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Sam’s Mid-Major Crush of the Week: The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos

JaQuori McLaughlin looks like the Big West Player of the Year and the Gauchos are taking advantage

NCAA Basketball: Big West Conference Championship-Cal State Fullerton vs. UC Santa Barbara Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

I complained last week about Siena not having enough photos to pick from. Finding this one was 10x worse. Get your crap together, y’all.

I also want to address the curse. Basically, every time I write about a team, they manage to lose the next week. I apologize, Siena, I really do. I hope this curse is broken soon.

Anyways, let’s talk about my favorite team from the last week: the University of California-Santa Barbara Gauchos. First off, elite nickname. Massive, massive fan of the nickname. If you don’t know what a Gaucho is, here’s a convenient link: Enjoy.

Alright, alright, I’ll get to the basketball talk, fine. Sorry, I’m just trying to be a good little journo boy and provide some backstory and fun facts about the team.

Here’s a name you need to know if you don’t already: JaQuori McLaughlin. Please, familiarize yourself now. The senior guard is averaging a hair under 17 points a game and (for the nerds and obsessives like me) a disgustingly high 133.3 offensive rating per KenPom. That’s 25th-best in the country. Let that sink in. The 25th-best-rated offensive player in the country is playing in the Big West. He’s hyper-efficient (over 60% effective field goal percentage, over 66% true shooting percentage), can score at all levels, can create his own shot off the dribble, get into the lane at will in the pick and roll or isolation, move intelligently and quickly off the ball, has a deft handle in the open court, he doesn’t turn the ball over, he’s unselfish and a good passer, a more than passable on-ball defender and turnover-inducer, and gets himself to the free throw line. Ed. note: that’s an 82-word sentence and I have no interest in breaking that up.

I don’t want to call him a jack of all trades, because that makes him sound like he’s competent at everything without necessarily excelling. He EXCELS at everything. His shooting stroke is immaculate. He’s unflappable with the ball in his hands and runs the offense like a floor general should. I’m honestly grasping at straws for more superlatives to describe his game. I can’t stop singing his praises and would gladly take him on my college basketball team in a heartbeat.

But every Batman must have his Robin(s), and McLaughlin certainly has a supporting cast around him that are great players in their own right.

The next name that jumps off the roster and stats sheet is truly McLaughlin’s foil. Junior forward Amadou Sow dominates the glass on both ends and is an interior enforcer on the defensive end for UCSB. He’s averaging over 11 points per game and shooting 77% from the free throw line, which he manages to get to at a fairly reasonable rate. Don’t ask him to take a three, though. He’s definitely not a stretch threat. The Gauchos instead rely on Miles Norris, a 6’10 junior forward, to be the tall and lanky shooter threat. He’s only shooting 36.7% from beyond the arc, but the threat exists and he works really well with McLaughlin in the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop, too.

One thing I want to emphasize about the Gauchos as a unit: they just don’t turn the ball over. They’re a top-20 team in offensive turnover rate, turning the ball over on a paltry 15% of their possessions. When you play at the slow tempo that UCSB likes to play, maximizing offensive possessions that end in a shot for your team is usually preferable to not doing so. Come for the vaguely humorous jokes, stay for the “well no duh, idiot” commentary.

The Gauchos got off on the wrong foot in Big West play, dropping two games to top-of-the-table rivals in UC Irvine, but haven’t dropped a game in conference since. UC Irvine is probably the best opponent UCSB has played this year, but right behind them is out-of-conference opponents Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount. The Gauchos got a win in Malibu and split a pair of games with the Lions. Neither of the wins really stands out because the Big West will undoubtedly be a one-bid league. However, the wins do show that the Gauchos are tough competition for their in-state rivals and that they’ll have seasoning for any possible tournament games that they may participate in.

And that’s where the next conversation needs to happen: what’s going to happen with the Gauchos? They sit at 6-2 in conference and look like one of the favorites alongside UC Irvine and Cal State Bakersfield. Last year, the Gauchos were the 3 seed in the Big West tournament and were riding an 8-2 record over their last ten games into the conference tournament, including a win over the 1-seed Anteaters. No conference tournament games ever got played, because (glances at topsy-turvy world over the last year). But it’s not out of the question to think that UCSB could have come out of the Big West and gone to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

Obviously, conference tournaments can be crap-shoots, and the Big West has three teams that all look like possible champions, and that’s before anyone else goes on a hell of a March run. Of course, with the current state of the world, there may come a time where only the regular season champion is sent to the 2021 NCAA tournament. The Gauchos are currently well-positioned at 6-2, but both of the losses come to UC-Irvine, which damages any potential tie-breakers. UC-Irvine has been on pause before and missed scheduled conference games, but right now is undefeated in Big West play. Cal State Bakersfield owns two rough losses in conference and has an offense that can be, at times, clunky and bad.

I’m not much of a gambler, but if I could bet on a player to step up and carry his team to the dance, McLaughlin is a candidate. There’s stiff competition at the top of the Big West, but he has everything you’d want a Cinderella darling to have. And I think that this can be the year the Gauchos return to the tournament. Now all we have to do is play the games.