The Gauchos’ long wait

The Gauchos’ long wait

By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press

The thoughts of UCSB coach Joe Pasternack read like a present-day rewrite of a Charles Dickens novel.

It was the worst of timing, it was the best of timing.

The COVID-19 pandemic ended the college basketball season just hours before his 21-10 Gauchos were to tip off against UC Riverside in their March 12, Big West Conference Tournament opener at Anaheim's Honda Center.

UCSB will return next season with a veteran team that features four seniors, a graduate transfer and three juniors who include two-time All-Big West Conference forward Amadou Sow. That is both good news and bad news for Pasternack, who will be entering his fourth season with the Gauchos:

Their experience will make it easier to deal with a long, coronavirus-caused hiatus from organized workouts. But he's also lost a crucial summer of observing the recruits who will replace those graduating Gauchos.

"It would seem as though we'd just be relaxed and kind of sitting on the beach all day during this time," Pasternack said. "But it's really been a grind.

"You're trying to finish putting your schedule together and getting games, and you're also trying to recruit while not being allowed to go out and evaluate players." 

Pasternack has had his hands tied in both instances. Scheduling out-of-state trips has been discouraged by both the university and the UC Regents because of both the risks and budget deficits created by the coronavirus. But he has been able to revive some in-state rivalries with West Coast Conference schools, scheduling a home game with Pepperdine and trips to St. Mary's and Loyola Marymount.

"We're also having an MTE (multi-team event) tournament here with Florida Gulf Coast and Florida A&M," he said.

"We're trying to do our recruiting presentations over Zoom but we're not able to observe these players this summer," Pasternack said. "We do have one commitment right now, which I'm not allowed to speak about, but we also have four scholarships left for 2021.

"We have to be very careful that we don't make a mistake even though we can't evaluate the kid in person. You can always recover from not getting a great player, but it's really hard to recover from a mistake. Recruiting is not a perfect science, especially in the world that we're living in right now."

His four seniors — JaQuori McLaughlin, Devearl Ramsey, Robinson Idehen and Brandon Cyrus — have been busy, as well.

"We do have Zoom meetings with our team — we're allowed to do that — but the players have really gone about taking ownership of the team," Pasternack said. "They'll have Zoom meetings without the coaches, do workouts like strength-and-conditioning exercises and things like that.

"From that standpoint, it's kind of a blessing in disguise how the players have taken such ownership. The most powerful teams I've been around have been player-led teams, not coach-led teams."

The hiatus has also helped several of the Gauchos heal their injuries. McLaughlin received All-Big West Conference honorable mention despite playing the final month of last season with a fractured middle finger on his shooting hand. Cyrus also played with a hand injury for most of the season.

"From a health standpoint, we're in a good place right now," Pasternack said.

Several of the team's Zoom meetings have included Dr. Joe Carr, a sports psychologist who helped the players deal with the recent killing of George Floyd while in police custody.

"On the Friday of the week it happened, they were all able to discuss race relations," Pasternack said. "It got real intense when they talked about the times they faced their own racist situations. They told some very moving stories.

"It was really great that they were able to speak about it and for us to discuss it as a team, with the players and staff, especially since our team is predominantly African-American."

The Big West Conference office, with guidance from the NCAA and public health officials, is expected to announce its plans for a "return to activity" by July 20. Pasternack hopes the team will be back together by then for eight weeks of summer school and basketball workouts.

"It's an amazing situation, being away from our guys since March 15," he said. "It all feels so unusual, but we're just trying to organize everything for them to come back next month.

"We'll probably have to quarantine everybody — for how long, I'm not exactly sure — and we'll have to decide what to do from a housing standpoint. It may mean the majority of our players have singles (single-person rooms).

"We're still waiting for the administration to get us details about how to do things on a daily basis."

The waiting game, after all, is the only game in town right now.