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From the ashes: UC Santa Barbara defied expectations, survived natural disasters in 2017-18

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UC Santa Barbara overcame obstacles on and off the court to produce Division I’s best single-season turnaround last year. They were the best team that college basketball forgot.

Image by Kyle Cajero

UC Santa Barbara’s 17-win turnaround wasn’t supposed to end like this.

Staring at a 61-58 deficit with eight seconds to play, UCSB’s season was on the line. With only one quadrant three win and a second-place finish in conference play, a semifinal exit in the Big West Tournament would certainly tank its postseason hopes. Their 23-8 season would be so much sweeter capped off with the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years.

All they needed to do was force overtime and beat UC Irvine.

Beating the Anteaters was easier said than done. Liberal with substitutions and adept at defensive schemes, Russell Turner liked to wear down opposing teams with rebounding and a bruising interior defense. First-year UCSB head coach Joe Pasternack wasn’t exaggerating when he called Turner’s program “the standard of the league” in the postgame presser. He witnessed this firsthand.

That night, UCSB was betrayed by its short bench. Irvine’s reserves outscored Santa Barbara’s 33-1, but this was nothing new. Starting point guard Marcus Jackson played 933 out of a possible 1,120 minutes. A year removed from a season-ending ACL tear, senior Gabe Vincent logged 932. Max Heidegger, the lone underclassmen starter, logged a conference-leading 1,053 minutes. Only 34 teams in the nation were more reliant on their starters.

There was, however, a reason for this heavy reliance: If any roster was going to nail a three, it was UCSB’s. The Gaucho starting five of Jackson, Vincent, Heidegger, Leland King II and Jalen Canty was the best offense in the Big West. Despite only playing together for one season, their chemistry on offense was undeniable. They passed up twos for threes, had a knack for finding each other on the court and each player could take over the game.

In the waning moments of the quarterfinal tilt, UCSB had four of the Big West’s best three-point shooters on the court.

UCSB’s final shot belonged to Jackson, a 35.9 percent three-point shooter. The one-time Rice starter corralled an offensive rebound, glided across mid-court until he met a double team, then heaved a desperate 27-foot runner with 2.7 seconds left.

Jackson’s shot careened off the front of the rim and sailed into the arms of UC Irvine’s Max Hazzard at the buzzer.

Blame it on fatigue. Chalk it up to wilting under the pressure of UC Irvine’s stifling defense, which held the Big West’s most efficient offense to 0-9 shooting in the final five minutes. Or, to borrow a line that King reiterated in the postgame presser, sometimes that’s just how basketball goes.

Sometimes the shots don’t fall.


Part one: Changing of the guard

Leland King II
Image by Kyle Cajero/UCSB Athletics

In order for Marcus Jackson to take the last shot for the Gauchos, someone had to bring him to Santa Barbara. Same goes for King, who spent his final year of eligibility as a Gaucho. Without these two seniors — and the man who recruited them — UCSB’s turnaround wouldn’t have happened.

Enter Joe Pasternack.

After a 6-22 season, backlash from fans and missing the Big West Tournament, the university let longtime head coach Bob Williams go on March 9, 2017. For the first time since 1998, the Gauchos lacked a head coach, but it took less than a month to name Pasternack as his successor.

“I’m grateful to be here,” Pasternack said on opening day. “This is such an amazing place and an incredible university. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to live in Santa Barbara and to be able to teach and mentor and coach these young men. They’re true student athletes. I couldn’t be happier for these guys, especially the seniors and what they’ve gone through. This season is about [them].”

The first order of business was filling four scholarships due to Williams’s departure. For Pasternack — a skilled recruiter instrumental in bringing future lottery picks like Aaron Gordon, Stanley Johnson and Deandre Ayton to Arizona — signing Marcus Jackson and Nevada transfer Devearl Ramsey in his first month on the job was business as usual. Although Ramsey had to sit out for the 2017-18 season, Pasternack signed graduate transfer Leland King II later that summer.

Jackson and King took starkly different paths to Santa Barbara. With 79 starts under his belt at Rice, Jackson was a formidable point guard that played alongside all-Conference USA selections Egor Koulechov and Marcus Evans; King, on the other hand, showed flashes of potential at Brown, but couldn’t find meaningful minutes as a junior after transferring to Nevada. Both saw UCSB as an opportunity to finally stand out.

