By Foster Nicholas | Sports Writer
After earning a spot in the Big Dance for the eighth time in program history, 14th-seeded University of California, Santa Barbara looks to cage the No. 3-seed Baylor men’s basketball squad in the round of 64.
Coming off a seven-game winning streak and a Big West Championship, the Gauchos (27-7) will face their first Power Five opponent since barely falling to Creighton University in the teams opening game of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
While the Bears (22-10) enter Friday’s game with significantly more tournament experience, March is always anybody’s game. The green and gold will look to keep rolling and prevent an upset, but here are three things the Bears need to to look for against UCSB.
Protect the Perimeter
Reigning Big West Player of the Year, 6-foot-4-inch tall UCSB sophomore guard Ajay Mitchell, is one of the best ball handlers in the nation. Mitchell dished out an average of 5.1 assists per game while helping his team allow only 11.1 turnovers per game and just seven in the past three games.
To compare, Baylor turned the ball over an average of 12.3 times per game, and 12 across its last three outings.
In addition to the clean offensive play from Mitchell, he lit up the scoreboard by averaging a team-best 16.4 points per game. Not only did Mitchell and the Gauchos score constantly, but also efficiently, as the team is entering the round of 64 with the sixth-best field goal percentage in the nation (49%).
“I don’t think any team cares about seeding,” Mitchell said. “It’s the NCAA Tournament, it’s a big stage — anyone can win. We’re just focused on playing our game, having fun and just competing with the biggest teams.”
For the green and gold to have success, the team will have to limit UCSB’s opportunities for clean shots and play hard on defense by jumping into passing lanes and playing physically to throw the 14 seed out of its rhythm. The Baylor guards have helped lead the group to being the No. 2 offense in the nation, according to KenPom advanced analytics.
Rebounding is key
Despite Santa Barbara not having a seven-footer on its roster, the team allows the 11th lowest rebounds per game at 30.4. While the Gauchos do a good job of limiting opposing rebounding opportunities, the team struggles to bring down rebounds of its own. UCSB averages only 31.6 rebounds a game, a mark that falls in the bottom 50 teams in Division I basketball.
In both categories, the Bears wind up in the middle of the pack. With the polarizing rebounding numbers from the opponent, the green and gold will need to force missed shots and by doing so make UCSB fight for the ball in the post, something they haven’t had to do all year.
Many of the Gauchos’ key scorers are also leading rebounders. Those include 6-foot-10-inch USCB senior forward Miles Norris (14.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG) and 6-foot-9-inch UCSB graduate student guard Andre Kelly (9.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG). If Baylor can force the oversized scores to take shots away from the basket, the Bears will be put in a position to dominate the glass.
It’s safe to say, the team with the rebounding advantage will likely be the team with more points on the scoreboard after 40 minutes.
Just another game
The Gauchos entered Denver not worried about who was on the other side of the court. UCSB head coach Joe Pasternack has preached a mentality that has clearly found its way to the players, which is “do what we do.”
“We’re not looking at the outcome right now, just focusing on what we do and trying to maximize our strengths and do what we do well,” Kelly said. “That gives us confidence. We just find confidence within ourselves.”
Santa Barbara has pride in the way it plays basketball and the consistency that has been found as a result of it. However, the calm persona of both the coach and the players will either greatly benefit UCSB, or greatly hinder it.
“For me personally, I think at this level, DI, all competition is good no matter where you’re playing,” Kelly said.
Baylor plays at a level that the Gauchos have simply not had experience playing against. If the Bears also don’t fall away from the identity shown earlier in the season, the raw talent on the green and gold roster will prevail.