"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." That's according to Charles Dickens who authored "A Tale of Two Cities."
And it will apply to the 2012 - 2013 version of the UCSB Gauchos men's basketball team. Fresh off three consecutive post-season tournaments, including two NCAA championship playoff appearances in 2010 and 2011, the program is clearly on the rise. But college basketball is not like the NBA, where teams remain championship contenders by signing their franchise players to long-term contracts. By contrast, college players graduate, lose their eligibility, or transfer out with regularity. Some even redshirt or get injured. Maintaining a program's stability is difficult--especially for mid-major programs who don't have the recruiting budgets of the Duke's and Kentucky's of the world.
And so it is that the Gauchos enter the 2012 - 2013 season with more questions than answers. For the previous three seasons, head coach Bob Williams had answers: three of them, in fact. The undersized, but rugged center Jaime Serna anchored the post. James Nunnally ended up the fourth most prolific scorer in Gaucho history. And of course, Orlando Johnson won multiple conference and All-American awards during his three-year Gaucho career. All three were talented, and are playing pro basketball somewhere, with Johnson landing in the NBA with the Indiana Pacers, after ending his career as the all-time leading scorer in Gauchos history...not bad for 3 years of playing ball.
Surrounding the Big 3 were solid role players, including designated perimeter shooter Kyle Boswell, and Greg Somogyi, the UCSB's second all-time shot-blocker. Freshman Big Alan Williams emerged as an offensive rebounding nightmare for opponents, as well as a shot-blocking machine to complement Somogyi's prowess as an eraser. The rest of the squad knew their roles and contributed by either feeding the Big 3, or helping Big Al clear the boards.
But here's the bad news: the Big 3 are gone, and so is Somogyi (in stature, the biggest of them all at 7'3"). Now what? What's the best-case scenario, and what is the worst-case scenario? Let's delve into it.
The Best of Times
1) As mentioned earlier, the Gauchos return two known quantities: sharpshooter Boswell and rebounder extraordinaire Alan Williams. As long as Boswell can continue to knock down approximately 45% of his 3-point shots, he should average at least double digits in points, as he will be asked to take on a bigger role on offense. Or more accurately, Coach Williams will insist Boswell takes more shots. Yes, he can dribble, and yes, he is a good passer, but those skills take away from what he does best, and that is rain in 3-point shots.
2) Big Al will continue to post impressive rebounding and scoring numbers as he did last year in limited minutes--only this season, he will be asked to carry the load even more. As long as his production and efficiency remain elevated, more minutes should translate to bigger scoring and rebounding numbers. He's also a proven passer, but that skill will be tested as he will experience more double teams. And he has also developed more post moves, as well as a nifty turn around jumper. His improvement in conditioning should also enable him to play more minutes, and stay out of foul trouble.
3) With two part-time starters in Nate Garth and TJ Taylor returning--and a year behind them in adjusting to what is expected of Gaucho point guards, that position should be improved. Taylor has upped his defensive pressure, and Garth has reportedly improved his shooting stroke.
4) Now here come the unknowns with upside. Taran Brown is reportedly the most athletic player Coach Williams has ever had as a head coach on any level. He also has a good perimeter jump shot. While raw on offense, his defense is already at an elite level. With more minutes to go around this year, the redshirt freshman should be able to develop enough to allow his offense to catch up with his stellar defense.
5) Incoming true freshman Gaucho guards Michael Bryson and Dalante Dunklin should be able to contribute right away--and perhaps even start. That's how good they can be. Bryson has a deadly stroke from the perimeter, while Dunklin is a point guard with the toughness of a linebacker. Bryson will have to adjust to defending at this level, but Dunklin is already a menace on defense, and his offense isn't bad either, as he makes good decisions with the ball, and possesses a decent shot himself.
6) A healthy Keegan Hornbuckle will do wonders for the Gaucho lineup, as his versatility presents match up problems for opponents at the forward position. Hornbuckle can pop the 3, but he can also take his man off the dribble and finish. Hopefully, with his injuries behind him, he can develop into a highly productive player, if not a bonafide star in this conference.
7) A healthy Lewis Thomas means he gets more minutes, and grabs more rebounds in the post. Thomas can also step out and knock down the 3-point shot, so he is another player who can add an inside-outside dimension.
8) Speaking of post players, the Gauchos add two promising forwards in true freshmen Sam Beeler and Mitch Brewe. Beeler is a string bean, but he is tough mentally, has quick feet for a big man, and is bouncy. As he gains muscle via the weight room, he will become an even bigger presence in the paint. Brewe comes in with size and strength, and has a nice mid-range stroke. He also already does the dirty work required underneath, including setting solid picks, blocking out, and otherwise, just eats up space. Word has it that he not only is ready to contribute immediately, but may even start. That's a lot of pressure to put on a freshman, but it also means the freshmen have a ton of upside.
9) Don't overlook walk-ons. Coach Williams has a history of developing former walk-ons into impact players. Chrisman Oliver, Bray Skultety, Paul Roemer, and Jordan Weiner come to mind. Duke DaRe has the best chance of being that guy this season. Yes, the position is crowded, but it will be difficult to keep DaRe out of the lineup, as Coach Williams puts a premium on point guards who defend. Shawn Moore, a small forward who can also shoot, will also have one year under his belt to adjust to the speed of Div. 1 play, so he should be in a better position to contribute this year.