“I’ve struggled up to now,” King said after playing North Dakota State. “But Coach P gives us a lot of freedom, and I’m confident that I can spread [the offense] out. I know what I’m going to do. Going out there and help[ing] out the team has been great. I want to showcase what I can do.”

The Gauchos retained several leaders from the Williams era — chief among those were Jalen Canty and Gabe Vincent. The former AAU teammates struggled staying on the court in 2016-17. Canty was ruled academically ineligible in December; two months later, a torn ACL derailed Vincent’s breakout season. Predictably, Vincent’s rehab was difficult, but recuperating under a new coaching staff was unexpected.

“Every day was a struggle,” Vincent told the Santa Barbara Daily Nexus. “I don’t think there is anyone that has been hurt in that way who can tell you it is easy. It’s not a fun process, but you just have to take it day by day. You have good days and bad days, but at the end you’re working to come back.”

Although Vincent recovered for opening day, not all of his teammates were healthy. Jackson suffered a hip injury three days before the Gauchos kicked off their season against North Dakota State, which kept him out for the first three games. Nevertheless, sophomore Christian Terrell rounded out a starting five highlighted a healthy Vincent, King, Canty and Heidegger.

“I can’t express the joy that I have,” an earnest Vincent said after the North Dakota State game. “I’ve been sitting on the sidelines, waiting for my name to be called for so long.”

Vincent put up a balanced seven points and eight assists in his return, which was merely one of many highlights from opening day. Sophomore Max Heidegger put on a show, torching the Bison with his new-and-improved shot, refined by countless hours of instruction from his new coaching staff. When the teams entered the locker room at halftime, Heidegger’s four threes tied his career-high.

He finished with eight.

“It felt like everything was going to go down,” Heidegger said. “I was pretty much locked in the whole time.”

In a performance indicative of things to come, Heidegger finished with 33 points on 8-14 shooting from three, propelling Pasternack to his first win in Santa Barbara. Heidegger’s career night not only cemented his role in the starting five, but also helped soften the loss of Jackson early in the season.

“I was looking for Max the whole time,” Vincent said. “His first threes came early, and he was hot since then. So I was looking for him from that point on, and I was happy to find him.”

Like all college basketball teams, the Gauchos took a while to find themselves. Consecutive losses against Pitt and Texas A&M halted their momentum, and even with 20-point performances from King and Heidegger, both players hadn’t reached their ceilings. Heidegger went 3-11 from deep against the pair of Power-5 programs. King was an effective stretch forward against the Panthers, but struggled against the Aggies’ athleticism. UCSB didn’t have an identity.

But when Jackson made his debut on Nov. 20, the best starting five in the Big West arrived. Jackson raised the Gauchos to another level. UCSB’s bounce-back win over Pepperdine kickstarted a seven-game winning streak — including wins over eventual Big Sky champion Montana, a win at CBI runner-up San Francisco and a gritty, home victory against San Diego’s pesky perimeter defense.

It took Pasternack only five weeks to match the Gauchos’ win total from last season’s 6-22 debacle, largely in part by UCSB’s multifaceted offense. The Gauchos’ dual-point guard attack stymied opponents. Although Jackson’s first instinct was to pass, he was a crafty scorer with a penchant for changing the tempo by yo-yoing defenders in and out of reach with his sneaky escape dribble.

“Teams have to guard us differently because [Marcus] is another threat to score,” Vincent said after the Pepperdine win. “It makes it easier for me because I can make a good basketball play knowing that the other four guys on the floor can score too. Teams have to pick their poison: Do they want me to get a layup, or do they want someone else to get an open three?”

Not to be overlooked by Jackson — or Heidegger nearly tripling his 7.1 ppg output from the previous season — Vincent redefined himself. Once a high-volume scorer under Bob Williams, Vincent became a more balanced, more effective player. Teams incorrectly pigeonholing Vincent as a one-dimensional scorer were in for a shock when Vincent passed up shots he would’ve taken a season prior.

“A lot of people think of Gabe as this two guard, and he’s just a shooter,” Pasternack said after their win on opening day. “But Gabe is a great basketball player. And he’s our best perimeter defender.”

This isn’t to say the guards carried the team. King and Canty were playmakers too. Statistically, they were two of the Big West’s best. Canty’s 89 offensive boards led the Big West, whereas King led the conference with 261 defensive rebounds. The tandem stuffed the stat sheet, were in the Big West’s top-15 in scoring (Canty at 12.7, King at 15.6 ppg, respectively) and were the conference’s top two rebounders (7.7 and 10.2 rpg).

