Gauchos up against powerful Buckeyes

UCSB’s men’s basketball team didn’t draw a No. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but it sure feels that way.

The Gauchos open up play in their first Big Dance since 2002 on Friday against No. 2 seed Ohio State, which features player of the year candidate Evan Turner. Turner’s extraordinary play this season has landed him on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated and has all but guaranteed him a top spot in this year’s NBA Draft if he wants it, which also assures the Buckeyes receive the type of media attention given to any of the tournament’s top seeds.

“We definitely want to make a long run, and we’re in it to win it,” Turner said on Thursday, as the star’s media session was taken up more by questions about Ohio State than about UCSB. “And not just adding to our resume but also the program’s resume. I think it will benefit everybody if we keep winning and everything will be fine if we do so, and we just really want to play as long as we can.”

Big West Player of the Year Orlando Johnson leads the Gauchos into their third-ever meeting with the Buckeyes.

Friday’s first-round game between UCSB and Turner’s Buckeyes is set for an approximate 6:35 p.m.(psd) tipoff in Milwaukee.

Now that they’re there, the Gauchos’ mission on Friday is to try and send the media’s poster boy home.

“I think now we’re glad that we’re here. So now we come out loose, ready to give it everything we’ve got against Ohio State and not to hold anything back,” said UCSB’s leading scorer, Orlando Johnson. “So I think this is a good moment for us to really just show what we’re capable of. And I think the score would tell itself.”

The Gauchos (20-9) followed up a regular-season Big West title with the conference tournament championship, and enter the tournament having won nine of their last 10 games. Johnson is the Big West Player of the Year, averaging 17.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game this season as a sophomore. He’s supported by swingman James Nunnally, who was second on the team in scoring with 15 ppg, and senior James Powell, who averaged 15.5 ppg in the conference tournament while making 13-of-14 free throws.

UCSB also benefits from only having to play two games in the past two weeks.

“We definitely feel rejuvenated, especially since when we did have the Big West tournament we had such a long stretch off, and we came back really fresh,” Johnson said.

The Buckeyes (27-7) are also fairly well-rested, having only played three games in that same time frame. They are trying to stay focused on UCSB.

“They’re in the tournament for a reason,” said junior David Lighty.  “They’ve got two good guards that attack you all times and good role players and they like to pressure and create havoc. You have to come in with your mind right for the game.”

The two teams have met twice in their history, but not since 1993. The first meeting was in 1991, when Jim Jackson’s Buckeyes came to Santa Barbara and left the Thunderdome with a 82-75 victory.

Almost 20 years later, it will be Turner instead of Jackson that all eyes will be on.