Unlike years past when it was a Big West tournament favorite, UCSB showed in 2010 that it can hold on when the going got tough. The Gauchos let a double digit lead get away from them but showed plenty of mettle by taking charge down the stretch to fend off Long Beach State and earn its first Big Dance invite since 2002.
As for whomever its first round opponent is, Santa Barbara is going to have to show some better consistency if it wants to have any chance it making it into the second round. The Gauchos played great team defense and passed the ball effectively as it jumped out to an early lead. Orlando Johnson played like a Big West Player of the Year and everyone in the supporting cast chipped in, even when Johnson went out of the game briefly with an undisclosed injury.
However, Johnson disappeared midway thru the game and the matchup zone that has helped UCSB wear down opponents allowed Long Beach State to get some easy baskets. The glaring weakness was the inability for UCSB to generate offense and succumbing to some effective Niner defensive pressure.
UCSB doesn't have a point guard who can effectively break someone down in an one on one situation and it seems that when pressure is applied, ball handling is an issue. Johnson is the only true one on one player that UCSB has but he seemed to be uncomfortable driving to the basket when the shot clock ran down. He needs to be able to drive and pull up for a jumper.
But for all the weaknesses exposed by Long Beach State, one thing it could not take away from UCSB was the Gauchos' ability to play under pressure down the stretch. What is amazing is that this is a young team that is loaded with sophomores. Johnson had several great interior passes and made his free throws in the clutch. Jaime Serna was dubbed the Gauchos' "X" factor by ESPN's Bob Valvano and he did a little of everything in the game. James Nunnally had some big baskets in the first half as well as a big three late in the game. The veteran of the group, senior James Powell, made four huge charity shots in the final minute to secure the victory.
For the Gauchos to gain their first NCAA Tournament victory in twenty years, they'll have to play better half court offense and handle the ball better under pressure. One way would be to isolate Johnson as they did several times. It allowed Johnson to beat the defender one or one or find an open teammate like Serna who had a couple easy baskets when the defense committed to Johnson too quickly.
UCSB projects to play Kansas State on CBS Sportsline. If there was a team that it could compete against and advance, K-State could be the one. It relies on its backcourt to lead it in scoring and if the matchup zone can give the Wildcats fits, there is a chance to win. But let's just be happy we are back in the Dance. It has been a long time coming.