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UC Santa Barbara: Built to Make a Run in March

The Gauchos have the ingredients to win big in March, but can they get over the UC Irvine hump?

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

When people talk about Santa Barbara, California, they rant about the awe-inspiring beaches, majestic sunsets, exciting nightlife, and delicious breakfast burritos. However, the University of California, Santa Barbara basketball team has been the talk of the town as of late. The Gauchos have emerged as the most underrated team in America.

They have been quietly dominating the Big West from the comfort of their California paradise home court. The Gauchos haven’t lost a game since December, winning their last 12 games to start 2021, good for the longest winning streak in school history. They seem to finally have the upper hand in the Big West conference, holding a commanding two game lead over perennial conference power UC Irvine.

The Gauchos are playing their best basketball at the right time. UCSB swept Cal State Bakersfield at home over the weekend, beating the Roadrunners 71-66 on Friday and then dominating from wire to wire on Saturday, routing the Roadrunners 63-44. On Saturday night the Gauchos had 20 assists on all of their 20 made field goal attempts, the first time that’s happened in program history.

The Gauchos are not your typical Big West pushover. They are one of the top mid-major programs in college basketball. They have the talent, potential, and confidence to win games in the NCAA tournament. This 2020-2021 Gauchos team is only getting started in making program history.

Coach Pasternak praised his team after the win on Saturday:

“We have so many bigger things we want to accomplish. I think this team can be very special. I just drew a mountain on the board. Right now, we’re just climbing the mountain, and we’re like halfway to the top. We still have so many things we have to do as a program, as a team.”

The main reason the Gauchos can be a major threat to high-major teams is because of their star guard, JaQuori McLaughlin. The former Oregon State transfer has had himself a year for the ages, averaging 15.9 points, 5.4 assists, all while shooting a ridiculous 43% from three. McLaughlin is the frontrunner for Big West Player of the Year, and he ranks 16th in Gold Star ratings - a system that grades the most impactful stars in college basketball. McLaughlin is one of college basketball’s most complete stars. He is an elite shooter and perimeter defender. He has an excellent ball-handling ability, can drive to the paint, and his most underrated asset is his ability to find open teammates. Because of McLaughlin, the Gauchos are able to run Pasternak’s inside-out offense to perfection.

The thing that separates UCSB from other mid-majors is their dynamic frontcourt duo of Miles Norris and Amadou Sow. You can’t run an inside-out offense without legitimate scoring threats inside, and the Gauchos have two great ones. Sow is one of the most efficient scorers in the country, averaging 11.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, on 54% shooting from the field. Sow is a versatile big who excels as a roll threat in the pick and roll and has the ability to score in the post. Sow is also a plus defender in the low block and can hang with power conference forwards and centers. However, the X-factor for UCSB this season has been the addition of Oregon transfer Miles Norris. Standing at 6’10, Norris gives the Gauchos an emerging stretch forward/center presence. Norris dominated in the win over Cal State Bakersfield on Saturday, scoring 27 points on 9-11 shooting while making 4-5 from three. Norris doesn’t lack for athleticism for a big who also has the ability to stretch the floor with his shooting. Norris is a power conference talent that is finally getting playing time. He takes this UCSB team to the next level.

Every team needs glue guys to hold the stars together. Devearl Ramsey is that and more for UCSB. Ramsey is a hyper-talented player who received offers from USC, Texas, and Michigan out of high school. Ramsey had a career-high 8 assists in the 63-44 win over Cal State Bakersfield. He provides energy on the defensive end, ball handling, and is a 38% three-point shooter. Ramsey is a high level guard who played at Sierra Canyon High School, practicing and playing alongside elite players such as Remy Martin and Marvin Bagley every single day. They are only a few mid-majors that have a talented player like Devearl Ramsey as their fourth option.

UCSB will need their stars to continue the high level of play that has come to define their season to reach the NCAA tournament. The Gauchos currently sit in first place, but UC Irvine has dominated the Big West conference over the last decade. The Anteaters have won the regular-season championship four out of the last seven years, and have dominated the Gauchos in the head-to-head matchup as of late, winning seven of the last nine. UC Irvine swept the Gauchos earlier in the year back in December, the Gaucho's last loss. A potential rematch in the Big West tourney final will be must-watch television. This version of the Gauchos is much better than the team that lost to UC Irvine back in December, and all Big West eyes will be on UCSB to dethrone the Anteaters for a spot in the Big Dance for the first time since 2011.

2020-2021 has been the most competitive Big West conference season in ages. The Big West conference ranks 16th in the country among the strength of schedule, the highest mark the conference has posted since 2015. This means Big West tournament will not be a cakewalk for any team, favorite or not. The newfound strength of the conference can greatly help the conference winner in NCAA tournament seeding. Right now, UCSB is projected to be 12 or 13 seed if they can secure the auto-bid for the conference. If UCSB can get over the Big West, I guarantee they are going to make some major noise in the NCAA tournament.

You don’t have to look too far back in history to see a Big West team putting the conference in the spotlight on the biggest stage. In 2019, UC Irvine upset No. 4 Kansas State in the first round. In 2021, UCSB seems to be the team poised to make the same impact in March.