March 12, 2002
By MARK PATTON
NEWS-PRESS SPORTS EDITOR
The 5-foot, 88-pound freshman chose to stand tall during the most belittling moment of his basketball career.
When he was cut from his high school's "lighweight" team after just a 10-minute tryout, he simply showed up for the longer tryout being held by the older "junior varsity" squad.
"I've been an underdog all my life," says UCSB basketball coach Bob Williams, now 33 years later.
So he should feel right at home leading his Gauchos into the NCAA Tournament Thursday night against nationally ranked Arizona. Tipoff for the West Regional opener will be at about 7:15 p.m. PST at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M.
Williams is now about 15 inches taller than he was as a high school freshman, but the tough little-man attitude rages on. Instilling toughness in a team that he calls "a bunch of choir boys" was the biggest obstacle he faced in getting this year's 20-10 squad into the NCAA Tournament.
"When you're an 88-pound 14-year-old high school student, you probably have to have a little chip on your shoulder," he said. "You have to prove something to people or you don't stand a chance."
Williams did prove something to his high school coaches: "After my tryout, they called the lighweight coach, and put me on the lightweights," he recalled.
He's proving something as UCSB's fourth-year coach, as well, having inherited a program that had endured five straight losing seasons including a 7-19 record the year before. But just days after accepting the Gaucho job, he signed Glendale Hoover High star Mark Hull to a national letter of intent, and the turnaround began.
"For me, one of the first things I saw was the coaching staff," said Hull, who this year became only the second UCSB junior to reach 1,000 points for a career. "I immediately just clicked with all of the coaches. That was one of the big reasons I came here -- I felt more comfortable with them than with anyone from any other school that was talking to me."
"When I was initially getting recruited, Coach told me that they were rebuilding the program," Fullove said. "He told me that I had the chance to be part of something if I wanted to, and be a major contributing factor.
"That was something that I really wanted to be a part of."
Williams lost his first eight games as the Gaucho coach, during the1998-99 season, before masterminding the biggest turnaround in college basketball that season. UCSB won 15 of its last 20 and the Big West Conference's Western Division championship.
And he's a year ahead of schedule with this season's 20-win, NCAA Tournament season.
"I felt this would be similar to UC Davis, where in our fifth year we had a breakthrough season," said Williams, who won the NCAA Division II championship in his last season with the Aggies. "Actually, my fourth year at Davis was one of my most frustrating years."
His fourth season at UCSB was headed that way, too. The Gauchos had talent but they weren't asserting themselves on the court.
"It's a maturity thing to understand you can be a choir boy and a nice guy off the court, but you have to be -- I don't know how else to phrase this -- a little bit of an ass when you step on the court," Williams said. "When you step onto the court, you have to have a little bit of toughness.
"I like to compare it to a boxing match or a street fight. It's either you or the other guy. When you get that mindset, then you do have a tendency to fight more."
His team was headed for another disappointing loss on Feb. 23 at UC Irvine, trailing by 11 points with five minutes to go, when all of Williams' pleading and prodding took effect. The Gauchos suddenly began to fight back, even taking the lead with less than 49 seconds remaining, until Big West MVP Jerry Green beat them with a last-season shot.
Williams didn't wait until the post-game locker room to congratulate his players.
"With two minutes to go, I sat the guys down in the huddle and wanted to talk basketball," he said. "But instead, I put the clipboard down and just told them how proud I was about how they had grown up.
"When I looked at them, I could see in their eyes that for the first time, there was that understanding of what I was talking about."
The choir boys have been on fire ever since, winning a season-high five straight games including upsets over league co-champions UC Irvine and Utah State on back-to-back nights in last week's Big West Conference Tournament.
"We talked about enjoying the fight, and our guys enjoyed the fight," Williams said. "We had to play the two most physical teams in the league in Irvine and Utah State, and we hung with them. We hung with them physically and didn't let that bother us, whereas in the past, their physicalness has taken us out of it.
"We were aggressive and went at them and competed."
At times during the season, Williams made bold moves in the search of that toughness.
The first was giving playing time to a walk-on from the Rec Center pickup games, Bray Skultety, who hadn't even played varsity basketball in high school.
"Maybe that came from my background in coaching, from having not had any scholarship players at UC Davis," Williams said. "We seemed to beat a lot of teams that were full of scholarship players.
"I told everyone at a team meeting that I needed to walk the walk. I had been preaching toughness to this team, and our toughest guy was Bray day in and day out in practice -- he and Bryan Whitehead. And I hadn't been playing those two.
"I said I needed to walk the walk and play them."
Skultety has been the Walter Mitty of Gaucho basketball this year, ranking third on the team in rebounding at 4.4 per game and second in blocked shots.
Vukovich, a second-team all-leaguer as a junior, lost his starting spot after six games and saw his playing time dwindle to nothingness until the stretch run. That's when, during practice, Williams noticed a change in his hook-shooting forward.
He gave him another chance, and Vukovich responded the last seven games with crucial play off the bench.
"It was tough to bench Vuk, and I'm sure as tough as it was on me, it was tougher on Mike," he said. "But Mike's the one who deserves all the credit for hanging in there and not giving up.
"He went through his lulls, I'm sure, when he was less than enthusiastic to be part of what I'm talking about. But at the same time, he showed up big for this team down the stretch and is playing his best basketball."
Ndiaye lost his starting role for just one night, the turning-point game at Irvine, after having grabbed just one rebound the previous game at Long Beach State.
"Adama came into my room on the road trip and sat down and we talked," Williams pointed out. "We were both frustrated -- Adama was frustrated with how he was playing and said he felt he was letting the team down. He was thinking too much and not playing.
"I said a change was needed and he agreed. All we wanted to do was free him up and allow him to do what he's capable of doing."
And now, finally, all that preaching to the choir has paid off for Bob Williams.