Oct. 12, 2001
UC Santa Barbara opens practice for the 2001-02 men's basketball season on Saturday morning. The Gauchos open the exhibition schedule on November 1, when they host Korabel, a club team from the Ukraine.
Here is a preview of this year's UCSB team.
Bob Williams has entered each of his first three seasons as head coach at UC Santa Barbara with more questions than answers. This year, for the first time, the answers should outnumber the questions.
The Gauchos entered last season with two returning starters. Three days before the season-opener, Adama Ndiaye fractured the ring finger on his left hand, and that number was down to one.
UCSB made due, however. After struggling to adjust early on, they bounced back with a solid finish, and high hopes for 2001-02.
No Pain, No Gain
When Ndiaye fractured his finger last year, there were a lot of sad faces around the Thunderdome. But now, those frowns have been turned upside down as Ndiaye gives his senior season another shot.
In addition to Ndiaye's obvious physical pain, his injury caused some suffering of another sort. The Gauchos were forced to scramble their rotation a great deal. Mike Vukovich was forced into the starting lineup, Mark Hull, who was expected to return to his more suitable role as a small forward, was moved back to the power forward position, and Casey Cook, who the coaching staff had considered redshirting, remained on the active roster and played the entire season.
The Silver Lining
Fast-forward to the 2001-02 season and it is clear that things have turned around. The healing process has resulted in a silver lining to last year's injuries and resulting adjustments.
The most obvious positive result is the return of Ndiaye. If the 6-foot-9 native of Dakar, Senegal entered last season as one of the best big men in the Big West Conference, he enters this season with a similar status. Not only have his skills caught up with his athleticism, but he is bigger (245 pounds), and more determined than ever.
As a junior in 1999-2000, Ndiaye averaged 9.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. In the second half of that season, his statistics were even better. What he brings to the table this year, however, is even more important. Ndiaye will give the Gauchos the defensive presence on the inside that they lacked last season. In two campaigns at UCSB, he has blocked 73 shots, and with a better understanding of the game, Ndiaye could have a banner year in a lot of respects, not the least of which is on the defensive end of the court.
More Silver Lining
Ndiaye's injury not only forced him to the sidelines, it pushed Vukovich into the starting lineup, a position he did not appear comfortable with early on. With no other options however, the coaching staff, and Vukovich, had to stick with it.
The result was another silver lining. Vukovich proved to be one of the top offensive post players in the Big West Conference and with Ndiaye's return this season, he gives the Gauchos a formidable duo in the post. The 6-foot-9, 250 pound Vukovich averaged 11.1 points and a team-leading 5.7 rebounds per game. He also shot 57.4% from the field, one of the best marks in school history. Ndiaye's ability to defend in the paint should prove beneficial to Vukovich, and Vukovich's offensive skills should benefit Ndiaye.
Cook, a sophomore, also gained valuable experience last year. Instead of minimal playing, he averaged more than 14 minutes in his 28 appearances. While the 6-foot-8 native of Sacramento struggled with his shooting for the first half of the season, he made 50.0% of his field goals over the final 13 games and finished the campaign with averages of 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. He is a good rebounder, and has the potential to become a standout offensive player as well.
Another sophomore, Bryan Whitehead, comes to UCSB after spending one year at Butte Junior College, where he did not play. Two years ago, however, Whitehead played at Washington State, averaged 1.2 points and 1.0 rebounds per game, while seeing action in 21 games. At 6-foot-8, 245, he is a good rebounder, a decent offensive player, and a good passer.
A third sophomore, J.J. Todd, will again play a backup role in the post. He played in 18 games last season, and proved to be a dependable backup. His role should be similar this season.
Freshman Scott Rainey (Astoria HS in Astoria, OR) may be earmarked for a redshirt year. He is a skilled offensive player and in time could develop into a very good player.
The Gaucho coaching staff hopes it will be able to play junior Mark Hull at his more natural wing position this season. The 6-foot-7 Hull has spent most of his first two seasons at UCSB playing the power forward position, and while he will undoubtedly play some there this year, he should also play the small forward spot.
Hull had an outstanding sophomore campaign, leading the Gauchos in scoring (13.9 ppg) and three-point field goals (45). At the end of the year, he was selected Second Team All-Big West, and, in fact he was the only underclassman selected to either first or second team all-league. In addition, Hull was UCSB's ironman, playing a team-high 937 minutes and starting all 28 games. Once again, he will be one of the top players in the Big West.
Sophomore Branduinn Fullove did a little of everything for the Gauchos last year. He was second on the team in scoring (12.2 ppg), second in rebounding (5.0 rpg), and he led the team in assist average (3.2 apg). Following the season, he was selected to the Big West's All-Freshman Team, and honorable mention All-Big West. Despite suffering a sprained ankle that caused him to miss three full games, Fullove finished second on the team in minutes played with 768.
As he improves defensively, the 6-foot-4 Simi Valley native stands to become one of the best all-around players in the Big West.
Nick Jones, yet another sophomore, was also selected to the Big West All-Freshman Team last season. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, but his contributions to the Gauchos were more than statistical.
Prior to Jones' insertion into the starting lineup, UCSB was 2-7. Not coincidentally, after he became a member of the starting five, the Gauchos went 11-8, including a stretch when they won eight out of nine games. Jones gives UCSB instant offense. Whether he starts or comes off the bench this year, he will again be an important part of the team. In addition to his offensive abilities, which include the ability to make three-pointers, Jones is a good defensive player and a good rebounder.
The Shootout At Point Guard Corral
The battle for the starting point guard position this year, should again come down to sophomore Jacoby Atako and junior B.J. Ward. Whichever player winds up in the starting lineup, the other will probably split time.
Atako started 20 of the 28 games last season, and Ward started the other eight. Combined, the duo had 163 assists, and 127 turnovers. At times, each was outstanding, and at other times each struggled. Neither Atako nor Ward represented much of an offensive threat last season. Ward attempted just 85 shots on the year, averaging 4.5 points per game. Atako shot just 31.9% from the field and averaged 4.7 points per game. Both players are extremely quick and are good defensive players. Ward, in fact, led the team with 38 steals last season.
The wild card at the point could be Fullove. Although he could have trouble defending the point, he is probably the best passer on the team, and Williams has expressed a willingness to play some zone defense.
Williams expects the Gauchos to be an outstanding offensive team this season. He believes that he has no fewer than five players who could score between 20 and 30 points in any game, and he thinks he has four others who could, on a given occasion, score ten or more.
While there is little question that UCSB will be able to score this year, the key that could open the door to the next level is defense. Though the numbers last season said that the Gauchos were a decent defensive squad, Williams considered it a weakness. The return of Ndiaye, and the experience, as well as improvement, of the rest of the returnees, should help significantly.