By Max Kelton, The Daily Nexus and UCSB Athletics Communications Intern
For the second consecutive year, the UCSB men's basketball enters Big West Conference play with an 11-3 overall record while boasting the top spot in the Big West with half of the season now in the books.
The Gauchos offense has been quarterbacked by a dynamic backcourt duo in JaQuori McLaughlin and captain point guard Devearl Ramsey. Ramsey has contributed 11.2 points per game while averaging 3.8 assists, good for sixth best in the conference, not to mention he shoots the fifth highest mark from deep in the Big West with a three-point percentage of 42.%.
McLaughlin compliments with 10.9 points per contest with 3.5 assists per game which gives him the eight most assists on average. Ramsey and McLaughlin, a pair of sophomores, control the ball on the attack for the offense, but it's graduate guard Armond Davis who delivers the bulk of the scoring with 14.2 points per game for the Gauchos. Davis adds 5.4 rebounds per game as a multifaceted offensive threat that crashes the boards along with Amadou Sow.
Speaking of Sow, the freshmen won his first career Big West Conference Athlete of the Week award after a 21-point, 9-rebound performance against Mid-Major No. 10 University of San Francisco. Sow is the most efficient shooter in the Big West Conference shooting 58.2% on field goals.
There have been flashes of stardom from the other two freshmen on the team as guard Sekou Touré has the highest player efficiency rating in the Big West, and Jay Nagle owns the No. 3 three-point percentage in the conference with 46.2%.
With such a deep team for the Gauchos this season, the real question is who will face the wrath of Coach Joe Pasternack in his second season with Santa Barbara?
Take a look at all of the teams in the fight for the Big West crown:
UC Irvine, 12-4
The Anteaters held the top spot of the conference for the majority of the first half of the season before losing a couple toward the end of their non-conference schedule. Neck and Neck with the Gauchos, Irvine has earned the Mid-Major No. 15 spot with a 12-4 record good for second in the Big West.
The Anteaters opened the year up 7-0 with big wins against Texas A&M and Santa Clara. They followed it up with another impressive victory 80-75 over Saint Mary's College in late November but finished off their non-conference season with a pair of losses a month later.
Yet, this Irvine team has a remarkable rotation with a dangerous and experienced duo of guards in the backcourt in juniors Evan Leonard and Max Hazzard who bolster Irvine's deadly 3-point attack which ranks No. 1 in the Big West. Irvine's 36.2% from deep is ideal when competing against the first-place Gauchos who allow just 28.1% from three, the 13th best in the NCAA.
UCI's graduate forward Jonathan Galloway sits in the No. 2 spot of the Big West in rebounding with 7.3 boards per game while Elston Jones supports with 7.1 rebounds per game, good for fifth in the conference. The pair of big men patrol the paint as good as any frontcourt in the Big West allowing just 64.4 points against per contest which ranks just below UCSB's top mark of 64.3 average points allowed.
The Anteaters, who surrender just 38% on field goals from opponents, thrive on the defensive end with the best defensive shooting percentage in the Big West. This puts the Eaters as the most significant threat to stop UCSB who is shooting a conference best 48.1% from the field on the year.
University of Hawaii, 9-5
Winners of three straight, the Rainbow Warriors have emerged as legitimate contenders to make a run for the title of Big West Champion as they currently sit in third place heading into the latter half of the year.
Hawaii has a solid collective of starters that can score the ball well as four players average double-figures in points led by junior guard Eddie Stansberry who posts 13.2 points per game following a 26-point performance against Alabama A&M.
While Stansberry delivers the most scoring on average, it's sophomore guard Drew Buggs that strikes with a pass first mentality. Buggs owns the second highest assists per game in the Big West averaging 5.0 per contest.
Buggs has an array of weapons at his disposal with Stansberry running the wing, but when the Warriors look to move the ball inside, junior Zigmars Raimo is the likely recipient.
Raimo, a Latvia native, rebounds at the fifth highest rate in the Big West with 7.1 boards per game while shooting 57% from the field, good for No. 3 in the conference.
Hawaii recorded statement wins against University of Colorado-Boulder and Utah earlier in the non-conference half of the season to build up its resumé and make an underdog run for the Big West title come conference play.
Cal State Northridge, 6-10
Following a 6-24 season, one of the most disappointing years in program history, Cal State Northridge wiped the slate clean with the hire of first year Head Coach Mark Gottfried in addition to adding former NBA Champion Mo Williams to the assistant coaching staff.
The new-look leadership is certainly a huge reason why the Matadors rank among the best offenses in the Big West, but without freshman phenom Lamine Diane, CSUN could be in the same position as the season prior.
Diane has catapulted CSUN into fourth place in the conference behind his Big West best 24.3 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. The freshman also ranks among the top defenders with 1.7 steals per game while blocking 2.5 shots on average, both good for first in the BIg West as well.
However, the CSUN attack doesn't just rely on Diane's two-way ability. While the freshman tops out the Big West as the No. 1 scorer, it's sophomore guard Terrell Gomez who delivers 18.4 points on average for the third best mark among Big West players.
Complementing Gomez in the backcourt, freshman Darius Brown II produces a play-making boost with 5.1 assist per contest, another first place in the Big West.