10) Added together, the new Gauchos of 2012 - 2013 should be more athletic, quicker, and more willing to apply defensive pressure. This should result in more transition baskets on offense. Because of their youth, they should also deliver more improvement over the course of the season. Despite lowered expectations, a best-case scenario has the Gauchos again contending for a Big West championship, sneaking up on the favorites--Long Beach State and Cal. State-Fullerton.
The Worst of Times
1) Yes, the two known quantities of Boswell and Williams are returning, but their roles will be expanded, and the transition will be difficult, as opponents can apply more focus on mitigating their tendencies. With more scrutiny on Williams inside, he will surely attract more double teams. How will he react to them? Will he lose his composure and become a turnover machine? Will he be able to pass out of the double teams? Or will he try to force his way into a scoring position, and commit too many offensive fouls? Will he stay out of foul trouble on defense? Will he get frustrated by the increased scrutiny? Will he experience the sophomore slump? How he answers these questions,will determine how successful the Gauchos will be this year.
2) Similar questions apply to Boswell's fate. Can he get open with defenders denying him the ball? Can he knock down perimeter jumpers with high accuracy against heightened defensive pressure? How will he adapt to increased attention from opposing defenders? Will he be able to maintain his offensive production if he is expected to exert more energy guarding opponents?
3) Garth and Taylor had good assist-to-turnover ratios last season, as they weren't asked to do too much on offense, other than to feed the Big 3. But with most of that offensive firepower gone, the scoring slack has to be made up somewhere. Yes, Coach Williams' system doesn't require point guards to do a lot of scoring, but it helps if he can knock down outside shots, as it forces opponents to defend the perimeter, thereby opening up penetration and passing lanes. And at the risk of being redundant, point guards have to be tough defenders. That was not a strength last year, and will have to be rectified this year.
4) While Taran Brown is the most athletic player under Coach Williams' tutelage since Doug Christie played at Pepperdine, he is still very raw on offense. In between displays of stunning athleticism are bouts of freshman mistakes. His inconsistency and limited basketball knowledge may constrain his minutes, and result in a downward spiral of reduced skills development. Brown will need to up his basketball knowledge in his first season of live play.
5) While Bryson and Dunklin bring in highly-desired skills as true freshmen--they are exactly that, freshmen. As Coach Bobby Knight often quipped: the best thing about freshmen is eventually they become sophomores. Will Bryson be able to knock down 3-point shots with regularity against bigger, faster, quicker, stronger, and more athletic defenders? Will Dunklin be able to impose his strength and tenacity against more athletic opponents? Can he adjust his game to avoid cheap fouls in the back court? Can he knock down the perimeter jumper to keep defenses honest? Fullerton and Long Beach bring in extremely talented and athletic guards--how will our true freshman guards hold up against defensive and offensive pressure? Fullerton alone has 3 NBA prospects in their backcourt, according to Coach Williams.
6) Hornbuckle has a history of injuries--at Colorado and at UCSB. In fact, he's still recovering from an ankle injury incurred in July. Because his skill set is so valuable, not having him at 100% will be a detriment to the season's success. Part of the slow start to last season was attributed to his injuries, and it was a major contributor to the Gauchos second-half collapse against Long Beach in the Big West Tourney final. No one player solely determine's a team's success, but Hornbuckle is certainly a big part of this year's plans.
7) Thomas is also versatile, and a good rebounder, but he tailed off last season. He somehow lost his intensity on the boards as the season progressed. Will he be able to retain that intensity this year? He is also nursing a minor leg injury currently. Will he hold up for a full season as he gains more minutes of playing time?
8) Will Beeler be able to compete against bulkier post players? He may have a competitive fire, but if he can be pushed around easily, no amount of fight will allow him to clean the glass effectively. Can he set solid picks for his cutting teammates? Because of the physicality of the game, can he avoid foul trouble? In other words, can he bang down low? Heck, will he even redshirt? Brewe may have fewer questions on strength, and he may have a solid jumper, but can he get separation to shoot it against quicker defenders? Will he be able to get positioning against equally strong opponents? Does he have the lateral foot speed to guard opponents' power forwards who favor the perimeter? Has he developed post moves, instead of relying on a mid-range jump shot?
9) DaRe may be a tough-minded guard, but will his body hold up when he throws himself into the mix? He may be a good defender, but is he a liability on offense? Can he knock down the jumper, or create for his teammates?
10) In a worst-case scenario, if the veterans can't adapt to increased roles and the extra scrutiny that accompanies them, the Gauchos will struggle, especially on offense. There are no proven go-to scorers yet. They deferred to the Big 3 last year. Big Al will face more double teams. How he develops court vision and creates for his teammates will be key. How the freshmen backcourt and post players develop will ultimately decide the Gauchos' fate this year. If they are unable to adjust to the faster speed and increased athleticism at the Div. 1 level, they will struggle.
I believe this transitional year will a volatile one, with many ups and downs. The growing pains will be inevitable, and the youngsters will have issues keeping up with the elite teams. As long as they focus on continuously learning--and improving, they should be able to compete once the conference season starts. However, in order to compete, they have to realize that the opponents at this level are ruthless, and the more experienced teams will be lethal at the smell of blood. Nothing will be given to these Gauchos, and every inch will need to be earned. If indeed this is a rebuilding year, the Gauchos will still probably stay out of the cellar, but getting into the top half of the conference will be a big challenge.
There are many questions yet to be answered--more questions than any Gaucho team in recent memory. But that's why they roll the ball out on the court, and why Gaucho fans are full of hope every preseason. The wait is finally over. Charles Dickens can now rest easy again--at least until next year. Let the Gaucho games begin!