From a stylistic standpoint, the bigs complimented each other. Ever the finesse player, King could beat opponents inside with his soft touch around the rim, and outside with his jumper’s high release point. King blossomed into an excellent stretch forward that not only gave the Gauchos a true inside-out threat, but also a double-double machine.

If King was the flashy one, then Canty was the bruiser. Anchoring the Gaucho defense with his conference-leading 5.7 percent block rate was a thankless, yet vital part of the team’s turnaround. Canty’s athleticism was paramount on both ends of the floor. The 6’8, 230-pound power forward had a knack for drawing contact in the paint. In fact, Canty, not the guards, led the Gauchos with his 58.6 field goal percentage.

Saying UCSB was loaded would be an understatement. The Gauchos had five players in their stating lineup who could lead the team on any given night. But they ran a patient offense, stretching defenses with whip-around passes, bleeding the shot clock and usually finding the open man, all while leading the nation with a phenomenally low steal rate (5 percent) and notching the eleventh-lowest turnover percentage (14.9 percent).

Gelling as quickly as they did spoke volumes about the team’s maturity and poise — two unexpected descriptions for a program that was supposed to be in a rebuilding season. The Gauchos embodied the selfless style of play Pasternack sought to establish in a preseason interview with the Santa Barbara Independent:

“Kids today, all they do is watch the NBA,” he said. “Golden State is a great example of having these superstars: Look, if they make the extra pass, how can you not make the extra pass? That’s something we as coaches definitely hammer into our players.”

Thanks to its offense, UCSB entered Big West play with a conference-leading 11-3 record. Things were looking up, but it was only a matter of time until the Big West’s feel-good team would be tested — both on and off the court.


Part two: Bend, don’t break

Gabe Vincent
Image by Kyle Cajero/UCSB Athletics

First came the fires.

Fifty-five miles away from UC Santa Barbara, residents near Steckel Park in Santa Paula reported a fire in the early hours of Dec. 4. Aided by strong winds and dry landscape from a scorching summer, the brush fire grew rapidly, forcing evacuations across Ventura County. Several hours before the opening tipoff between UCSB and Omaha the next day, the governor of Ventura declared a state of emergency.

Power grids failed. Displaced residents flocked to UC Santa Barbara. Two people lost their lives in the Thomas Fire. Yet in spite of the calamity, the university kept the students in limbo; UCSB was far enough from the fire to avoid mandatory evacuations, but the ever-looming threat had a profound impact its on the Santa Barbara community — including the Gaucho players.

“It was super tough on all of us mentally,” Heidegger told the Santa Barbara Daily Nexus. “One day we come back to Santa Barbara, and then we evacuate. We don’t know if we’re going to play, when we’re going to play. It’s hard to focus on games when you have those outside factors. Especially because we’re having to practice at high schools in Santa Barbara because our gym is smoked out. We walk in there and you can smell the fire and ash in the gym.”

After bouncing from gym to gym, improvising practice locations and nights spent worrying about evacuating at a moment’s notice, the Gauchos traveled to San Luis Obispo in search of their first Big West win. Unfazed, the Gauchos jumped out to a 23-2 lead before the under 12-timeout. A win seemed imminent.

But Donovan Fields, Victor Joseph and Luke Meikle had other plans.

No double-digit lead seemed safe after Cal Poly’s incredible comeback. The following game, UC Riverside thundered back, taking advantage of a nearly six-minute dry spell from the Gauchos. Even though the Gauchos escaped with a win, they looked starkly different from the successful team in the non-conference.

As if their on-the-court worries weren’t enough, fallout from the largest fire in modern California history continued to take its toll. Heavy rains and wildfire debris were a destructive combination. Flash floods in the burn area caused mudslides, highway closures and over a dozen deaths. Not only was UCSB a shelter for those displaced by the fire, but they were also now boxed in until highway crews could clear the wreckage.

One day after the Thomas Fire was contained, the Gauchos ran into more off-the-court drama. The morning of their game against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, an Emergency Management Agency employee shocked the world by sending out an errant message, stating Hawaii was under imminent nuclear threat. Nearly an hour of panic ensued, and the Gauchos had to take shelter in their hotel’s basement.

