Loyola Marymount transfer Orlando Johnson made an enormous impact in his first season at UC Santa Barbara, winning Big West Conference Player of the Year and Big West tournament MVP honors while leading the Gauchos to the NCAA Tournament.
The 15th-seeded Gauchos suffered a 68-51 loss to second-seeded Ohio State in a first-round game at the Midwest Regional. Johnson had 20 points and five rebounds and the Gauchos held the Buckeyes to 40.4-percent shooting, but they shot a paltry 32.3 percent and made just 6 of 19 from 3-point range.
Despite a disappointing ending, the season was an unqualified success. UC Santa Barbara won a share of the Big West regular-season championship, earned the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and defeated Long Beach State in the championship game to claim an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"You've got to credit UC Santa Barbara," Long Beach State coach Dan Monson told the Santa Barbara News-Press. "They won the league for a reason. They're a good basketball team. They disrupted us and we couldn't get into a rhythm. They took away our transition baskets. We never got into an offensive flow, and, as shooters, we never got into a rhythm."
Bob Williams was named Big West Coach of the Year for the third time in 12 seasons at UC Santa Barbara. He installed the team's vaunted matchup zone defense with great success and made two key moves over the course of the season.
First, Williams went small, moving sophomore James Nunnally, who had been in and out of the lineup at small forward, to the starting power forward position. Later, after the Gauchos suffered a disappointing loss to Cal State Northridge on Jan. 30, Williams put walk-on guard Jordan Weiner in the starting lineup. Nunnally improved his numbers dramatically, averaging 16.9 points and 6.6 rebounds in 18 games leading up to the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 11.6 points and 4.1 rebounds in the first 10 games. Weiner didn't produce big numbers, but the Gauchos went 9-1 in the first 10 games he started before falling to Ohio State.
The Gauchos made their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002 with a youthful roster featuring one of the Big West?s best young duos. Johnson earned most of the accolades while averaging 17.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists, but Nunnally, a second-team All-Big West selection, was just as critical to the team's success. That much was clear during the Big West tournament. Johnson was terrific, averaging 17 points, four rebounds and three assists, but the MVP award easily could have gone to Nunnally, who averaged 18 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
UC Santa Barbara's success was youth driven, but senior guard James Powell provided veteran leadership and clutch shooting. Powell shot 41.1 percent from 3-point range and 91.7 percent from the free-throw line, and made a number of big shots late in the season. Other players contributed in other ways.
"I have a huge amount of respect for the 13 guys who are wearing UCSB, playing for the Gauchos, and how we have handled adversity in most every game," Williams told the News-Press. "We get leads, people charge, and we respond."
FINAL RECORD: 20-10, 12-4, tied for first in the Big West.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: UC Santa Barbara featured an effective three-pronged attack on the offensive end with Big West Conference Player of the Year Orlando Johnson, second-team All-Big West selection James Nunnally and senior G James Powell. All three ranked among the top 10 in the Big West in 3-point shooting. Nunnally (.457) was second, Powell (.422) fifth and Johnson (.394) tied for ninth. Johnson led the Big West in scoring, was voted conference player of the year and then was named MVP of the Big West tournament. The Gauchos frustrated opponents with a highly disruptive matchup zone defense. They were first in the Big West in 3-point percentage defense (.306), second in blocked shots (3.1 bpg), and third in scoring defense (65.7 ppg) and field-goal percentage defense (.418).
WHAT WENT WRONG: The Gauchos lost six of eight from Dec. 1 to Jan. 2, including their Big West Conference opener against UC Irvine. That stretch likely prevented them from earning a higher seed and perhaps a more favorable matchup in the NCAA Tournament. Other than that, the only thing that went wrong was coach Bob Williams ending the season with 199 wins at UC Santa Barbara. An NCAA Tournament victory over Ohio State would have been a memorable way to win No. 200.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "These guys have achieved because they've grown a ton. I talked to them a month ago, and I told them that the team that can improve the most from a month ago to now, this day, is going to be the team to win (the Big West Conference tournament), and we ended up winning nine of our last 10." -- UC Santa Barbara coach Bob Williams, to the Santa Barbara News-Press.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THE GOOD NEWS: This year's roster consisted of two seniors, five juniors, six sophomores and three freshmen, so UC Santa Barbara will return a wealth of talent. The key returnees will be sophomore G Orlando Johnson, sophomore F James Nunnally, sophomore F Jaime Serna, sophomore C Greg Somogyi and sophomore G Will Brew Jr. Somogyi may be ready for a larger role next season after using his 7-3 frame and 7-9 winsgpan to make more plays around the basket in the final weeks of the season. He had a school-record eight blocked shots in a Feb. 20 game against Fresno State. He averaged four rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 14.7 minutes off the bench over the last nine games. He had six points, six rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes in an NCAA Tournament loss to Ohio State.
THE BAD NEWS: Senior G James Powell saw a slight reduction in minutes this season but still played an important role off the bench. Powell was one of the Big West Conference's best 3-point shooters. He set a school record with 221 career 3-point goals. He was known for making clutch shots and knocked down a number of free throws in the final minutes of games to help the Gauchos secure a share of the Big West regular-season championship for the second time in three years. He was a 91.7-percent free-throw shooter. The Gauchos have enough talent to vie for the Big West title again next season, but Powell's contributions will be missed.
--Sophomore G Orlando Johnson showed dramatic improvement at the free-throw line over the course of the season, an important development considering he led the team in free-throw attempts. He made 84 of 101 (.832) over the final 16 games after making just 58 of 101 (.574) over the first 14 games.
--Sophomore F Jaime Serna also showed improvement over the second half of the season. Serna averaged 11 points on 64.3-percent shooting in eight games leading up to the NCAA Tournament, up from his season averages of eight points and 52.7-percent shooting.
--This will be a big offseason for sophomore PG Will Brew. Brew averaged 4.9 points, 2.6 assists and 2.2 rebounds. He shot just 36.7 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from 3-point range, and committed 56 turnovers while accumulating 74 assists, a 1.32 assist-to-turnover ratio that must improve next season. Brew missed all four shots he attempted against Ohio State but otherwise finished on a positive note, tallying five assists with no turnovers on a night when his team shot 32.3 percent.
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