While Irvine is UCSB's biggest threat on the defensive end, the Matadors are certainly the top threat on offense with their harrowing attack. CSUN ties UCSB in first with 77.8 points per game while passing the ball better than any other team in the Big West.
The only thing holding CSUN back? It's sluggish defense. The Matadors are last in opponent field goal percentage while allowing a massive 82.9 points per contest.
There may be some kinks to smooth out, but CSUN is a contender for the long hall with a trio of young, ambitious attackers and new leadership at the helm.
Long Beach State, 6-10
Tied for fourth in the conference with two other squads, the 49ers look to turn their season around come conference play.
Long Beach has relied on the dynamic offensive production by senior guard Deshaun Booker who has posted 14.2 points per contest while distributing 4.7 assist per game, the third most in the Big West.
In the paint, redshirt senior forward Temidayo Yussuf drags down 7.1 rebounds per game for the Niners as he contributes 12.9 points on average. Yussuf shoots at the seventh best rate in the Big West knocking down 49.7% on field goals, but Long Beach still struggles offensively.
The 49ers have shot just 41.7% from the field this season which is the lowest mark in the Big West while they fail to take care of the ball as well with conference-high 16.0 turnovers per game.
While CSUN appears to be in first-place contention for years to come with a trio of talented young players, Long Beach seems to be searching for its next generation of studs as all three of its top leading scorers are seniors and will depart from the program next year.
UC Riverside, 6-10
Talk about a team that can shoot the three well. Between junior guard Dikymbe Martin and sophomore forward Ajani Kennedy, the Highlanders have one of the most dangerous three-point-duos in the Big West.
Martin is the only double-digit scorer on the Highlanders with 15.9 points per game as the fifth best scorer in the conference, but he also hits on 44.6% from behind the arc.
As for Kennedy, the sophomore out of Moreno Valley owns the most efficient three-point percentage in the conference shooting 54.5% from deep along with his 8.3 points per game which is second on the Riverside roster.
Just a hundredth of a percent behind UC Irvine, Riverside is second in the Big West in shooting from the perimeter with 36.1% but struggles to get second chance opportunities on misses.
Nobody on the Highlanders roster brings down over 4.5 rebounds per game as UCR is the second worst rebounding team in the Big West, solely in front of last-place UC Davis.
Expect minimal post-play while jumpers are hoisted from deep since the Highlanders shoot the most three-pointers in the Big West. But who blames them? With a pair of spot-up shooters like Martin and Kennedy, all eyes should be around the perimeter.
Cal Poly, 4-9
The Mustangs have hit a metaphorical wall in the world of Big West basketball. The last time Cal Poly had a winning team was during the 2012-13 season, but coming off a 9-22-year, Poly showed that this season is more of the same.
It's not all bad for the Mustangs who have a leader in senior point guard Donovan Fields who posts 15.8 points per game to go along with 4.3 assists.
Similarly, sophomore wing Mark Crowe is a dynamic threat from virtually anywhere on the floor as he shoots the fifth best rate from the field in the Big West while also splashing 51.6% from range, No. 2 in the conference.
However, much like the Highlanders, Cal Poly doesn't have a solid facilitator to protect the restricted area in its strife to get rebounds.
Only two of Cal Poly's four wins have come against Division I programs while one of those schools is playing its first season in Division I.
Cal State Fullerton, 4-10
Coming off of a Cinderella Big West Tournament last season which ultimately landed them in March Madness, Fullerton loaded its front half of the season with difficult matchups throughout.
The Titans have a pair of two of the most effective scorers in the Big West as seniors Kyle Allman Jr. and Khalil Ahmad pose significant threats to any defense. Allman Jr. adds 18.5 points per game while Ahmad follows close behind with 18.2 on average. The diad of seniors have each posted multiple 30-point games this season, however only one of those performances resulted in a win.
With junior forward Jackson Rowe averaging 7.2 rebounds per game in the post, the third most in the Big West, Fullerton seems to have all the bases covered.
So, the lingering question remains: what the heck is this team doing wrong? My answer: playing teams that simply have more depth. Fullerton gets little to no production from its offense, barring the three aforementioned starters.
Yet, with a dangerous offense, don't count out the Titans. CSUF looks like the ideal team to spoil a playoff-hopeful team with their dynamic scoring duo so make sure to remember the Titans when they face off against top teams in the Big West.
UC Davis, 4-10
Sitting in dead last, the Aggies have suffered a heartbreaking year. Heading into 2018-19, Davis had eyed a repeat crown as Big West regular season Champs.
The Aggies returned every starter from last year's first place roster, but the results are much different. Davis hasn't won a game on the road this season going a shocking 0-7 when playing away this year.
With senior forward AJ John out with an injury halfway through the season, senior guard and 2017-18 Big West MVP TJ Shorts III is left to bear the scoring burden. His 14.2 points per game just hasn't been enough to carry the Aggies' struggling offense who score just 62.4 points each contest, the least in the Big West.
The Aggies have trouble shooting from deep and have been unable to match teams on the boards with a -3.6-rebounding margin, another Big West Conference low.
On paper the Aggies should be a fierce competitor with 2017-18 Coach of the Year Jim Les at the helm, but on the hardwood, finding points has been slim-pickings, something they hope will turn around come Big West play.