, it's done," he said. "That's been my biggest thing, to have a short-term memory and just think about that next play."

And that should provide some long-term memories that will really be worth smiling about.