To say the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (22-4) have been entertaining this season would be a pretty safe take to make.
This new jolt of explosivity, so to speak, is not a new phenomenon to those close to the team. Since Joe Pasternack took over the Gaucho head-coaching reigns from longtime legend Bob Williams, the former New Orleans Privateer leader has transformed the team into a more consistent mainstay atop the Big West Conference standings.
The gradual increase in the quality of play the Gauchos have been able to muster came to its zenith during the 2020-21 Big West Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament title game, where the team collected its first tournament title since the 2010-11 season.
A 64-56 victory against Long Beach State all those years ago could be summarized pretty easily as a grind-it-out victory. While it was most definitely well-earned, the way UCSB won their tournament title this time around was more straightforward and, well, anticlimactic in a good way – after all, a 79-63 drubbing on the UC Irvine Anteaters illustrated that UCSB maintained the pace the entire way, even if they only had a one-point lead on them through the first 20 minutes of action (the lead was 31-30 after the first half).
While a win is certainly a win no matter how it was achieved, the allure of the Gauchos from their overall 2020-21 season starts and ends with how the team defeated the Anteaters in the most recent rendition of the Big West Tournament.
This particular x-factor, which netted UCSB a bid in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the first time since the 2010-11 season, is also why the team should be seen as a potential dark horse upset pick come time for the Madness to really make its presence known.
Before getting into the player specifics, let’s look at the overall numbers first.
In terms of average points per game (PPG), UCSB averaged 76.5 points per game during the regular season, which was tied for 60th among 357 teams in Division I to play at least one game this season (Detroit Mercy also averaged 76.5 PPG). Specifically, this average ranked ahead of several notable March Madness regulars, including Michigan (76.3), North Carolina (75.7) and Texas (75.2). Their 48.5 field goal percentage (FG%), meanwhile, ranked 21st, which was also ahead of other tournament programs including BYU (.482), Virginia (.480) and Creighton, the team they will go up against in the opening round (.476).
The Gauchos’ offensive prowess did not come from one or two players hogging the basketball (more on this in a minute), either, as UCSB’s 16.3 assists per game were tied for 19th in the country. Most notably, UCSB tied their assist averages with Illinois, which showed that, despite the supposed talent or schedule discrepancy, the team was still selfless with the basketball over the course of the entire regular season and conference tournament. Add in the fact the Gauchos did not foul egregiously (their 413 total fouls were tied for 172nd among all teams to play at least one game this season) and did not turn over the ball frequently (their 3.1 turnover margin was tied for 29th), and you have a team that is careful, intricate and efficient with ball control up and down the court.
Let’s get back to the shooting. While UCSB primarily relied on their offensive presence inside the paint and post (their 55.4 two-point percentage was tied for 22nd in the entire country with another tournament darling in Colgate), their three-point percentage (3P%) was just good enough to supplement it, even with a slew of cold streaks here and there – the Gauchos’ 35.1 3P% ranked in the top third in the entirety of Division I (t-115th with more tournament teams in Alabama and Morehead State). In case the game got into the nitty gritty late in the game as the clock began to stop more frequently, UCSB was excellent from the line, too, as their 75% free-throw percentage (FT%) was tied for 47th (Boston).
Wrapping everything up in a blue and gold bow suggests that UCSB has been a scoring machine, and while that has definitely been the case, the advanced analytics have backed up the claims as well. Per KenPom, UCSB’s adjusted offensive efficiency (which suggests how many points the team would score per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent) of 109.9 was tied for 66th and ahead of other blue-chip programs with harder schedules, including Tennessee (t-71st with 109.5) and Michigan State (t-97th with 107.7).
Enough about the overall numbers. What about the players that have oiled the potential into reality? Seven players averaged more than five points per game over the duration of the season, while three averaged more than 10. The trio of double-digit scorers in senior guard (and Big West Player of the Year) JaQuori McLaughlin (16.2 PPG), junior forward Amadou Sow (13.7 PPG) and sophomore guard (and reigning sixth man of the year) in Ajare Sanni (11.2 PPG) have combined youth, experience and just enough size to score early and often. The three are collectively averaging a 49.2 FG% and 82.0% FT% while missing only four games combined.
Supplementary players on the Gaucho roster, including junior forward Miles Norris and senior guard Devearl Ramsey, have complemented their starting and shooting capabilities nicely, as both players have averaged 9.6 PPG and 7.6 PPG, respectively.
While the Gauchos might not have played the strongest schedule in the world, their offense, regardless of opponent, can play. Add in the fact that they just might be getting hot at the right time (the team is averaging 77.2 points per game in March after averaging 66.3 in February), and they just might become a trendy pick to upset the more known Blue Jays during their opening round on March 20.
The Gauchos have already made one statement this season when they convincingly won their conference tournament. Perhaps they are in line to make a couple more.