“I know a couple other players and all of us were a little bit shook still but we tried our best to shake it off, but it was super weird,” Heidegger said afterwards in an interview with the Santa Barbara Daily Nexus. “The whole day seemed weird but we really wanted to get out of there. It was a very odd experience. We’re sitting there in the morning thinking if this thing hits then that’s a wrap for us.”

Hours after both teams thought their lives were in grave danger, they squared off in the Stan Sheriff Center. The 77-76 loss was an afterthought in light of the scare they endured. Pasternack later recalled that, while huddling in the hotel basement, several Gauchos texted their parents their goodbyes.

By the time they could recover from their tumultuous month, UCSB plunged into the Big West’s crowded middle-class with a 1-2 record — and this wasn’t against the conference’s toughest teams. However, their rough start was a blessing in disguise. Spurred by the Hawai’i loss, UCSB won eight straight games.

“Sometimes a loss wakes up your guys to listen more,” Pasternack recalled at the Big West Tournament. “We had and incredible film session [after the Cal Poly loss] to really dissect our defense. From that point on, we’ve made a big step. We’ve learned so much.”

The Gauchos took out their frustrations on Cal State Fullerton, throttling the eventual Big West Champions 83-64. They followed it up with a double-digit win against UC Irvine. Then, with their backs against the wall at Cal State Fullerton, Max Heidegger took over in the second half, willing the Gauchos to a comeback win by scoring 15 points after the under-8 timeout.

Teams no longer waltzed into the Thunderdome expecting a win. UCSB was a perfect 9-0 at home after one month of conference play. In order extend the streak to 10, they had to survive an overtime thriller against Hawaii.

This time, Jackson was the hero. The 6’3 guard used his height and length to block Brocke Stepteau’s tying layup at the buzzer. Finally, the Gauchos were alone atop the conference standings.

Just as the team was gaining momentum, the rollercoaster of a season took another dive. After the dramatic Hawaii win, Canty was hit with a six-game suspension for violating team rules. The Canty suspension not only hindered UCSB’s offensive production, but also thrust its Achilles’ heel into the spotlight.

UCSB was not a good defensive team.

As good as its offense was, UCSB kept the door open for opposing teams. First halves usually involved the Gauchos building on massive leads, only to let their feet off the gas and let opponents hang around. As a whole, the Gauchos shot worse from three, while allowing opponents to shoot 6.7 percent better from the field in the second half.

The Gauchos had a second-half problem. And they knew it.

“Defensively we haven’t had it the past three games in the second half,” Pasternack said after the Feb. 17 loss to UC Davis. “At UC Davis, they shot over 50% in the second half, and we were up big. We were up by 12 at halftime and they came storming back. [Our halftime lead] was 37-17 against Long Beach State. They shot 17 percent in the first half, and then had 53 points in the second half. We’re not going to outscore everybody. But what we can control every day is our defense and rebounding. You can’t give up 60 percent [field goal shooting] in a half and expect to win a game in college basketball.”

Vincent, who Pasternack often praised for his defensive abilities, wanted the Gauchos to buck this trend.

“Some shots weren’t falling, we weren’t making plays, and it’s all about the defense for us,” Vincent said in the postgame press conference following the UC Davis loss. “We’re not going to outscore every team we play. We might be the number one offense in this league, but sometimes shots don’t fall.”

Basketball is rarely won on one end of the floor; more often than not, the most successful teams are the most balanced. The Gauchos were lacking defensively — and this is putting it lightly — even though their new head coach learned from Sean Miller’s stingy defense.

”We have a pack-line, man-to-man defense that shrinks gaps,” Pasternack said after the game. “We don’t want guys penetrating the paint.”

But opponents did exactly that.

UCSB’s defense was as bad as its offense was good. Help defense was nonexistent. Switches on screens were late. Gaucho players were often caught with their hands down. These defensive issues were perplexing, yet were never resolved in conference play. UCSB’s defense was sixth out of nine Big West teams in defensive efficiency, which seemed like a generous ranking on some nights.

Big West Player of the Year TJ Shorts II had two of his most accurate shooting performances against the Gauchos. He averaged over 20 points on 81 percent shooting in both outings. Fields and Joseph sparked Cal Poly’s comeback. And, in a critical blow to UCSB’s regular-season title hopes, Long Beach State guard Deishuan Booker went coast-to-coast to steal a road win:

Pinpointing the exact moment where UCSB’s season unraveled is an subjective affair, but Booker’s game-winner might’ve foreshadowed the end. The loss knocked UCSB out of a potential three-way tie with UC Davis and UC Irvine for the Big West title and an automatic NIT bid.

