NCAA Tournament or bust for the Gauchos

Orlando Johnson is the returning Big West Conference Player of the Year after averaging 18 points per game in his sophomore year.

Big West Player of the Year Orlando Johnson recently summed up the goal of UCSB’s men’s basketball team in one sentence.

“If we (don’t) make it back to the (NCAA) tournament, I think that it would be pretty much a failure of a season.”

That’s because Johnson believes the Gauchos are more talented, more experienced, and deeper than they were a season ago when they won the Big West title before losing to No. 2-seeded Ohio State in the Big Dance.

If the Gauchos do make it back to the NCAA Tournament, UCSB’s head coach Bob Williams doesn’t want to have to face the No. 2 seed again. As a result, the Gauchos are stressing a strong start to their preseason, starting Friday with an exhibition against The Master’s College at the Thunderdome. It is a 7 p.m. tip-off.

“Our bad showing at Cal and at Arizona State, and the bad December we had, didn’t help us in the seeding. We got absolutely hosed,” said coach Bob Williams about last season.

Williams believes that UCSB’s poor seed was mostly a result of the Gauchos’ 1-5 record during December, which especially hurt because in UCSB’s highest-profile matchups, they were rolled by Cal and Arizona State, 87-66 and 69-42, respectively.

“But you make your own bed and our image, because of our December, wasn’t what we wanted it to be,” he concluded.

To succeed against their tougher non-conference opponents this year – mainly Oregon, Fresno St., UNLV, and San Diego State – Williams has been pushing his players to form “habits of excellence,” a saying he adopted from the Gaucho women’s teams of the past.

ROSTER
SEASON SCHEDULE
BIG WEST CONFERENCE PRE-SEASON MEDIA POLL
2009-10 STATISTICS

“You’re obviously going to have ups and downs, but the buy in from the group as a whole has to be about excellence… when you are talking about taking a team from good to great,” said Williams.

The Gauchos will be missing one of their clutch shooters from last year, James Powell, who averaged nearly ten points a game, and a key team leader in Paul Roemer, as both graduated.

“Late in the game, Powell was phenomenal,” said Williams. “He may have been one of the best to ever play here, late in the game, in terms of making a shot.”

Fortunately, UCSB will be extremely deep this year, as their talented squad returns top scorers Johnson and forward James Nunnally, who averaged 18 and 14.7 points per game. Starting point guard Will Brew is back, as are big-men Jaimé Serna, Jon Pastorek, and Greg Somogyi.

Even with the experience, the Gauchos are still relatively young with only three seniors – Pastorek, Jordan Weiner and Justin Joyner – on the roster.

Williams said he has 11 players who could fit into his rotation.

“This year’s team has great depth,” said Williams. “We are so much further ahead of where we were last year.”

“Practices have been pretty intense, pretty competitive,” said Pastorek. “We gotta compete first of all, but were deep at every position.”

After Friday’s exhibition game, the Gauchos continue their push to set the bar high at the BTI Tipoff Classic tournament in Oregon, where they will face Denver, North Dakota State, and Pac-10 school Oregon.

“We’re really hitting the ground running,” said Pastorek. “As far as offensively and defensively, we’re not having to start from scratch, and that’s a good thing.”

UCSB kicks off Big West play on December 28th against Long Beach State – picked to finish second in the conference – at home.

“After all that talking we did last year, it’s time to step up and play,” said Johnson.

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