Numerous Returnees, Top-Notch Newcomers Give Gauchos High Hopes Entering 2003-04 Campaign
Oct. 29, 2003
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - In his first five years at UC Santa Barbara, Bob Williams' basketball teams have entered each season with a question mark here or there. This year, while nothing is certain, it appears that UCSB will enter the 2003-04 season with about as much depth and versatility as any during Williams' tenure.
The Gauchos return four starters and four key reserves from a 2002-03 team that won its first-ever Big West regular season championship with a 14-4 record, posted an 18-14 overall record, and advanced to the National Invitation Tournament. It was the second consecutive year in which UCSB had advanced to postseason play.
In addition to the returnees from last year, Santa Barbara also returns a key post player who sat out the entire 2002-03 season after suffering a knee injury, two players who redshirted last year and a pair of frontline recruits.
"Top-to-bottom, one-through-15, this is the deepest team we have had here," Williams said. "The versatility in the frontcourt is something we didn't have last year. We had two undersized guys to play the five spot and one guy to play the four, and we had to back him up with a guard. Now we have size, some depth and we will be way more physical."
"We obviously have great depth among our perimeter players and you've got to talk about the three four-year starters," commented Williams "Jacoby Atako, Branduinn Fullove and Nick Jones are all four-year starters and they come back with the focus and experience that seniors have."
The Fullove, Atako and Jones trio should be ably supplemented by a number of other major contributors.
"The depth we have will allow us to press and to extend," predicted Williams. "We will also have the flexibility to say, 'if you're having a good game, you're playing, and if you're not having a good game, your back-up is playing.' Now I have seven or eight guys looking for a hot hand instead of three or four. When you have eight guys who can play on the perimeter, you certainly hope two or three of them have a good game. That really gives you the chance to finish games really well. When people go to their bench, and we go to our bench, we hope that is the difference in most games."
Here is a closer look at the 2003-04 UC Santa Barbara basketball team.
The UCSB backcourt returns three players who have started for three-years.
Branduinn Fullove returns at one of the wings for the Gauchos. Last year Fullove averaged 14.6 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He shot 46.3% from the field, 41.4% from three-point range and a team-leading 83.7% from the free throw line. Following the campaign, he became the first UCSB player since 1992 to be selected Big West Player of the Year, First Team All-Big West and Honorable Mention All-Big West by the Associated Press. Fullove returns for his senior year in the best shape of his career and Williams thinks that will pay off.
"Branduinn is trying to take his game to a different level," Williams said. "He is doing it with conditioning, he's leaner, he's a little quicker than he's been, and he's doing it with style of play. I think Branduinn can be every bit as effective as he has been in the past and not score as much. We'll surround him with so many more scoring options than we did a year ago and Branduinn is a great passer, he's not average, he's great. He can affect a lot games with his passing ability, and he is primed to step-up and take off to the next level."
Jacoby Atako returns for his senior season as well and if he retains his starting assignment at the point guard spot, he would become the first four-year starter at that position in school history.
"I think Jacoby is the most confident he's been," Williams said. "He is more comfortable than he has ever been and he seems to exude a comfort level that will allow him to excel more so at both ends of the floor. In our system the point guard may only take four shots a game. He doesn't need to score big every game, but at times he needs to give us some offense and I think Jacoby is ready to do that consistently."
In 2002-03, Atako averaged 4.7 points and a team-leading 3.2 assists per game. Following the year, he was selected the Big West's Defensive Player of the Year.
The third returning starter in the backcourt is senior Nick Jones. Last year was the first in Jones' career that he began the season as a starter and ended it as a starter. In his first two seasons, he opened the year as a valuable spark off the bench. In 2002-03, he averaged 12.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game and was one of just two UCSB players to start all 32 games, a school record. In addition, following the year, Jones was the co-Hustle Award-winner by the Big West Conference.
"Nick is Mr. Energy," Williams commented. "Last year I thought Nick's scoring became a little up-and-down later in the year. I don't know if he wore down a bit, but this year he is stronger and more prepared to go out and be a factor in every game for 35 minutes"
Williams has a host of other options in the backcourt. Sophomores Cecil Brown and Josh Davis played supporting roles as freshmen. Brown finished fourth on the team in scoring last year, averaging 5.2 points per game while Davis averaged 3.4 points per outing and was among the team-leaders in steals with 22. At some point both have a chance to become more than role players and for Brown in particular, that point may be this year.
"Cecil is a bright, bright light," praised Williams. "The young man understands the game and he is dedicated to the game. Last year he played at 180 (pounds) and this year he's over 190. He's the most explosive athlete on our team, he has the best jumping ability and he is committed on the defensive end. On the offensive end, it is almost impossible to take his shot away from him one-on-one. He'll just jump over you. My commitment to Cecil is to get him more minutes than he got last year. He is a player that the more he plays, the more explosive he gets, the better his game becomes. So I can see him getting extended minutes in games and becoming a guy that is a real factor."
Davis also returned for his second season at a different level than last season.
"Josh is as improved as anybody in the program," Williams said. "I think it's just the confidence level he has in knowing who he is and what we expect out of him. He's comfortable in how we play now. If he plays this year, Josh is ready to step-up and be an impact player."
