UC Santa Barbara enters the 2002-03 season in a new role.
Since the arrival of head coach Bob Williams for the 1998-99 season, the Gauchos have gotten better and better. Last season, for the first time under Williams, the expectations were fairly high. This year, on the heels of the first Big West Tournament Championship in school history, the expectations are even higher.
"When you're coming back and you have a championship under your belt and you have the knowledge of what you're capable of doing in that type of situation, that's a confidence builder," commented Williams. "The players know what level commitment it takes. They work harder in the weight room and they're more focused. They know how tough it is and how physical they need to be. I think it also helps you in terms of motivation. You've been there, you've tasted it and you want to taste it again and boy, you'd love to go a little bit further. You know that maybe if you put up an extra hundred shots a day and maybe if you get in the weight room and you do one more set of everything, maybe next time you go a step further."
The Gauchos return four starters and four key reserves from last year's 20-11 squad that narrowly lost to Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. UCSB also returns one player who played significant minutes two years ago, but was forced to redshirt with an injury last year, and they add four talented freshmen. The combination leads to high optimism in Williams fifth season.
"We have four starters back from a group that did achieve at the end of last year and they've learned a lot of valuable lessons." He just hopes that these returnees can come back and, "put those lessons to work starting in November rather then having to go through the growing pains that we've gone through the last two years."
In each of his three seasons, Mark Hull has been expected to split time at the wing and at the four spot. In all three years, however, he has played more at the four than on the wing. This year, with the graduation of Adama Ndiaye and Mike Vukovich, the 6-foot-7 Hull will spend most of his time at the four spot.
A first-team All-Big West selection last year, Hull returns one of the best players on the West Coast. Despite playing at the four spot for much of last season, he was the Gauchos' and the Big West's most prolific three-point shooter. His 78 three-point baskets, including eight in the NCAA Tournament against Arizona, were a league-high. Hull finished the year averaging a team-leading 15.2 points per game. He also collected 5.2 rebounds per outing.
Hull will be joined in the frontcourt by one of last year's biggest surprises, senior Bray Skultety. Until the season's sixth game a year ago, Skultety had played exactly three minutes of organized basketball over a more than six-year span. Once he became a regular, however, he emerged and became one of the team's best rebounders. Williams rewarded Skultety with a scholarship in the off-season. This year, UCSB will look to Skultety for rebounding and, perhaps, a bit more scoring. He averaged 2.5 points and 4.4 rebounds in 26 games during the 2001-02 campaign.
Casey Cook, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, was forced to redshirt last season after partially tearing ligaments in his right hand. Before going to the sidelines for good last year, Cook played in six games, averaging 3.2 points and 2.8 rebounds. As a freshman, he averaged 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds. This year, he could see his role increase dramatically.
Junior Bryan Whitehead had an up-and-down sophomore season, averaging just 1.8 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 forward, who played one season at Washington State, is healthier and in better shape that a year ago and that could make a major difference.
"Whitehead may be the most improved physical specimen on the team," Williams said. "From last February until now, he really dedicated himself to being an athlete and getting in shape and doing the best he can do to put himself in a position to be a player this year." The Gaucho coaching staff sure hopes so.
A pair of freshmen could have an impact in 2002-03. The tallest Gaucho, 6-foot-10 Scott Rainey (Astoria HS in Astoria OR), redshirted last season and could develop as the year evolves. The other freshman, 6-foot-9 Glenn Turner (Overfelt HS in San Jose, CA) may already be the best shot blocker on the team, but like Rainey last year, he could redshirt.
On how this year's lack of size will effect the team, Williams notes, "Our style of play will change a little bit. We won't expect to play off the double-team in the post the way we did last year. The strengths of Bryan Whitehead and Bray Skultety will be defense; rebounding and they set tremendous screens. They need to be really aggressive on the offensive boards and they need to present a toughness night-in and night-out."
UCSB's backcourt is deep, talented and versatile.
The team returns its top five backcourt players from a year ago and it adds a pair of very talented freshmen. Leading the way among returnees are 6-foot-4 junior wings Branduinn Fullove and Nick Jones. Fullove, a Second Team All-Big West choice last season, averaged 14.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. One of the best all-around players in the league, Fullove also made 58 three-pointers last season, hitting 42.0%. Jones averaged 9.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He hit a team-best 42.4% from three-point range, drilling 36 on the season, and he waited until the postseason to collect his honor, earning the Big West Tournament Most Valuable Player Award.
"The heart and soul of the program at this stage is really the junior class," Williams said. "They're in their third year as starters so they're pretty mature right now. We saw how much they grew up, and how much we grew up as a team at the end of last year, well they're bringing that back."
UCSB also returns its three point guards from last season. Junior Jacoby Atako's emergence late in the 2001-02 season had a lot do with the success the team enjoyed. He averaged 5.4 points per game and a team-leading 4.1 assists. Just as importantly, Atako had a better than 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio and his defense was outstanding.
Reserve point guards B.J. Ward (2.9 points and 2.1 assists) and Chrismen Oliver (2.3 points and 1.0 assists) also return. Ward, one the team's three seniors, is a solid defender and brings experience off the bench. Chrismen, a sophomore, is one of the team's sparkplugs.
The depth at the guard slot, according to Williams, will change things defensively for the Gauchos.
"The depth allows us to extend a little bit more defensively and to consistently push the ball a little bit harder offensively," he predicted. " It doesn't mean we'll gamble more defensively, I'm not much of a gambling-type coach, but it does mean we'll extend it three-quarter court and try to get into you. We'll ask a little bit more out of our guys at the defensive end in terms of extending without giving up anything 23 feet and in, which is where we base our defense on. So I think our depth will really help us."
Joining the backcourt mix will be 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Cecil Brown (Canoga Park HS in Los Angeles) and 6-foot-5 true freshman Josh Davis (Elk Grove HS in Sacramento). Brown is a prolific scorer who averaged 34.5 points per game as a senior in high school, the top mark in the Los Angeles City Section. He can score from inside and out, pulling up for three-pointers or slashing to the basket. Davis is one of the Gaucho programs top recruits in years. The coaching staff believes he can play either the point guard or the off-guard positions, either way, he will probably play significant minutes as a freshman.
If Williams and his staff can coax some solid defense and rebounding out of their post players, UCSB could be in for a very good season. A schedule that ranks as one of the best in recent memories and one of, if not the best in the Big West, should make for some major challenges and an exciting year. Williams recognizes that "The experience of going to the NCAA Tournament is the carrot that is dangled in front of you. It is what keeps you pursuing it. If you're hungry for that type of success then you're willing to do the extra work to get there."
Williams believes the Gauchos are primed for another good season.
"They are in the best shape they've been in and they are probably as motivated as any group I've been around since I've been here." However, he does recognize that, "We have a long way to go. I think the NCAA Tournament is definitely the promise land and it's where we want to be."
UCSB will open the exhibition season on Tuesday, November 12 with a 7:00 p.m. game against Team Ezybonds, an Australian club. The Gauchos open the regular season at the BP Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska. UCSB opens the tournament on Friday, November 22 when they take on Weber State.