Had the Gauchos won the conference, they would have had a top-seed and a favorable draw with UC Davis and UC Irvine on the other side of the bracket. Instead, placing second complicated the path to the Big West Championship game. Rival Cal Poly awaited in the first round of the Big West Tournament, and either Hawaii and UC Irvine — two stout defenses equipped to hinder UCSB’s offense — loomed.


Part three: Three nights in Anaheim

Max Heidegger
Image by Kyle Cajero/Noozhawk.com

UC Santa Barbara’s 23rd and final win was a blowout.

Unlike the tournament’s close games, UCSB’s 22-point romp over Cal Poly was the most dominant performance of the night. Everyone was involved — no player scored more than 12 points, but five notched double figures — including the bench, which scored 30 of UCSB’s 75 points. Ami Lakoju’s double-double was invaluable, and the forward made the most of returning to the Big West Tournament after last season’s absence.

“Not playing in the Big West tournament last year hurt a lot, but the experience from last year made us stronger this year,” Lakoju said. “It’s a testament to our work ethic and people trusting in the process. Last year was necessary for us to get to where we are now, and even further.”

It even seemed they finally turned a corner on defense. The Gauchos held the three-happy Mustangs to 18 percent shooting from deep — including no threes in the first half. Even Mustang coach Joe Callero could only sit back and marvel at their performance.

“They play with so much poise,” Callero said. “They’re unselfish, smart, well-coached, disciplined and mature...that’s as good a five starters from top to bottom that we’ve played against in the past nine years. When Canty was out for a bit, [UCSB] was a good team, and some people were able to knock them off a bit. But when Canty’s back in there — and you have a five man that scores and gets offensive rebounds, plus a little depth coming off the bench — I believe that’s a team that has all the tools to win the conference championship. ”

But the Gauchos’ season ended the following night.

Twenty minutes after the buzzer reverberated in a half-empty Honda Center, Pasternack closed the book on the 2017-18 season.

“A couple different [tournaments] have contacted us,” Pasternack said. “But our season is over.”

Cal State Fullerton danced instead. The following night, guards Kyle Allman and Khalil Ahmad accomplished what the Gauchos couldn’t against the Anteaters: make threes and outlast UCI’s late-game defense. The Titans performed so well that they earned the respect of Turner, who fell short in the Big West Championship game for the second straight season.

“It hasn’t been like [Fullerton] brought in a bunch of grad transfers, rent-a-players, stuff like that,” Turner said. “They’ve showed faith in the coaches and the players they’ve recruited mostly out of high school. They’ve done a great job developing those guys and making them better. and now they’ve earned an NCAA tournament berth. That’s a good story.”

Although he didn’t explicitly say so, it’s hard not to interpret Turner’s “grad transfers and rent-a-players” comment as anything but a veiled reference to the Gauchos.

But UCSB’s resilient group of “rent-a-players” caught lightning in a bottle. Despite only playing 21 games as a unit, they put on an offensive clinic, defied expectations and brought back excitement to the Thunderdome. Yet the Gauchos were flawed. Look closer, however, and the details — their offense’s intricate motions, all of Heidegger’s 95 threes, both of King’s impossibly long arms rising in his slow, looping shot, and every Jalen Canty block — spoke to how serendipitous their 2017-18 turnaround really was. Every play the starting five made was something to be cherished.

In order to finish what they started, the Gauchos will have to replace four of their five starters with an eligible Devearl Ramsey and some combination of newcomers Ar’Mond Davis, Robinson Idehen, and Amadou Sow. Although this group is talented in their own right, filling Canty, Jackson, King and Vincent’s shoes won’t be easy.

“I’m really proud of these seniors,” Pasternack said. “I think they really persevered. In a lot of ways, they’ll leave a legacy. They made history in a lot of different categories in this wonderful season we had.”

However, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and UC Davis return most of their starters from last season. Irvine alone will return all five starters, plus Stanford graduate transfer Robert Cartwright, to its backcourt. But ultimately, the Big West’s lone NCAA Tournament bid will come down to how the ball bounces on three nights in Anaheim.

The ball didn’t bounce their way in 2017-18. When it did, the Gauchos were a sight to behold.