The primary back-up at the point guard spot last year was Chrismen Oliver. He too returns in 2003-04. As a sophomore, Oliver averaged 1.9 points and 1.7 assists per game. He made 9-of-18 three-point shots and turned the ball over just 27 times in 332 minutes.
"Chrismen is a lot more physical and healthy," Williams asserted. "He is a really difficult guy to guard, he makes smart decisions and is great with the ball. He will definitely be a factor."
One who will undoubtedly make his mark is sophomore transfer Joe See. As a freshman at Oregon State in 2001-02, See was one of two Beavers to play in all 29 of the team's games, starting four. He averaged 6.1 points per game and made a team-high 43 three-point baskets. In addition to outstanding long-range shooting ability, See has a very good feel for the game and can play the point.
"Joe is a dynamic new player," began Williams. "He is as deceiving a guy as there is on the floor. He has a phenomenal understanding of the game, great vision and is a great passer. Joe is an incredible deep shooter who is sneaky quick and can go by you, get into the paint and use his great touch."
At least on paper, the 2003-04 version of UCSB basketball will have one thing that its predecessor did not: some depth and versatility in the frontcourt.
When forward Bray Skultety injured his knee in practice prior to last season, the Gauchos went from adequate in the frontcourt to thin. UCSB started an undersized Mark Hull at the four spot and a four man, Casey Cook, at the five. Bryan Whitehead was the only reserve, splitting minutes with Cook. Occasionally, the Gauchos went with four guards and one forward.
Things should be different this year. In addition to the return of Cook and Whitehead, UCSB was given a nice surprise in the spring when the NCAA awarded Skultety a sixth year of eligibility. In addition, the Gauchos return reserve Derek Wheeler and add a trio of newcomers in sophomore transfer Cameron Goettsche, redshirt freshman Glenn Turner and true freshman Chris Devine.
While only 6-foot-6, Skultety is strong and athletic and assuming he is ready-to-go physically, he should battle for the starting assignment at the five spot.
"Bray looks strong, he's definitely stronger physically than he's ever been," Williams said. "He has probably put on ten pounds of muscle and while he'll be rusty early, we hope he is the same old Bray by January."
The 'same old Bray' would be a major re-addition for UCSB. Despite playing just 11 minutes per game as a junior in 2001-02, he averaged 4.4 rebounds per game, third on the team. Also, he was second on the team in blocked shots.
The 6-foot-8 Whitehead began last season as a starter, but emerged as a reserve in the last 23 games. He averaged 3.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game overall, but he was far more effective in the second half of the season.
"Bryan is way more confident and in the best shape of his life," Williams assessed. "He had a great off-season conditioning on his own and he finally understands the idea that he needs to get to his shot quickly and confidently. We are really excited about how confident Bryan is and we expect him to have a very good senior season."
The third option at the five spot is Turner, a 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman with extremely long arms and the ability to block shots.
"He is the best shot blocker in the program," Williams declared. "Glenn easily plays a foot to a foot-and-a-half above the rim. He is also a sneaky jumper. He just doesn't look like he's going, then all of a sudden he's above you and he's blocked it. He also has great timing and is a great rebounder. I think he'll be a positive addition in whatever minutes he plays because of his ability to rebound and block shots."
Cook, who averaged 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game while playing out of position at the five spot last season. This year, he will return to the four spot, a position he is much more comfortable with. In the preseason, Cook has been slowed with injuries, but he is expected to return.
"He is very versatile and skilled," Williams said. "Casey is more at ease playing the four, but he can also play the five and that makes him a very valuable player for us. He is a pivotal player for us and this is a big year for Casey. Hopefully he gets healthy, gets his conditioning level back and is able to go."
While Devine, who is ultimately expected to play the three as well as the four, is a candidate to redshirt the 2003-04 season, Goettsche is expected to contribute immediately. A transfer from Salt Lake Community College, the 6-foot-9 sophomore began his career at the University of Utah where he redshirted the 2001-02 season. This year, he is will vie for a starting job at the four spot.
"Cameron is active and explosive," commented Williams. "He can climb all over the glass and he is a very good defensive rebounder, a very good shot blocker and a good scorer. He has to work on balance and consistency on the offensive end, but the expectations are for him to play a lot of minutes."
As for Devine, the decision to redshirt him has not been made yet, but whether it be this year or some time in the future, he is expected to be a vital player in the program.
"The guys love him," Williams claimed. "They love his toughness and how he fits into the game. He's a great open-court transition player. He's very good inside at a position like the four or a big three, and he may be one of the best defenders in the program."
The depth and versatility of this year's UCSB roster is a major difference from last year. Despite the return of four starters and eight regular contributors from the 2002-03 Gauchos, several newcomers are being counted on.
UCSB should once again be a very good outside shooting team and the addition of a more consistent offensive presence in the post should only help that. As all Williams' teams do, this Gaucho team once again should play outstanding defense.
The areas of most improvement for UCSB should be rebounding and shot blocking. Last year, those were weaknesses for the Gauchos, but this year the team should be adequate at both.